by Joan L. Beck
Cornelsen Director of Spiritual Formation and Pastor to the Community
Make us your kind of community. Come to us again today, urging and empowering shalom! Amen.
This past summer, my mother in Minnesota downsized from a spacious apartment to a one-room studio apartment in a nursing home. Suddenly one of my sisters produced a list of things that were to be part of her inheritance, including all the valuable antiques and many of the special photos and knickknacks. Her list was signed by my mother twelve years ago. Neither my other sister nor I had ever heard of this list, nor had we been invited to make one.
My mother is past caring about lists, but with Matthew 18 in mind, I went directly to my sister and told her that her pre-emptive list-making twelve years ago amounted to a challenge for our relationship. She replied that I had not been in touch with our mother much in those years and that in fact I had been unkind to our mother, while she had stayed steadfast and loyal by our mother’s side to help her overcome her disappointment in me. That’s why I sometimes dislike Jesus’ advice in Matthew 18. Sometimes people use it to beat up on each other. It doesn’t always work to mend relationships.
Case in point: Often this passage is employed in congregational constitutions to delineate the steps that must be taken to excommunicate someone from further participation, to get rid of the troublemakers. Its goal really is the opposite. It goal is to reconnect people whose relationships have become strained. Doing repair work on relationships is what Matthew 18 is for.
This passage is part of a chapter whose every teaching directs the church to practice mercy, forgiveness, the imperative to seek the lost, and a person’s need for a community of brothers and sisters. Matthew tells the parable of the shepherd seeking the lost sheep directly before this passage—This passage is a how-to manual for seeking lost sheep, for not giving up on one another.
I want to simplify this passage for you. If you make a flow chart of the “steps” Jesus outlines here, they go repeatedly from broken relationship to mended relationship.
The first move upon noticing that your relationship with someone in the faith community is strained or broken because of something they have done is to (multiple choice now):
a) Just talk about them behind their back.
b) Send them a nasty email.
c) Complain about them on Facebook.
d) Don’t say anything. Unfriend them on Facebook. Avoid going where they are likely to hang out.
e) Go directly to them and say, “Something’s happened to our relationship. Can we talk about it?”
(e) is the answer of Jesus in Matthew 18. The repair work may be done right away by the two of you at that point. Then, the Matthean Jesus crows in delight, you have regained a brother or sister!
(Here in Matthew 18, Jesus’ teaching is to go directly to the person if someone has sinned against you, if someone has from your point of view) been responsible for damaging or breaking your relationship with them. In Matthew 5:23 [the Sermon on the Mount] Jesus says to go directly when you yourself are the party responsible for the hurt, when anyone has something against you for damaging or breaking relationship. So the mark of the Christian is to go directly to initiate repair work on relationships, and if things can be mended at this step, God and the angels will be among those overjoyed.)
The other “steps” likewise have the same goal of mending the relationship. If the direct solution does not work, take a few people with you to help keep you on track as you sort things out with the other person (Step 2). The people you involve should be some steady, wise mutual friends or acquaintances who will keep the goal of mending the relationship in mind because this step is not to gang up on the other person to prove you are right, but to help you both, help you all to focus on what is important—mending the hurt so you can regain each other as brother and sister in Christ.
The goal is the same if you involve the larger community (Step 3), all those who may be affected by conflict between the two of you. Use your collective self-interest and wisdom to find an amicable solution and reestablish a working relationship.
And, finally, Step 4—it really isn’t any different. If the impetus is not there to repair the relationship even when the community is involved, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector,” Jesus says. This sounds like a major diss. But really—how did Jesus treat tax collectors? He kept extending himself to them, eating with them, calling one of them Levi (Matthew) to be his disciple. And how did he view Gentiles? As the Great Commission in Matthew 28 shows [“Go and make disciples of all nations/Gentiles,” the word is the same] Jesus viewed them as ripe for harvest into the household of God.
Go; mend. It strikes me that this passage from Matthew 18 is parallel to Luke’s parable of the father who had two sons. Matthew 18 tells us what was operating behind the scenes in the parable. The one son took his inheritance and squandered it in a far country, but when he came within running distance, his father lifted up his skirts and went lumbering out directly to meet him and greet him and declare with delight that the one lost was now found, the one dead was now alive. When the other son griped and groused and kept away from the welcome home party, his father went outside directly to seek that son as well. Perhaps if I had more clearly run out to my sister telling her that my issue was not who had what antiques but how we might get along better now that our mother is failing….
“Reconciliation is a huge issue today. We see clearly the results of not doing it: suicide bombs, campaigns of terror, heavy-handed repression by occupying forces. That’s on the large scale. On the smaller scale, we see broken marriages, shattered families, feuds between neighbors, divided churches.” [N.T. Wright in Matthew for Everyone, vol. 2, 34]
So I wonder: Just what kind of community do we want to be? We have been thrown together, in a way; we didn’t choose each other, but we have each responded to calls from God, and now I suppose we are stuck with each other. So “what kind of community do we want from [each other]—largely social and somewhat superficial (which is, of course, safe)? Do we want something more meaningful or intimate (which is riskier and harder)? Do we want a place that can both encourage us and hold us accountable? Are we looking for a place we can be honest about our hopes and fears, dreams and anxieties? Do we want somewhere we can just blend in or are we looking for a place we can really make a difference?” [David Lose on Workingpreacher.org, posted 08.28.11)
In Matthew 18, Jesus has put a process for reconciliation in our hands so that we can be the kind of community he needs us to be. It is the process he himself adopted when he came to be (Matthew’s favorite term) Emmanuel, God-with-us. The shepherd Jesus came directly to the lost, least, lonely, angry, indifferent human race to mend God’s relationship with all of us and with each of us. People used his coming-directly to beat up on him, and strung him up on a cross. The steps of Matthew 18 don’t always seem to work, even for Jesus. But what would be the alternative?
Forgiveness is meant to be at the core of who we are, and that is how our communities become holy places where holy relationships may flourish.
Jesus’ promise is to be with us when even just two or three of us struggle to mend a tear in the fabric of our community. To be with us even though we struggle as sinners.
Since baptism the sign of Jesus’ relationship-mending cross has been etched upon our foreheads. Jesus gives us his Holy Spirit to energize us. Jesus is with us, he promises. Today he helps us welcome new members to this community of learning and faith by placing in their hands too this process for repair and reconciliation, anointing them as we have all been anointed, with oil, the cross and the Holy Spirit.