Lectionary for Sept. 10, 2023
15th Sunday after Pentecost
Ezekiel 33:7-11; Psalm 119:33-40;
Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20

This week’s lectionary readings make me more nervous than most. In many of my circles, Christians have a reputation for being judgmental and for condemning others. In my experience, I’ve noted that we tend to be especially rough with other Christians who don’t think, believe, worship or vote in the same way we do. It’s important to name those dynamics before we talk about this week’s passages.

The goal of the body of Christ isn’t uniformity—it’s unity in performing lovingkindness and justice, with grace and humility. Part of that movement toward living as redeemed humans, simultaneously sinners and saints, is correcting siblings in Christ when we all, inevitably, go the wrong way. The readings appointed for this week first explain why we would want to help each other and then describe best practices for pursuing that correction.

Ezekiel 33 presents correction as a way to love one another. God said to the prophet: if I told you that sin leads to death and you don’t warn people, it will be as if you had killed them. If the prophet does warn them, then they alone are responsible for their choices (8-9).

How can anyone choose the right thing all the time? In the prophet’s words, the people express despair: “Surely our offenses and our sins are upon us, and we are rotting away in them; how then can we survive?” (10; New American Standard Bible). But then God gives a beautiful self-revelation of internal emotions. Contrary to the teaching of some Christian groups, God doesn’t take pleasure or derive any benefit from the destruction of the wicked. God loves humans and wants to save everyone. God takes pleasure when people turn and choose a loving, holy path (33:11). God doesn’t give up on folks but continually desires that we would embrace God’s grace and live accordingly.

God, in God’s grace, stands ever ready to redeem us when we admit that we need to turn back.

Jesus told his disciples how to embrace grace and live accordingly by offering a path toward repentance. First, we need to consider the context of his instruction. Jesus had just told the parable of the one lost sheep that the shepherd leaves the 99 to go find. God is passionate about recovering those who walk away. Right after this passage (we will discuss this more next week) Jesus spoke with Peter about the limits (and lack thereof) of forgiveness. This passage is literally surrounded with expressions of limitless grace and a description of a God who doesn’t give up on people—ever. We need to keep that context centered while we discuss this process for approaching someone who sins.

Jesus advises a private and discreet approach to someone who sins. In the earliest and best manuscripts, “against you” isn’t present in Matthew 18:15. So if someone abuses another person in the church, the victim isn’t required to address her abuser directly, potentially adding another occasion for abuse. Instead, if anyone knows about sin, that person may approach the perpetrator, one on one. This arrangement takes seriously the personhood, safety and dignity of the sinner as well as any potential victims of sin.

If the person who sinned listens to the one who confronts them about their sin and repents, wonderful! Siblings have been reconciled! If not, an increasing number of witnesses confront the person. If that person proves resistant and doesn’t care that their sins hurt the community, they are to be treated as someone outside of the fellowship. Confronting sin, thus presented, is community care. If someone is not moved when confronted by an ever-larger community about how they injure others, such a person isn’t ready to be a mature member of the body of Christ. The members of the body must care for other parts as for herself. Next week we will discuss the readiness of the church to forgive and reincorporate the person.

We are simultaneously saints and sinners. We need the body of Christ (our siblings in Christ) and the Spirit to correct us and help us grow in maturity. Not confronting people when they sin is not loving or gracious but an abdication of loving responsibility. Yet we must always be grounded in the loving character of God, who never wishes to condemn but takes great pains to reconcile and save. The first step is admitting a problem. God, in God’s grace, stands ever ready to redeem us when we admit that we need to turn back.

Cory Driver
Cory Driver is the director of L.I.F.E. (Leading the Integration of Faith and Entrepreneurship) at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. His book on wilderness spirituality, Life Unsettled, is available from Fortress Press.

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