The Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
September 6, 2020
Grant us, O Lord, we pray thee, to trust in thee with all our heart; seeing that, as thou dost alway resist the proud who confide in their own strength, so thou dost not forsake those who make their boast of thy mercy; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Ezekiel 33:(1-6) 7-11
It’s funny, the last time I preached on this set of lessons I ran away from the Gospel lesson from Matthew that we just heard. Instead, I preached on the Epistle; those wonderful and inspiring words from Saint Paul’s letter to the Romans:
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with brotherly affection; outdo one another in showing honour. Never flag in zeal, be aglow with the Spirit, serve the Lord.
And this just scratches the surface of the good news and positive messages with which Paul leaves his Roman correspondents; and we certainly need them today more than ever: “hold fast [my friends] to what is good.” I can’t say that enough as we continue to wrestle with everything we are facing: the pandemic, racial injustice, and this political season. This “good” to which we must hold is the power we have been given in Christ Jesus to love all our neighbours—our friends and our enemies—and to face whatever comes with the knowledge that God is working out the loving purpose inaugurated in Christ’s death and resurrection, and that we are a part of this process, continued in the life of the Church. It is tempting to stick to this text.
Our Gospel today, however, asks us how in particular we are to face the problems and realities of a world full of injustice, full of sin, and not just “sin” as an abstract concept, but of the actual sins of real people. And I can’t just ignore it. Furthermore, next week’s Gospel doesn’t make a whole lot of sense without understanding what Jesus is talking about in today’s passage. So let’s dig in.
Jesus has just told his friends the parable of the lost sheep: “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?” Here, Jesus is specifically talking about sinners, as the parable of the lost sheep follows on the heels of Jesus’ words about the temptation to sin. Those who have fallen away from the community need to be brought back into the fold. Jesus puts it this way, “it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.” This emphasis on the importance of the one, of the shepherd going off to seek the one lost sheep forms the context for today’s lesson about reconciliation, applied specifically to those who have broken the bonds of community.
Most scholars agree that in today’s passage Matthew is describing a process that was likely operative in his community. It is not dissimilar to the practice of the Qumran Essenes and certainly reflects a world view familiar with “Jewish concepts of mercy and justice.”(1) Jesus explains:
If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.
It is a process that does not shy away from conflict, but does not seek it unnecessarily and for its own sake. The idea is to confront the problem before you and be honest about it, dealing with the people involved and not working through intermediaries or third parties. It is a process that ensures that matters are not blown out of proportion at an early stage, but allows for escalation and the involvement of others if a resolution can not be at first worked out. It shows that conflict within community can be overcome and that those who have sinned—made self-interested decisions rather than ones that are truly loving to God and neighbour—are not to be shunned or cast out, but invited and welcomed back into the fold.
Perhaps the most intriguing comment Jesus makes is about what happens when the person “refuses to listen even to the church.” That person is “to be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” At first that sounds like we are to look down upon, set apart, even shun that person. We must remember, however, other instances in Matthew’s gospel where we meet such people. Matthew himself was a tax collector, a tool of oppression wielded by the Roman state, and it was with the tax collectors, sinners, and prostitutes that Jesus dines, much to the vexation of his friends. Gentiles, tax collectors, and sinners are people who have served Jesus well and with whom Jesus has associated himself. We must conclude, therefore, that if someone refuses to listen even to the church, we are still somehow to include that person in our life and ministry, following the example of Our Lord.(2)
Along these lines, Jesus continues, “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” To the disciples as a whole, Jesus is bestowing the authority to impose strictures upon the people and to forgive their sins, an authority earlier only given explicitly to Peter.(3) After he tells the disciples to treat even the most recalcitrant as a “Gentile and tax collector,” as a sheep to be pursued, he then tells them they have it now within themselves, as bestowed upon them by the font of all such power, to engage seriously in the work of reconciliation.
Jesus also seems to be saying that this work of reconciliation, of the forgiveness of sins, is work to be done in community. He says,
Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.
Those words, familiar to us from the Prayer of Saint Chrysostom, said each night at the conclusion of Evening Prayer, suggest that we are to work together, as a gathered and worshipful community, to treat the work of reconciliation as the work of discernment, of prayerfully considering the path ahead bearing in mind the whole works of the Gospel, of the Good News of Jesus Christ. The interpretation of this passage, for example, in light of its place in Matthew’s Gospel, a book written by an avowed tax collector and sinner, situated after the parable of the lost sheep, is an example of the kind of contextual discernment required by the process outlined here by Jesus.
We live in a world full of sin. We see it around us every day. We experience it at the hands of our elected officials and by those sworn to protect the community. We see it on both the systemic and individual levels. We seek to understand why so many pursue self interest, greed, power at the expense of the lives of people whose lives matter as much as the one lost sheep, as much as the Body of Our Lord on the Cross. Rather than giving up. Rather than submitting to the means and ways of those who sin against us, Jesus is proposing a different solution. Yet another inversion, a system of justice embedded within community that seeks reconciliation and inclusion. Jesus is showing us once again that real power, real authority, looks nothing like that exercised by the powerful of his age (who seem very much to resemble the powerful of the ages that have come after, down to the present day).
Jesus is showing us that reconciliation, carried out by peaceful means within community is the way forward. Jesus is showing us that even when those who have sinned against us are remorseless that we must continue to act with love, to keep working, to keep gathering, full in the knowledge that when we do so, Jesus is in our midst. Full in the knowledge that we have been given the authority to act in Jesus’ name to bind and loose. Full in the knowledge that the ones with the real power are those who exercise love in the name of God in Christ.
It is in this way that we can now come back to Paul without having side stepped a hard gospel. Now his words have a deeper and truer meaning, one that encompasses the sin we encounter in the world:
Rejoice in your hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints, practice hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; never be conceited.
Knowing what Jesus has taught about reconciliation, we can read what Paul says about loving our enemies:
If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
I hope we can forgive Paul his slightly vindictive streak in suggesting that we are punishing our enemies by treating them well, he was human after all.
But in a way he is right. By loving our enemies, seeking reconciliation, following the path Jesus has outlined, we are showing forth, demonstrating and revealing for all to see the power of Love, the power of the Kingdom of God, showing the world the distinction between Christ-like actions, the works of the Kingdom of God, and the actions of the vain and petty men who think themselves powerful. God in Christ shows us that we are to “overcome evil with good.” We must seek peace, confront sin and evil, knowing that we have been given the means to accomplish this work. We have it within ourselves when we act in community, act as the Body of Christ.
Andrew Charles Blume✠
New York City
Paul Jones, 4 September 2020
(1) Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, Sacra Pagina Series, 1, 1991 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2007), 270-271.
(2) See Harrington 2007, 269.
(3) Harrington 2007, 269.
© 2020 Andrew Charles Blume