13th Sunday after Pentecost, year A, 2014 (preached September 7, 2014)
first reading: Ezekiel 33:7-11
second reading: Romans 13:8-14
gospel reading: Matthew 18:15-20
In our gospel reading this morning Jesus lays out the first plan for church discipline. It’s a good one, one that we use in the ELCA’s constitution (ELCA = Evangelical Lutheran Church in America), but it can be approached in completely different ways, depending on one’s attitude.
First of all, we could approach it with a legal attitude.
The steps Jesus gives us are complete. They build upon one another. They build a mountain of evidence, and create lots of witnesses. The offender has little basis for appeal, because the community would have used proper measures for dismissal, and would be able to demonstrate that. Lawyers would love it.
But is this passage really about the proper steps taken for dismissal, or is it about something deeper, more profound – something unexpected by our standards of thinking? I believe so.
The other way to approach this passage is that it’s about the back-breaking, sweat-producing work of reconciliation and love. It’s not about the methods used to throw someone OUT – it’s about trying till it hurts to keep someone IN.
Certainly, for the good of the Church some may need to go, or as Jesus says, be regarded as a Gentile or a tax collector, but even THEN, his choice of words tells us a great deal.
How did Jesus regard Gentiles and tax collectors? He prayed for them, ate with them, healed them, taught them the gospel – he loved them. And one of those tax collectors – Matthew – was even called by Jesus to be a disciple!
This is the way I believe we need to view our gospel passage, not from a legalistic attitude, but from an attitude of love.
And how do we know this? From looking at Jesus’ actions and from the overall message of the gospel, and from how God’s Word is brought to us today in the other readings.
Look at our first reading from the prophet Ezekiel. God has given Ezekiel a special calling to warn Israel of their sins, and the outcome if they don’t repent. God says, “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that they turn from their ways and live.” The word “warn” appears three times in the reading. the phrases “turn around” and “turn back” appear 5 times! God uses Ezekiel to reach out to the people and save them – to go the extra mile.
Many times the Israelites didn’t heed the warnings of God through the prophets. But did God shut them out? Did God give up on them? No. When they returned to the Lord, the Lord accepted them back. God did not break the promises that God made to the people. God was, and IS, always waiting and willing and WANTING to forgive and bring us back into fellowship.
This is also illustrated in our second reading. Here St. Paul tells us to love one another, and that love does no wrong to a neighbor. We hear words of warning, “Lay aside the works of darkness.” But we are also given the alternative, “Put on the armor of light…. Put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” In other words, imitate the Lord in love. Paul echoes the teaching of Jesus when he tells us, “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the Law.”
THIS is how we approach our gospel reading. This is how we approach discipline in our homes and in our community of faith. With Jesus’ attitude of love. With the goal of reconciliation ever before us.
In commenting on this passage, New Testament scholar Robert Smith states, “Falling [in sin] is a terrible thing, and leaders had better be working to catch and hold rather than to throw or push” (Augsburg Commentary on the New Testament: Matthew. Augsburg Publishing House, 1989. p. 221). Through Holy Baptism, we become brothers and sisters in Christ, and Christ wants to make sure that we don’t give up on each other too easily.
Just like in any biological family, we have problems, personality conflicts, and will at times have someone who will cause conflict and be destructive to our mission and existence. I know of families who have had to “cut off” a family member, or people who have “cut themselves off” from their families, in order to be healthy.
There may be people who seem to thrive and take pleasure in causing chaos or even pain. Some people are downright abusive and dangerous. There ARE times when we have to divorce ourselves from someone.
But we need to remember there’s a difference between removing a dangerous or abusive person, and wanting to get rid of someone simply because we don’t get along with them. There’s a difference between “sinning against,” and winning or losing an argument over an idea or project.
As Christians we follow the example of Jesus, that loving the neighbor is our way of life – and that exclusion from the community be a drastic option of last resort, not done lightly or on the whim or political agenda of a few. Again, it’s not about the methods used to throw someone OUT – it’s about trying till it hurts to keep someone IN.
If we have this attitude, it will also make it easier when it’s OUR turn at being the one who has sinned – and we ALL have our turn. We like to think of ourselves as the OBJECT of sinning rather than the one who commits it. But none of us is perfect, and whenever we want to point a finger, remember that there are plenty of people who could point a finger at us.
So we have this passage, and others like it, to guide us, but always from a place of love.
For everything we do, every decision we make, is guided by the One who gave us the “new commandment” to “love one another, as I have loved you” (John 13:34-35).