First Thoughts on Passages from Matthew in the Lectionary

Pentecost 13

William Loader

Pentecost 13: 7 September Matthew 18:15-20

What do you do when things go wrong in the church? This little 'rule' for handling wrongs is a fascinating insight into the running of a community. It is not distinctively Christian. The word, 'church' (ekklesia) could easily be translated congregation or assembly. It would fit just as well among the sectarian documents of the Dead Sea Scrolls or among other exclusive Jewish communities of the time. The ultimate punishment is to be treated like a Gentile or a tax collector. Now who is really speaking here? Are Gentiles not included in this community? And does not Jesus earn his reputation precisely because of his openness towards tax collectors?

This passage also meets us as we re-visit 11 September. Can it have anything to say to international conflict or the issues of terrorism? At one level the incidental assumption about how one treats "Gentiles" should alert us to latent and expressed xenophobia in our own day and the way groups are stigmatised. Jesus became known as one who embraced those from whom most felt repelled. Some of the principles of handling conflict remain the same, whether in the church or the international arena. When we fail to observe them we sow the seeds of our own violence and reap the whirlwind.

The passage reflects an application of justice which incorporates the biblical provision that charges must be supported by at least two witnesses (Deut 19:15). The authority given the community to engage in such a process (18:18) is the same as that given to Peter in 16:19 and shows that binding and loosing has to do with interpreting Law/scripture and its implications for passing judgement.

It is worth pondering this strange passage in its context. The next verses speak of the agreement of two or three on earth with regard to any request and to Jesus' presence in their midst. Agreement is especially agreement in verdict; the presence of Jesus is closely related to the practice of discipline. The passage is similar to those in the Jewish Mishnah which promise God's Shekinah where two or three gather to study Torah. Jesus takes Shekinah's role.

But of greater importance still is the wider context. 18:21-22 contain Peter's question about forgiveness and Jesus' reply that forgiveness is possible not just 7, but 77 times. In other words forgiveness is never to be abandoned. 18:23-35, the parable of the unforgiving servant, makes the same point. If this is not enough, the verses immediately preceding the disciplinary rule retell the parable of the lost sheep, only that it now applies it to the issue of what to do when a community member goes astray (18:12-14). Compassion seeks the lost. If we go back further to 18:6-10, we return to issues of discipline: abuses against God's little ones: children but also members of the community of little ones, the congregation. The whole chapter begins with the lesson about greatness: to humble oneself as a child.

In this wider context Matthew has set what may well have been a bit of sectarian traditional wisdom about how to deal with deviance. While its rough edges remain, it is now heavily qualified. Without revising it directly, Matthew has set it in a context where all the emphasis falls on compassion and forgiveness. Matthew is not abandoning the need to confront abuse. Matthew is not espousing the kind of phoney harmony which sweeps abuse under the carpet in the name of Christian peace. But it is clear that he is not prepared to abandon people to being treated like second class citizens: Gentiles and tax collectors, although this is what the tradition had said. If we really rub these conflicting statements together and try to make them fit, we might end up with something like: treat them like Gentiles and tax collectors, people who no longer belong, and then relate to them the way Jesus related to toll collectors and commissioned that we should relate to Gentiles: offer to them a relation of acceptance and forgiveness! Don't write them off!

Honesty in confronting issues often makes such restoration possible, whereas half dishonest failure to name things leaves untended wounds which fester and, even in apparent reconciliation, the pain will be disruptive and is frequently destructive for all. Unfortunately Christians have been particularly good at replacing honest open love with being nice.

The rule itself is worth pondering. It is first century conflict management. If you have a problem with someone's behaviour, go and see them and talk with them about it. By implication, don't go and gossip to someone else about it. Every community needs to learn this, every generation, regularly. Deal with the issue where it belongs. There may be occasions where this is not the preferred action in terms of creative handling of the conflict. Sometimes one must go directly to the police or the body skilled to handle the issue (such as sexual abuse complaints). Sometimes our role will be to refer people to such authorities. But it is never right to go to others just to turn them against someone, in self indulgent gossip, which does not give the other person a chance. It is never right to play the game of gaining friendship with one person by denigrating another and enjoying the fellowship of denigration, which is so common.

At an international level the most obvious application is: negotiate. Don't rush to sabre rattling. Talk and listen. Seek to achieve settlement by meeting and talking, by seeking to appreciate the reasons why this or that unacceptable response has arisen. It also means avoiding the naive, not pretending there is no danger. At whatever level, we are ultimately dealing with human beings who are to respected and honoured. Intervention by force to prevent violation of others is sometimes necessary, but should come as a last resort. Much more can be achieved through negotiation than is usually assumed.

The passage affords an opportunity to throw some gospel perspectives on the meaning of love and compassion in the handling of conflict in personal relations, in family, in church, in community, in international relations, because despite the complexities some principles remain and they are articulated here. Our strategies vary greatly whether we come at conflict from hate or love, whether we believe we must avoid conflict or not, whether we believe peace is niceness or responsible openness. Each of us has a story to tell. Talk to your panel of experts: they are sitting in the pews. We all share expertise in failure and success in these areas.

Epistle: Pentecost 13: 7 September  Romans 13:8-14

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