Lectionary Passages for Sept. 7, 2014. Ezekiel 33:7-11, Ps 119:33-40, Romans 13:8-14, Matt. 18:15-21
I read the Matthew 18 passage with a mixture of thoughts, feelings, and varying ideas. My Bible subtitles this familiar passage with; "Reproving another who sins."
I can't help it, it makes me think of self-righteous finger shaking, condescension, and heavy handedness.
I wonder why I feel this way, because the passage is meant to be the opposite of those things. (In Matt. 5:38, Jesus says; "you've heard it said, 'an eye for an eye...but I say to you do not resist an evildoer...turn the other cheek...) I think this passage, giving guidelines for reprisal, should be taken in this light. Jesus is scaling back on heavy handed discipline and providing guidelines for a process of reconciliation. A process that is respectful of persons, yet takes boundaries very seriously.
Applied well, this is excellent! Most difficulties between individuals can, and often are, resolved quietly and don't go public.
In theory, I love this model. In practise, I hesitantly like it, acknowledging that it can be brutally hard work and doesn't always meet with success. In fact, when something is bad enough to blow up publicly, bridges get burned and things are often beyond repair. I suffer from being an idealist, maybe its all those stories with happy endings I heard as a kid, and still love. I like to believe that if I do everything the right way, or at least to the best of my ability, the ending will be happy. Life, however, teaches that it ain't so! Life isn't always fair and logical. Success is not guaranteed and maybe not even likely once a problem moves beyond a few people, but it's even more important that good process be followed.
We've all likely heard stories of how Matt. 18 has been hurtful and misused. I remember cases where people (usually cases of unmarried pregnancy) were pushed to "confess" sin in front of the church. Thank God this is not common practise anymore! Instead of restoring people to community, it seemed to further ostracise and humiliate. Hmmm. How come I never heard of anyone having to confess their hurtful gossipping, or financial cheating, or lusting, some other sin in front of everyone? Here is one of the problems. The good process was never meant to be a "big stick" or a punishment, and it was meant for use when someone's actions were hurtful to another.
I do like that this passage takes boundary crossing, things that are hurtful, seriously. Too often, at least in the contemporary Mennonite church, we don't speak forthrightly about hard things. Instead, we do the wishful thinking that pretends that silence will result in happy endings, that the first step of private address always works. Matthew is practical, it does say that "offenders" sometimes don't listen and then become "like a Gentile or tax-collector" and outside of the core fellowship.
Maybe the best way to look at this passage is through the lenses provided by verse 20 and following. Verse 20 is a reminder that we need each other, that when the group gathers in Jesus' name, he will be there with us. The verses that immediately follow these guidelines deal with forgiveness. A topic on which Jesus is generous and challenging. The gathered church is to be forgiving in actions and attitudes. This does not negate the seriousness of what has gone before, the hurt and sin must stop, but the body is challenged to be forgiving in attitude-bridges cannot be burned.
Perhaps another way to look at this is also helpful. Try reading it from the perspective of the sinner, the one to whom someone comes to point out the fault. Ask yourself; how do I respond? Do I listen well and consider the other? If witnesses are brought along, and a trusted group from the church has a concern against me, am I willing to take their counsel? Can I admit being wrong? It's interesting and humbling to think the passage through from this perspective. Chances are, in our lifetimes, we will be on both sides of the equation at some time or other. So, how do we do this important stuff well? It's hard enough for an individual, how can we do this as a church?
I'd be interested to hear the comments and sharing of stories from others. How does this passage make you feel? Think? Is it helpful?
A great resource that a small group from our church discovered at a communication seminar is called: "Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking when the Stakes are High." If anyone would like to see the book, I've got a copy in the church office. It's also readily available at any Chapters bookstore or through Amazon.