14th Week after Pentecost
On the face of it, today's text from Matthew (18:15-20) appears rather straightforward. Forgiveness is all well and good, yet there are limits. If someone sins against you, tell the person about it. Then, if there is no reconciliation, tell it to the church. If that doesn't work, then "let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector" (18:17). There are limits even to the graciousness which is demanded of Christians.
Yet such thinking flies in the face of that material which directly precedes and follows today's text. In Matthew 10:10-14 we have Matthew's version of the search for the lost sheep which ends with Jesus saying, "It is not the will of my Father...that one of these little ones should perish." The Shepherd always works for reconciliation.
Our text is followed by Peter's question of Jesus, "Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him?" (18:21) Jesus' response: There are no limits on the forgiveness demanded of you.
We appear to have a contradiction here. We would do well to pay attention to that apparent contradiction. Such is the stuff of faithful listening to the whole context of Jesus’ teachings. Are we to place limits on our forgiveness (Two strikes against you, and you are no more than a "Gentile or a tax collector") or are we to keep working for reconciliation with the person who has wronged us (forgive "seventy times seven")?
I could see the potential of going with whatever our own preference might be—forgiveness: limited or unlimited?
Of course, in regard to the gospel, our preferences have little to do with it. The real issue is, What is being said to us as the church today?
We are talking, throughout Matthew's gospel, about life together in the church. What do we do when a fellow Christian wrongs us? In today's text, Jesus advises us to work for reconciliation. If we fail at our repeated attempts, then we are told to treat this brother or sister as "a Gentile and a tax collector."
Strong words! Yet what do they mean for us? On the face of it, Jesus appears to be advocating excommunication, exclusion, and the rendering of this one who was once our relative in Christ into a stranger.
I believe that the key to the interpretation of this text lies precisely in those words which so offend: A Gentile or a tax collector.
We know how we would treat such a person—as a stranger, an outsider, an enemy to us and our values. Gentiles and tax collectors are enemies of the truth of the gospel. Yet how does this same Jesus teach us to treat our enemies? Who were the first (in Matthew's gospel) to come bend the knee at the Bethlehem manger? Those (probably Gentile) Magi from the East. Who keeps cropping up in Matthew's gospel as unexpected recipients of the grace of God? Gentiles! What was Matthew doing when Jesus called him to become a disciple? Tax collecting!
To treat someone as a Gentile and a tax collector in the same manner as Jesus treated such people throws quite a different light on Jesus' apparently tough words. Here is a gospel which struggles throughout with the stunning vision of the inclusion of the Gentiles. You and I were Gentiles, enemies of God, strangers to the promises of God to Israel. Then through an amazing act of inclusion, we Gentiles were offered the salvation of God. In treating someone as a Gentile, we want to be sure to treat them as God has treated us.
Jesus knew exactly what to do with tax collectors. He knew how to handle a Gentile when he met one. Do we?
Surprise! A text which appeared to be about the rendering of tough judgments by the church is, in reality, a text about the offering of extravagant grace in the name of Jesus.
Texts must be read in relation to other texts. Jesus' words must be set in context with Jesus' deeds.
Can we, in our dealings with those who have wronged us, deal with them as Jesus dealt with those who wronged him?
In his book The Great Divorce, the British writer C.S. Lewis paints a picture of hell that haunts me, because it bears such resemblance to where many human beings live. Hell is like a vast, gray city, Lewis says, a city inhabited only at its outer edges with rows and rows of empty houses in the middle, empty because everyone who once lived in them has quarreled with the neighbors and moved, and quarreled with the new neighbors and moved again, leaving empty streets full of empty houses behind them.
That, Lewis says, is how hell has gotten so large. It is empty at its center and inhabited only at the outer edges, because everyone chose distance instead of honest confrontation when it came to dealing with their relationships.
There is another way, apparently, an alternative to putting distance between ourselves and those with whom we are in conflict. We go to them, Jesus says, and tell them what is wrong, or what we think is wrong, because the best way to end a fight is to admit that we, too, might be wrong.
In a lot of ways, it is a real nuisance to belong to a family. It would so much easier if we were just a bunch of individuals, loosely bound by similar beliefs but whose affairs remained an essentially private matter between us and God. But according to Jesus, there is no such thing as privacy in the family of God. Our life together is the chief means God has chosen for being with us, and it is of ultimate importance to God. Our life together is the place where we are comforted, confronted, tested and redeemed by God through one another. It is the place where we come to know God or to flee from God's presence, depending upon how we come to know or flee from one another.
We are called to community with one another, to act like the family we are. That is how we know God and how God knows us. That is what we are called to do: to confront and make up, to forgive and seek forgiveness, to heal and be healed, to throw a block party smack in the deserted center of hell and fill the place with such music and laughter, such merriment and mutual affection that all the far flung residents come creeping in from their distant outposts to see what the fuss, the light, the joy is all about.