This week’s Scripture (Matthew 18 in general and 10-20 in particular. Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost. Proper 18) is all about what it takes to be the community of Christ, the little ones of God, the Church. And it was as hard work then as it is now! To be in relationship with those we both have much in common with and with whom we compete for understanding (differing theology and personal misunderstanding) and recognition of our needs and achievements, is to require of us to grow in advanced kingdom citizenship skills and desires. We need to be able to engage in truth telling and hearing, in loving and loosening the chains that constrain us, so that even more importantly we can work toward reconciliation.
The instructions on how to deal with difference and difficulty come within the context of the whole of chapter 18 in Matthew’s gospel as a block of teaching on how to be the community of Christ. It begins with the invitation and challenge to welcome and become as a child, a little one of God – to become vulnerable, hopeful, designed to grow and develop. And the latter part of the chapter is all about forgiveness. Being the community of Christ, a little one of God, the church, is all about vulnerability and forgiveness, truth telling and confession, working to reconcile and grow. And when that doesn’t work then treating our brother and sister as a tax collector (remember Matthew had been a tax collector) and a Gentile and working towards invitation, forgiveness and reconciliation with the other!
You may wish to read what I wrote on this text three years ago in 2020.
To be in community makes difference and relationship difficulties almost inevitable and by the time of this teaching Jesus had already been dealing with dissention amongst disciples and certainly by the time this gospel was committed to written word the church knew about controversy and division. This teaching both reflected a radical reworking of existing ways of community dispute resolution and a way of being a new community that had stood the test of real struggle.
The instructions of Jesus to go privately to the one who has wronged us and to seek repair with them; if this fails to then bring the minimum number of witnesses required for truth telling; if this fails to bring it to the whole body of the church; and then if this fails to treat them as other (and then to seek to connect with the other as did Jesus with tax collectors and Gentiles) provides a respectful, truth revealing, relationship honouring way to respond to the deep hurt and difference we sometimes find ourselves in. Niceness or denial or avoidance or vengeance is not part of the path of reconciliation described by Jesus. Although you wouldn’t know that from many chapters of church history!
Throughout the gospel of Matthew we are challenged that the way we treat others – including tax collectors and Gentiles – is in fact how we treat Jesus (just think of 25:31-46 and “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”). Indeed when it comes to truth telling, forgiveness and reconciliation, what we do has eternal or cosmic reverberations. “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” Now we usually hear that verse as meaning if we pray sincerely and hard enough then we get to instruct God what should happen. We usually intend good and mercy for those we care deeply about. But context is everything and this is to do with forgiveness and reconciliation. If we “loose” the emotional and oppressive societal chains that bind someone then we are making a difference to them on every level. And if you bind someone – which can be healing or harming as constraint can be for someone’s protection or punishment – then that too has deep ramifications for them.
Sadly sometimes we read the text as meaning Jesus is watching everything we do in a paranoid controlling way. But I read this as that it is in the act of loving and working towards forgiveness and reconciliation that we make real, that we honour the presence of the divine one who became flesh. Or as Paul said, that to love one another is to fulfil the law.
Now we in the church mainly try to be loving to one another and to neighbour. But somewhere along the way we have confused being nice and polite with being loving; we have confused being the most theologically correct person in the room with being righteous; we have confused blind agreement and assent with being in communion. When we try being loving without being truth telling then we are papering over problems rather than loosening or binding what needs healing. And when we focus only on being truthful (usually our particular version of the truth) and are not loving far from being healing and reconciling we often add injury to the already wounded or lost.
And it needs to be said that we will not always be the ones doing the truth telling – sometimes we will be the ones that need to hear other’s truth about how we have impacted them. Whether that is as individuals or as part of the establishment or winning side of history. And the quality of our listening and responding can help recovering or deepen the wounds.
It is the being available for truth telling and hearing and loving that has the possibility of reconciliation, of growth and of being an example of how to do respectful life-giving conflict resolution in a world that desperately needs to learn how to do this.
To be a community of the Beloved Christ is to be a raggle tag band of travellers on the way of Jesus; a collective of the broken seeking to grow into wholeness and loving maturity; and a tribe of wounded healers seeking to unbind the bandages of others while still needing treatment for our own wounds. We follow the teachings of Jesus not as experts so much as those still learning. We offer truth telling not as the most righteous but as those most in need of truth and reconciliation ourselves. And we work toward reconciliation because we know the desire for reconnection and the sweetness of being forgiven and invited into the fold. Sometimes we are the lost one, often we are the ones who wait at home wondering how to welcome the lost one back, and sometimes we are the one who goes in Jesus’ name to look for the lost one and wonder what words will work when we find them. None of this is easy. All of this is important.
Even so, come Lord Jesus the Christ, come bind us one to another and teach us how to speak and hear each other’s truth and how to be reconciled one to another.