Speaker: Julia McCune
For centuries, this text in Matthew has been used as a means of excommunication, of division, of shunning.
In many ways, it’s kind of nice in how straightforward it is. Let’s admit it, community life is difficult and messy, but finally! Here is a step by step instruction to keep order, three strikes you’re out.
When I was a child, my mom used to count to three if I wasn’t obeying her. To be honest, I’m really not sure what would have happened if she ever reached the three – I just knew I didn’t want to find out! Very effective, that number three.
The thing about this passage in Matthew – if you read it on its own, like we just did, it is very simple and easy to take at face value. But when you read this passage in the context of God’s narrative – well then it becomes a bit more grey and wobbly around the edges. So let’s go through it.
“If another member of the church sins against you” At the time when Jesus was preaching this message, the leaders and scribes had a very clear understanding of sin. Well, what they considered to be sin. We see time and again, particularly in Matthew, Jesus challenging the traditional understanding of sin. He broke the laws of Sabbath by healing and allowing his disciples to gather food, he was accused of blasphemy, over and again, he broke the rules and regulations putting the person before the law.
The religious leaders that Jesus challenged were evaluating sin through the human knowledge of good and evil, and not through the origin of God. Since the Fall in Genesis, humankind has entered into a journey of discovering our origin. Before the Fall, everything we perceived was in God and of God. After the fall, that perception became skewed, and we began to perceive the world through our own individual selves attempting to define right and wrong, good and evil.
But our ultimate goal should only be a restoration of that original union with God, to know only God. And sin is only what breaks or hinders this union with God.
“Go and point out the fault” Goodness. There are times when I really want to revel in this bit. Times when I feel so strongly that I know what is right and I am going to make you sorry for what you’ve done because I have a right to be angry with you. You should feel ashamed at yourself and while you feel smaller and smaller, I will puff up in my self-righteous knowledge that I, at least, have never behaved in the way you have and so I’ve one more point on the scoreboard.
But, if I go back and read this through the origin of God, then for me to approach someone about their sin, it means that there is a disunion of relationship. Relationship with God, with the community, with creation. And that is a truly heartbreaking thought. I find it difficult to be angry when my heart aches.
And so the approach is not an action of accusation or condemnation, but one of reconciliation – an offer of help and encouragement because something is broken there.
“When the two of you are alone”
In this age of social media I see so many quick, hotheaded, public accusations being thrown back and forth, often accompanied with misinformation and half-truths. The obvious illustration that comes to mind is differences in politics, but I see this vitriol being thrown around between Mennonites regarding church policies: arguments over right and wrong that quickly turn personal and more about who is right rather than what is right.
Instead of reconciliation, the divide deepens even more. This meeting of accountability is not for public consumption and entertainment. It protects and honors the dignity of the other. This person you are communicating with is a beloved. We have all been created in the image of God, we are made one in the communion of Christ – when I approach you about your own brokenness, my own failings are on display. Because I, too, am broken. It is the only way to communicate honestly and with deep love.
There is an old story about the monastic desert fathers in the early church. Someone within the community had sinned, so a meeting was called to condemn him. One of the fathers walked to the meeting carrying a jug full of water, but the jug was cracked and so the water leaked out and left a trail behind him in the dirt. When asked what he was doing, the father responded by saying “My sins run out behind me and I cannot see them, yet here I am coming to sit in judgement on the mistakes of somebody else.”
This meeting with a fellow sinner cannot be anything but humbling, as we reflect together on our brokenness.
“But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses”
When working towards reconciliation, it is important for everyone to feel safe. If we don’t feel safe, our default mode is defense, and it doesn’t matter how clearly facts and proof are laid out before us, we will refuse to believe it. I’m a very stubborn person, and I can get very defensive if I feel attacked, even if deep down, I know I’m wrong. But if I feel safe and confident, I am open to receiving evidence and admitting that I was in the wrong. I feel very comfortable confessing to my husband, because I know that no matter what it is I have done, he will still love me and his value of me is not going to change. I feel safe enough to fail.
The two or three witnesses that are chosen for this step must be chosen carefully. Instead of feeling like an interrogation, it should be family calling you home with the assurance that you still have a place at the table. We are, all of us, continually asking each other the same question “Do you love me?” Much of our defensiveness comes from a fear of asking that question and receiving the response of “no”. It’s easier to believe we have chosen to be alone than to feel like we’ve been rejected. And so throughout this entire process of reconciliation, every ounce of evidence and discussion must be girded with a strong assurance of love.
“If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church”
This, by face value, seems terrifying. just get this image of being standing in front of the congregation and having my failings revealed to everyone in shame. And this has happened in the history of the church. But if we remember the first two steps, not through the human understanding of right and wrong, but seeing through the perspective of God as our origin, this final confrontation looks very different. Presumably, if we have reached this step of including the church, then by now there must be some understanding of what caused the sin in the first place, or an understanding of what the person in question needs most in this moment
and we seek the church as a place of healing and hope. A community of resources that can come together to support the areas of brokenness.
“And if the member refuses to listen even to the church, let them be to you as a gentile or tax collector”
Excommunication. Whelp, we’ve done everything we could and they just won’t listen, so we can no longer associate with them. But if this verse is read in context, once again there is a very different outcome.
We are called to be imitators of Christ, and Jesus regularly communed with Gentiles and tax collectors with a deep desire to connect with them in relationship. In fact, if we look at the verses that come right before this passage regarding sin begins, Jesus tells the parable of the lost sheep in Matthew 18:12-14: “What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.”
And immediately following our main text for today in Matthew 18: 21-22, Jesus instructs Peter to forgive anyone who sins against him seventy times seven. And suddenly, it seems like we are back at step one.
For too long, Matthew 18:15-17 has been extracted from the narrative and held on its own.
But when it is placed back into God’s story, suddenly this three step process of accountability becomes an ongoing cyclical journey that we embark on together.
Our church, thankfully, does not practice any formal act of excommunication, but we do still push people away. There are times when we do not allow space for everyone to speak, when people feel like they are not given the same rights as others. And so they are made to feel like there is not a place for them and they leave. If I continue to silence those I disagree with and push out those who seem too old fashioned, or too liberal in views, too different from me soon I will be my own island.
But we were created for community. We were created to be in union with God, each other, and the earth. We will never find the perfect community – but where you are now is where God has called you to be. The brothers and sisters next to you are the people God has called you to be in communion with – no matter how difficult and messy it is.It is possible, it is necessary, for us to hold each other accountable. To have open and honest communication on what is truth with each other. But let’s do it with tenderness and commitment. To always respond to the other “Yes! I do love you and I will not leave you behind”. We are all broken jugs here in need of each other and the grace of God.