All in the family
Lectionary blog for Sept. 7, 2014
Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Text: Matthew 18:15-17
By Delmer Chilton
There is an old Jewish Midrash that goes like this: A fervent new student came in to see the Teacher. He zealously reported on his fellow students' sins and imperfections and vehemently demanded that they be expelled from the learning community. The Teacher said: “No, that is not what we need to do.” The student was appalled, “How can you tolerate evil like this?” The Teacher said, “Your father is a carpenter isn’t he. He makes furniture doesn’t he? You know how to handle an axe don’t you?” The student said, “Yes.” Teacher: “Well, I need your help. See that table by the window. It has a scratch across the surface and one leg is wobbly. Chop it up into firewood for me, won’t you?”
The student said, “Are you crazy? That table is made of a very fine oak! And I recognize the design. It was made by one of the most famous furniture makers in Europe. There’s no need to throw it away. The scratch is minor and I can fix the leg.” “Just so,” smiled the Teacher, “God is the master craftsman of our souls, and God is unwilling that any should be discarded because of a few scratches and imperfections. What we do here, in this community of faith and learning, is make repairs and improvements.”
Just so – our Gospel lesson is not about “How to throw someone out so the church will be pure.” This text is about “How to love somebody back in so that they might be saved.” It is interesting to note that Matthew 18:15-17 is the only bit of Scripture cited explicitly, chapter and verse, in the Model Constitution for Congregations of the ELCA. It is in Chapter 15, “The discipline of members.” The wording of the constitution is important here. It says, “Prior to disciplinary action, reconciliation will be attempted following Matthew 18.” Did you notice? “Prior to disciplinary action, reconciliation will be attempted.”
There are three things in the text that show us that this is a text about loving people back into the community: The first is the context – Matthew placed this episode between two important sayings of Jesus about forgiveness and the reclaiming of the lost. It comes after the shepherd leaving the 99 to go search for the one lost sheep and before Jesus tells Peter that we should forgive sinners not seven times but seventy times seven. It is obviously a part of a forgiveness/reconciliation section.
Second – within the text itself, in verse 15, Jesus says, “If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.” This indicates that the whole point of the exercise is to bring people back into the family of faith.
And thirdly, and most importantly, there is verse 17, “if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” This text is usually taken to mean that we should exclude, ignore, shun, excommunicate, disown, debar, avoid, treat as null and void and nonexistent these folks. But let me ask you an important question: How did Jesus himself treat “Gentiles” and “tax collectors”?
Let’s see: Matthew, in whose Gospel we read these words, was a what? Does anybody know? Matthew 10:3 calls him “Matthew the tax collector.” That’s one tax collector he invited into his inner circle. Then there’s Zaccheus, the “wee little man” in a sycamore tree: a tax collector.
And the Pharisees were always fussing about Jesus, mostly for eating and drinking and partying with whom? “Tax collectors and sinners.” That doesn’t sound like shunning and avoiding to me.
And what about Gentiles? Let’s see. There’s the Samaritan woman at the well and the Canaanite woman who set Jesus straight about children and dogs and crumbs and such.. There’s the Roman centurion who sought to have his daughter healed. Wasn’t that the person Jesus said had more faith than anyone in Israel? That doesn’t sound like shunning and avoiding and excommunicating to me.
Matthew certainly had a reason for telling us that Jesus said we should treat sinners like gentiles and tax collectors, but it does not seem to be have been the reason we have traditionally assumed. We thought it meant that we should wash our hands of them, shun them and have nothing to do with them. And because Lutherans, generally speaking, just don’t act like that, we have ignored the whole thing. We have not attempted reconciliation under biblical standards because it is too messy emotionally and we don’t want to deal with getting to the end of the process and having to kick somebody out. But kicking them out is not the point. What Jesus really meant was that we should treat people with whom it is hard to reconcile as people in need of serious love. This text is about learning to love people, even when they don’t particularly want to be loved.
It is about reaching out to people, even as they push us away. It’s about loving others enough to talk to them about their behavior and to offer them help in changing it. And it’s about refusing to give up on anybody, anybody at all. It is about the willingness to go that extra mile to find a lost sheep.
It is about a willingness to forgive and forgive and forgive, until the sinner is redeemed. Simply put, it is about treating other people the way Jesus treated Gentiles and tax collectors, as people to be loved and brought into the kingdom of God.
Amen and amen.
Delmer Chilton is originally from North Carolina and received his education at the University of North Carolina, Duke Divinity School and the Graduate Theological Foundation. He received his Lutheran training at the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary in Columbia, S.C. Ordained in 1977, Delmer has served parishes in North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee.