Lectionary blog for Sept. 10
Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Ezekiel 33:7-11; Psalm 119:33-40;
Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20
This text is about learning to love people, even when they don’t particularly want to be loved. It is about reaching out to people, even as they push us away.
My daddy had a favorite story about the local holiness church in the community where I grew up. According to him, every spring, when the farmers in the church planted tobacco, the “preacher” would go and see them and read them the section in the church Book of Discipline forbidding involvement in “the tobacco trade,” followed by a recitation of Matthew 18. Then he would inform them that in obedience to Scripture and the discipline he was warning them to cease their sinful behavior. A few weeks later he would bring two elders with him and do it again. And some time before Memorial Day, the women and children of the congregation would gather in solemn assembly to excommunicate their fathers and husbands and brothers, etc. Then everyone would go home to a nice Sunday dinner. Sometime in October, after everyone had harvested their crop and sold their tobacco, the women and children would gather again and vote their menfolk back in, just in time, my father would add with a wink, for the church to collect a tithe on the proceeds of the tobacco sale.
Though they followed the Bible literally and carefully, the folks at the holiness church managed to miss the entire point of Jesus’ teaching in this matter. They used this text to eliminate sinful messiness from their midst while Jesus meant it as a way to bring messy, sinful people back into the community of faith.
It is interesting to note that Matthew 18:15-17 is the only bit of Scripture cited explicitly, chapter and verse, in the Model Constitution for Congregations of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. It is in Chapter 15, The Discipline of Members. The wording of the constitution is important here. It says, “Prior to disciplinary action, reconciliation will be attempted following Matthew 18.” Did you notice? “Prior to disciplinary action, reconciliation will be attempted.” This text is not about “How to throw someone out so the church will be pure.” It is about “How to love somebody back in so that they might be saved.”
These verses of Matthew 18 are from a forgiveness reconciliation section. This episode occurs between two other important sayings of Jesus about forgiveness and the reclaiming of the lost. It comes after the shepherd leaving the 99 to go search for the one lost sheep (Matthew 18:12-14), and before Jesus telling Peter that we should forgive sinners not seven times but 77 times (Matthew 18:21-22). Within the text itself, in verse 15, Jesus says, “If the member listens to you, you have regained that one” indicating that the whole point of these efforts is to bring people back into the family of faith.
The most important point is the one most misunderstood, verse 17; “if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a gentile and a tax collector.” This is usually taken to mean that we should exclude, ignore, shun, excommunicate, disown, debar, avoid, treat as null and void and nonexistent these folks. But let me ask you an important question: “How did Jesus treat gentiles and tax collectors?”
Let’s see. Matthew, who wrote this gospel was a tax collector. (Matthew 10:3) And there is Zacchaeus, the “wee little man” in a sycamore tree, he was the chief tax collector (Luke 19:2). The Pharisees were always fussing about Jesus eating and drinking and partying with “tax collectors and sinners.” Then there are the gentiles. There’s the Samaritan woman at the well. The Canaanite woman whose daughter had a demon. The Roman centurion who sought to have his daughter healed, who Jesus said had more faith than anyone in Israel. None of this sounds like shunning and avoiding and excommunicating to me.
Not what we maybe thought
Jesus had a reason for telling us that we should treat sinners like gentiles and tax collectors, but it isn’t the reason we have traditionally assumed. We thought it meant that we should wash our hands of them, have nothing more to do with them. And, because middle-class Americans just don’t act like that, we have ignored the whole thing. We have not attempted reconciliation under biblical standards because it is too messy, too confrontational and much too emotional. We simply do not want to get to the end of the process and end up having to kick somebody out.
But kicking them out is not the point. What Jesus really meant was that we should treat people with whom it is hard to reconcile as people in need of serious love. This text is about learning to love people, even when they don’t particularly want to be loved. It is about reaching out to people, even as they push us away. It is about loving others enough to talk to them about their behavior and to offer them help in changing it. And it is about refusing to give up on anybody, anybody at all. It is about the willingness to go that extra mile to find a lost sheep. It is about a willingness to forgive and forgive and forgive, until the sinner is redeemed. Simply put, it is about treating each other the way Jesus treated gentiles and tax collectors, as people to be loved, and forgiven, and restored to the kingdom of God.
Amen and amen.