Text: Matthew 18: 15-20
Growing up I was a fan of the TV show Law & Order. I enjoyed the format of the show, spending the first half with the detectives who investigate crimes and then the second half with the lawyers who prosecute the criminals. As I think of it I can hear Lenny’s voice saying, “Read him his rights.”
The rights that were being referred to were the Miranda rights or warning. I’m sure that each of you can think of what some of those lines are, they are used often enough in television and movies. You have the right to remain silent, the right to an attorney. Failure by the police in the United States to follow this step before questioning a suspect can result in charges being thrown out.
If you look at our reading from Matthew this morning you might see some very strong similarities. Matthew 18 has been read as a list of rules to deal with problems in the church. It is laid out in a fairly straight forward manner. Did you deal with the individual who offended you as Matthew 18 lays out? If the answer is no, then go do that. If the answer is yes, the perhaps we proceed with discipline or we distance ourselves from the offending individual. It’s black and white, cut and dried.
The problem is that I don’t think that Jesus, the same Jesus who forgave a thief hanging on the cross is inclined to give up on people so easily and I don’t think we should either. Now, you might say to me, Neil, we’ve just had this read to us and it clearly says if the offender refuses to listen, let one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. It’s pretty clear.
On top of that, this is how we have been taught about this passage, well since forever. Sometimes, you have to give up or turn your back on people. And perhaps at times for our own health and safety that is true. However, I don’t think this passage is as cut and dried as we might like it to be. Let’s be honest, if this passage is a clean cut as it looks on first read, it’s easy. The passage is used to facilitate church fights and disputes and in today’s world these disputes end without reconciliation.
We need to remember, it is Jesus speaking these words. That should cause us to pause and reflect on them a little deeper. Jesus came to reconcile, not to separate. And let’s remember that the more often than not it was the Gentiles, a Samaritan on the road, a Samaritan woman at the well, a Canaanite woman, who Jesus held up as examples. Let’s remember that one of the disciples was a tax collector.
Are we sure that Jesus is being dismissive? Consider the passage that comes before this is the Parable of the Lost Sheep. Where Jesus insists that the shepherd leaves the 99 sheep and goes in search of the one that is lost, the one that went astray. And when it is found he rejoices. The passage which follows deals with forgiveness. How many times must I forgive? Seventy-seven times, we are to forgive.
Theologian Jin Kim writes, “This passage is difficult to digest. Influenced by the Enlightenment philosophy of John Locke, the dominant understanding of the local church in the modern world has been that of a voluntary association of autonomous individuals. In North America, this is particularly true where individualism, independence, and self-reliance is highly prized.”
This passage is dangerous to us if we read it in a highly legalistic manner or if we approach it through individualism. It functions best grounded in the reality of when it was written, when the worshiping community of faith observed and understood itself as a collective, not as a motley collection of individuals.
That’s one of the problems I believe we see in culture and society today. We are all individuals trying to make our way in life. Trying to do the best for ourselves and our families. Trying to get ahead, stay healthy, make it rich. In many ways the idea of the American Dream and I know we aren’t Americans, but this idea of the American Dream persuasive in the modern world. That through hard work and determination we can improve our lot.
The problem is that anyone who gets in the way of our version of that dream is cast aside. If in the process of improving our life our neighbour offends us, we may go through the steps that Jesus outlines in our passage. But most likely we’ll just cast them aside and we’ll move on with a broken and damaged relationship haunting us.
We read these words through our modern eyes and we have lost the recognition that when they were written the early church was living together in community. You didn’t just cast people aside, you didn’t write people off. And even when they didn’t listen, even when they refused to see a different viewpoint you persisted. Even when things are going horribly wrong, you just don’t read people their rights and be done with them. That’s not how a Christian community offers love and grace.
Because if you read the words of Jesus long enough you realize that treating someone like a Gentile or a tax collector means to love them. Because what you bind on earth will be bound in heaven and what you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. The point is not that the church or its leaders have special powers or authority when it comes to disuptes. Rather, when we do exercise authority the church must unequivocally pay attention to the least powerful member of the community. That is why we go after the one that is lost while we leave the others on the mountaintop.
When we think of binding and loosing we often imagine it as something happening in the heavenly realms, but the reality is that we bind and loose things every day and every moment. What we bind and what we loose forms our world view. It determines the activities we participate in, the people we associate with, where we shop, where we live. What we bind and loose informs us and it informs everyone else about us.
Professor Stanley Suanders writes “What does this kind of binding and loosing look like in our world? Elbert Parr Tuttle was a young lawyer based in Atlanta and a National Guard officer when he was sent to Elberton, Georgia in 1931 to organize efforts to restrain a mob and restore order after a black man had been accused of rape by a white woman. Tuttle succeeded in helping the accused escape the lynch mob that day, but at the subsequent trial, twelve white men produced a guilty verdict after a two hour trial and six minutes of deliberation, on largely contrived evidence, resulting in a death penalty.
“Tuttle went on to organize legal resources to appeal the case, but was ultimately frustrated. The man was executed three years later. Tuttle’s experiences with this case changed his view of the world. Tuttle went on to become a highly successful lawyer and was eventually appointed to serve as the chief justice of the Fifth Circuit Federal Court of Appeals, with jurisdiction over southern states from Texas to Florida. Tuttle was on the bench during the years when Civil Rights legislation first began to challenge long-standing patterns of racism. He was responsible for making sure that decisions handed down by the Supreme Court actually became law in practice. Elbert Tuttle, a white man who grew up in Hawaii, bound himself to the cause of a black man wrongly accused and sentenced to die. Although he lost the struggle for that man’s life, he nonetheless bound himself to the ongoing struggle to loose the shackles of racism that still plague the United States … This is binding and loosing at its best and most powerful.”
What we bind ourselves to is our testimony of the truth of the gospel, for restorative justice and for reconciliation. We seek to loose the world of the chains of bondage and oppression, which are created through the powerful forces of class, race and gender.
When we see clearly that a better world is desired; that dream not just for you or for me, but for all of us is what we desire. Then when we gather, when we work for that aim which is the true worship of God, then Jesus Christ is there working with us. That is the joy that sustains us, that is the desire which must propel us forward. Amen.