by The Rev. Darrell Huddleston
Ex. 12:1-14; Ps. 149; Rm. 13:8-14; Mt. 18:15-20
In the Protestant churches of Colonial America the worship services used to last for three hours, with the sermon taking an hour or so of that time. The rest of the time was for prayer, scripture, psalms and censuring wayward members. If you had been identified as being guilty of some sin, you were brought before the congregation and asked to repent. You repented or faced public censure, perhaps exclusion from the church for a time, and possibly excommunication.
Such a practice is practically unheard of today in churches in this country. I say practically because in the hills and hollers of Appalachia the custom of ‘churching’ someone still exists in some conservative congregations. The term means you are thrown out of the church because of your unrepentant sinful ways. The Amish still shun those who won’t repent after they have been confronted. They are shunned not only by their church but also by their own family.
In our gospel lesson we have a text that has been used over the centuries, not just in Colonial America or Appalachia or by the Amish, but by various branches of Christendom to excommunicate those who were believed to be in violation of doctrine and morality. Many church leaders and church hierarchy have understood this passage to be Jesus giving them legislation, canon law so to speak, on handling the immorality of fellow believers.
But to think so and to use this passage in such a manner is to remove the text from its context. It is not Jesus giving ‘carte blanche’ to the ecclesial powers that be for excommunication. It is not about church hierarchy and their power to punish the wayward. If we read further in Matthew to chapter 23 we learn that Jesus calls us to be humble servants and not to lord it over one another. Also, in vs. 18-20 the authority to discipline is given to the community as a whole and not to the leaders. The comment about when two or three are gathered together was based on a Jewish legal requirement.
This passage is about Jesus’ vision of how a Christian community should live in unity. It is about how to be caring and responsible for one another. It is not about wringing a confession of guilt out of someone, or to humiliate them or anger them, but to retain them as part of the Christian family. This text is about the fact that being a Christian is a community affair. The concern of Jesus is a reconciled church, not that certain folk in the church can feel righteous because they confronted the wrongdoer and condemned them.
Jesus offered a three-stage process in dealing with someone who doesn’t follow the straight and narrow path:
If someone sins against you, go talk out the problem with him or her face to face.
If they ignore you, then take one or two other church members along so that there are witnesses to the conversation and they can be of help in moderating the discussion.
If that fails, and if they then don’t listen to the whole church, Jesus says to let that person “be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” For Gentile read ‘pagan’ and for tax collector read “traitorous backsliding collaborator with the Romans.”
This is heavy stuff! This sounds like three strikes and you’re out! What are we supposed to do with this? Is this how we are to behave when a fellow Christian sins against us? Without question we Christians do get on one another’s nerves from time to time. We have our little conflicts and misunderstandings. That’s normal in human relationships and they need to be resolved or they can easily build into bigger conflicts. There are, however, some instances when Christians sin grievously against their neighbor Christians and others.
It is very important when we encounter a text such as this one to keep it in context and in relationship to other texts. We need to see the whole movie and not just a single frame to understand a film. Likewise, proof texting, taking just one text, one line, and applying it to a situation, regardless of context or circumstance, is a dangerous way to read the Bible.
It reminds me of the fellow who decided that he would adopt the practice of just letting his Bible fall open, close his eyes, put his finger on the page and read that verse for advice on what he should do each day. The first time he did it, his finger landed on. “And Judas went out and hanged himself.” He didn’t particularly care for that verse, so he tried it again and this time the verse read, “Go thou and do likewise.” Taking scripture out of context is a dangerous game.
Paul Minear in his book, Matthew: The Teacher’s Gospel writes the following about this text:
Here we see developing the earliest legal procedures….designed to
protect both the individual and the community. The sinner is guarded
against arbitrariness and hasty action brought by a single individual
or even by two or three leaders. The leader is protected from his own
prejudices and from hasty action. The congregation is guarded from
violent disruption and from the slow erosion of unresolved
antagonism. (New York, Pilgrim, 1982, p. 102.)
It is instructive to note what brackets this particular three-stage process for handling those who sin against us. Just before it is the parable of the lost sheep, where the shepherd rejoices more over finding the one lost sheep than the ninety-nine safe in the fold. And the two verses right after it, which is next Sunday’s gospel lesson, is Jesus’ answer to Peter’s question on how often you should forgive someone…Peter offering the suggestion of seven times being enough. Jesus said: “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy times seven.” Unending, in other words.
We now begin to get some context to this three-step process. Add to that the fact that Jesus called Matthew, a tax collector, to be one of his disciples, and that he interacted with Gentiles throughout his ministry, as well as with notorious sinners, we gain even more context. If we are going to treat people as Jesus commanded us to do, as “Gentiles and tax collectors” then that means we have to treat them as Jesus did. He didn’t excommunicate them. He kept offering them God’s love and grace. Does this mean that unlimited tolerance is a Christian virtue? No, what it means is that the grace and love of God is limitless.
Jesus’ three-stage process is an excellent one. We need to give it greater attention if we are serious about the business of reconciliation and restoration, which was the agenda of our Lord. Further, as St. Augustine said, we don’t confront and listen to another because their sin has hurt us, but because it has hurt them. Whether we are faithful in following Jesus’ three-step process depends on our motive for doing it.
On occasion, though, after doing everything you can possible think of to do, you will encounter people who just refuse to be reconciled. Once in awhile you run into people like the English poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s parents. They so disapproved of her marriage to Robert Browning that they disowned her. Almost weekly, Elizabeth wrote love letters to her parents asking for reconciliation. After ten years, she received a huge box in the mail. It was all the letters she had sent to her parents…unopened.
In situations such as that all you can do is just keep praying, just keep your own heart open and loving. We must remember that the extravagant grace of God may still break through their hardened hearts. Because the only way excommunication truly works is when we excommunicate ourselves. That’s what Elizabeth’s parents did. And that’s what each of us is capable of doing.
It is so important that we strive to live in love, which we are able to do only by the grace of God. Love one another…love one another…love one another…that’s what Paul wrote to the Romans, and to us. That’s also what we are capable of doing because of God’s love for us in Jesus Christ.