XIV Pentecost, Year A
The LORD said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first month of the year for you. Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household. If a household is too small for a whole lamb, it shall join its closest neighbor in obtaining one; the lamb shall be divided in proportion to the number of people who eat of it. Your lamb shall be without blemish, a year-old male; you may take it from the sheep or from the goats. You shall keep it until the fourteenth day of this month; then the whole assembled congregation of Israel shall slaughter it at twilight. They shall take some of the blood and put it on the two doorposts and the lintel of the houses in which they eat it. They shall eat the lamb that same night; they shall eat it roasted over the fire with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted over the fire, with its head, legs, and inner organs. You shall let none of it remain until the morning; anything that remains until the morning you shall burn. This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the passover of the LORD. For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the LORD. The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live: when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.
This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the LORD; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance.
You, mortal, I have made a sentinel for the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked, "O wicked ones, you shall surely die," and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but their blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the wicked to turn from their ways, and they do not turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but you will have saved your life.
Now you, mortal, say to the house of Israel, Thus you have said: "Our transgressions and our sins weigh upon us, and we waste away because of them; how then can we live?" Say to them, As I live, says the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel?
Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, "You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet"; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, "Love your neighbor as yourself." Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.
Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
Jesus said, "If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them."
Christian scapegoating. That’s what I first thought of when I read today’s text. How convenient. Now I know there are ways to interpret this text that might make it appear that Jesus (or Matthew if you prefer) is talking about how to handle sinners in the church by using the process of exclusion. I have seen it done and so have you.
But the longer I looked at it, the more apparent it became that it is not so much a pericope on institutional exclusion as much as it is a collection of sayings on the power of forgiveness.
First, we have previously observed that ‘the little ones’ (around whom the entire ecclesiological discourse is constructed) were those marginalized, scapegoated and poor and that they were not being cared for by the community. This sociological element has been stressed as of late in Matthean studies and is perhaps one of the more important conversations in Gospel studies today. There is a ‘relational crisis’ that is being revealed in the Gospel. These ‘little ones’ are like children who mime adults and who become enmeshed in a model/obstacle relationship with the adult (ever raise a teenager?).
Second, it might appear that the discourse first speaks of ‘sin’ or ‘sinning’ in general and then makes a shift over to forgiveness in the ‘binding and loosing’ of vs. 18 and the parable of the Unmerciful Servant.
But are we dealing with ‘general sin’ so to speak or are we in fact dealing with the sin of non-forgiveness? I went back and read Matthew 18 and every time I ran across the verb in English ‘to sin’ (skandalizo 18: 6, 7, 8, hamartano 15) and substituted ‘to not forgive,’ I came away with an entirely different impression of the text.
Matthew’s gospel is replete with midrashim, explorations of Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness. It does not help us to have these general categories like ‘to sin’ where we are then left importing all kinds of baggage to fill it up. Rules and laws and what’s right and what’s wrong. Because everybody fills up this generic category differently, each group defines itself by what it is not; it is not ‘the other.’
The Gospel shouts that God goes out to ‘the other’ indeed to the ‘enemy other’, you and me. Woven throughout Matthew’s gospel in so many ways from Emmanuel to the Father who cares for the creation, the sparrow, the lost sheep, you and I, God goes to the other. God does this going indiscriminately, wholly in love, reconciliatory in concrete action.
The problem we have seen in these past several Sunday’s gospel readings has been precisely here: It is hard for folks to get their minds around the fact that God forgives, that God is non-retributive and that violence, non-forgiveness, retaliation or vengeance is human, satanic. But Jesus says that if we teach ‘the little one’ who constantly mimes the adults and errs, that there is a limit to forgiveness, that they’d better behave or they will get their comeuppance; well, better that we should wear cement shoes to the bottom of the Hudson.
The parable of the lost sheep reminds folks who find it hard to forgive that God is not willing to let even one little sheep get away, God goes after everyone indiscriminately. Everyone counts, even or especially ‘the little ones.’
Vss. 15-18 then proceed to describe a community situation where followers of Jesus are not exercising forgiveness. They are holding grudges and seeking redress (are they perhaps reflected in 5:25-26?). These are the ‘brothers and sisters’ who are ‘sinning.’ How should Christians handle those who say they follow Jesus but will not forgive, who justify retaliation?
The process is ordered in a step by step fashion to mitigate the possibility of mimetic doubling and to achieve maximum reconciliation. It recognizes the possibility that there will be those who stubbornly insist on their rights, who will not forgive. If these folks, who say they follow Jesus (‘not all who say to me Lord, Lord…), will not forgive, then eventually they are to be treated as those who have not yet known Jesus’ forgiveness of themselves, i.e., as pagans and tax collectors.
Nothing is said about shunning here. Nor is anything said about exclusion from the church. It may well have been that pagans and tax collectors were shunned in general but this is obviously not the way that Jesus behaved with them? To treat the ‘other as enemy’ is not what is being said here. Such a reading is incongruent with the entirety of Jesus’ teaching as Matthew presents it. Finally, it is not the church that is to treat the sinning person as a pagan or a tax collector but the individual who has sought forgiveness and been refused. The one denied forgiveness is to respond by forgiving!
The 2 or 3 persons of vvs. 19-20 are the same 2 or 3 persons in vs 16. The binding and loosing are the two sides of the coin, binding satan by forgiving sin. This is the church at its best.
The parable of the Unmerciful Servant (next week’s lesson) then speaks for itself and our theme is summarized in vs 35: God forgives us as/like we forgive others.
A positive mimetic reading of Matthew 18 recognizes that the process that is being described in vvs. 15-17 exemplifies the orientation and behavior of the subsequent and consequent verses. To imply that it is the right/obligation of the church ‘to shun’ is to commit to a sacrificial reading because a scapegoat will be required. Does it make any sense that Jesus would come to expose and conquer the process of human victimizing, i.e., scapegoating, and then turn around and tell his followers to scapegoat others? Absolutely not.
A positive mimetic reading of Matthew 18 frees us to perceive the true connection between scandal and forgiveness. Forgiveness, both to seek forgiveness and to forgive others, is the one attitude and act that can transform rivalry. A posture of forgiveness as a community has great power. It just takes two. Why two or more? Because what is being modeled is the relational character of forgiveness and reconciliation. This is a good example of Girard’s notion of ‘interdividuality.’ We are our relationships.
Matthew develops certain ‘themes’ throughout his five major discourses. Chapter 18 is no exception as it develops the theme of forgiveness from the Sermon on the Mount and connects it to ‘the little ones’ of chapter 10.
Enough with this excommunication stuff. There is no warrant from our text to utilize any scapegoating process. Enough with ‘I’m kicking you out of my church.’ Only a sacrificial reading could suggest such a possibility.
The church as portrayed by Matthew is completely taken with the relational dimensions of what we have called positive mimesis. Matthew’s community saw in Jesus’ life, who he was in the context of when he lived, a real different sort of a person. Jesus was special. His humanity glowed with God.
So too, if we chose to read the entirety of Matthew 18 with an emphasis on forgiveness, we will radicalize the church. We remind ourselves as church that we are not about exclusion, but that we are most certainly about forgiveness. A church where forgiveness reigns, imagine that! How beautiful it is when brothers and sisters dwell together in unity!
Some Sermon Thoughts
I find it way too tempting to make of forgiveness another occasion for "law" to break out. Especially in our preaching. How in the world do we say "forgive" without risking the unspoken but clearly heard, "or else….." This is our quandary.
Here’s a suggestion:
We are so prone to hear this story from the point of view of the one "offended" that it’s hard to see it any other way. What about doing "theology from below?" What if we tell the story of this teaching from the point of view of the "offender?" How might we see this if we "experience" these words of Jesus, rather than "follow" them? What keeps the "two or three" from feeling like "ganging up?" What keeps the summoning of the assembly from feeling like a lynch mob? Only radical submission, only radical forgiveness. (Not the condescending kind, the real kind.) I think that if we walk our folks through this from that point of view, they’ll learn the value of forgiveness quite apart from the threat of going unforgiven by God.