Could you imagine?

Gospel: Matthew 8:15-22

15 ‘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. 16But 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. 17If 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.18Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19Again, 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. 20For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.’

 21 Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ 22Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

Matthew 18:15-22 is a key text for the church. Mark D Davis says of Peter's confession at Caesarea Philippi that "this is the first mention of the term “church” in Matthew and the only mention of it – along with the parallel statement in Matthew 18:17 – in the gospels at all." Confessing Jesus as Christ and Son of the living God is the foundation of the church, which is otherwise mentioned only with the name church in the text "If your brother sins against you…" which NRSV translates as "If another member of the church sins against you…"

The text comes immediately after this:

10 ‘Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven. 12What do you think? If a shepherd 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? 13And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. 14So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.

Our text begins with the Greek words Ean de, which the King James Version translated as Moreover, if… That is, Matthew means this text to be about, or an expansion of, the Shepherd's concern about lost little ones. It is the lost little ones who take priority over the mass of the flock.

We might remember, also, that the keys of the kingdom of heaven are given to Peter at Caesarea Philippi so that "whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." (Matthew 16:19) These loosing and binding words are repeated again at Matthew 18:18.  

We are often taught to read this text morally; that is, we interpret the word sin as immoral behaviour, such as stealing, or gossip. We are often unconscious of this teaching; we simply absorb it, and take it as given. But if morality is the imaginative and interpretive lens through which we read this text, morality will shape and constrain; that is, limit, all our response to the one who sins against us. But morality is generally not something decided by God. The old joke says that when the American church visited their denominational cousins in Holland, the Dutch men almost choked on their cigars over the makeup worn by the American women; my friend from North Carolina knew full well that drinking was a sin. Her Australian husband's family, good Lutheran vintners, were offended by the smokers* of her family. If we constitute our church membership according to morality, the church will simply become another institution that gives three warnings and then kicks a member out. The text will not be Good News to us, but only a slowing down of inevitable expulsion and division.

But if God is love, (1 John 4:8) and if God does not condemn and exclude, then to expel a person is itself sin, and  we who expel are the sinners, and we are the ones who have failed. Sin is to continue to imagine that we can build society, and to imagine that we can be church, by excluding those who don't fit, rather than loving them and seeking to fit around them. Sin imagines God in our own expulsive image. To treat someone as a Muslim, or as a paedophile; that is, to cut them off, is to sin.

The Son of God was revealed to us in the victim. We are judged already by our treatment of the victim; when we reject the sick and the homeless, we join the goats because we are rejecting Jesus. (Matthew 25:32-46)  When we reject the victim we reject Christ the crucified and risen Victim, and his Way. We judge ourselves by our behaviour.

But how is the man who groped one of our congregation at church in any way the victim? Surely he should be expelled for such egregious behaviour?

We need to identify three things here. An obvious issue is the immediate safety of the congregation; sexual assault cannot be permitted. But then Jesus calls us to refocus our imaginative lens to see both of the people who have been sinned against. (Matt 15:18) There is the victim who at this time has been abused, sinned against, and perhaps deeply traumatised. But there is also the one sinned against, who out of hurt and trauma, has just now abused someone we love.

If we do not see this, we will not forgive seventy seven times— more on this later— and our living of the kingdom will at this moment fall short. And, (I will suggest later,) if we do not recognise that there are (at least) two people sinned against, we will not successfully look after the one we traditionally recognise as being sinned against.

We are so horrified by what we are learning about the effects of sexual abuse, and other violence, and by our recognition of how prevalent it is, that it is difficult to see beyond the horror. We wish to expel it, and to purify ourselves by this expulsion. Who would not want to be cleansed and free of such a thing? But our horror becomes a stumbling block to us. And it means Christ himself may become a stumbling block, because we are scandalized by his words that we are to forgive seventy seven times.

So let's explore the principles here— let's try focus our imaginative lens through the Christ— by  considering a less inflammatory incident, but one which is no less common. There is something to say here before beginning. We could conclude that my example is not realistic; that is, it is a simple rather harmless misbehaviour by comparison to issues of sexual assault. Trauma is not graded by some objective measure of lesser or worse experience. Trauma, and the effects of "a sin" against someone, are measured by the effect they had upon a person at the time. We are not free to imagine that our behaviour is less damaging than the behaviour of another. That decision is experienced by our victim.  That we generally find what I sketch out below to be "less inflammatory" is itself an indicator of our poor understanding of what we do when we abuse, and what we do when we expel!

•••

Let's imagine I have had a bad couple of weeks, and hear one more negative mutter during the sermon. And lose it. I berate the congregation with such extraordinary verbal evisceration that someone deems it necessary to complain to the Synod, who recognise damaging behaviour on my part. My behaviour is sin against the congregation: it drives people away from Christ.

Our denominational practice would be to stand me down, with pay, while the matter is investigated and resolved. This deals with the issues of immediate safety. You notice that it is safety for everyone: The congregation is protected from me, and I am not left to starve pending the outcome. While this is vitally necessary, it's not even mentioned by Matthew!  For at this point we have done little of what Jesus commands, apart from avoiding immediate condemnation and sacking (aka expulsion.) In fact, we can see that we have elevated the incident to the level of "the church" (18:17) and missed the first two steps. (The Uniting Church chooses to immediately elevate some egregious behaviour to "level three," as it were, and I think that is appropriate.)

But in a less extreme course of events, you, one of our wiser folk, may have noticed a loss of charity in my preaching well before this day;  perhaps an uncharacteristic judgemental edge has begun to appear. You have asked me if I have noticed this in myself; is everything alright; am I bearing too much of the congregation's psychic load on my own? These questions may be enough to alert me to what I am becoming. I am regained. (Matt 18:15)

But if I insist I am fine, and am resistant to any suggestions that I have a problem, or if I suggest to you that, in fact, the problem is you, what then?

In talking with two or three others we do two things. In the gathering of the witnesses, you may realise you have missed the point about something. Or you may learn, safely and gently, that you are indeed the problem, or a significant part of it! The witnesses can provide you, and me, with a safe place to work out our issues.

Or, the witnesses can also provide a safe place for me to hear that there really is a problem with how I have been behaving, the problem is with me. Healing can begin there. And I am regained.

Do you see that witnesses are not merely a party on its way to condemn? They are not a thinly cloaked lynch mob. They are committed to the loving, including Way of Christ, rather than the expelling, condemning way of the world.

But let's imagine things progressed way out of hand. A complaint did go to the synod. Why did Andrew explode during the sermon?

We'll add some stressors: bleeding where they should be none, and multiple doctor's visits. And we learn that on the Saturday night, Andrew had no sleep. A woman from up the street arrived at the door in terror, followed by a ranting, knife-wielding husband screaming behind her, "You're useless!" A long session with the police followed. The glazier was at work even as the sermon was being preached.

These things are no excuse for Andrew's behaviour. However, they do incline him to fall back on old behaviours learned when he was victimised as a child. And when someone muttered, loudly enough for three rows of pews to hear, "Useless; we are going over time again!" he heard for the thousandth time his father's snarl at his mother: "You are useless. You never do anything on time."

Explosion.

•••

Now I've made all this up. It's an artificial and unsubtle construction. Blessedly, my father was nothing like that. But I think we can see that at its best, the church committee that deals with wayward ministers could understand that Andrew had reacted out of his trauma as a victim. Even though he was, at the same time, perpetrating an abuse.

The perpetrator is himself, or herself, a victim; that is, they also are a person who has been sinned against. How we relate to them is a measure of how much we have understood that God is love, and excludes no-one, condemns no-one, and judges no-one. It is a measure of our conversion. Christ is revealed among us (or not) by how we treat the victim, and by whether we judge.

All of us are victims of our origins. We have all been born into, and formed by, a culture which creates a temporary and local peace by excluding, expelling and, if necessary, killing others. We use the exclusion— the blaming— of others to justify ourselves, to keep ourselves safe, and to excuse ourselves for our failings.

To deny this is to deny that we have all sinned; that we all are children of Cain. It is to shy away from our salvation, and toy with a flight into the darkness. It is to be those "who do not want their complicity in the order of death to stand revealed, preferring the shelter of the old and murderous lie..." (James Alison, Raising Abel pp139) We judge ourselves (already) because we refuse the way of Christ.

We are all sometime perpetrators of abuse, for we are all sinners. This feels such an extraordinary thing to say that I have considered editing it out. Yet if I say I have not been an abuser, I am like the person who says, "I'm not racist, but…" We are all racist. We cannot help this; we have all been born into a racist ethnocentric culture. The issue is not that we are racist; the issue is what we do about it. Do we seek to step out of it, or do we deny it? Do we seek to lessen our own offence by pointing at others who are "worse?" Pau said,

Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgement on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things. (Romans 2:1)

We are born into, and nurtured and formed by, a culture maintained by expulsion. Read the papers; everything is outrage and scandal. We can step out of this, or deny it. Our Faith claims we can step out of it by stepping out of the darkness into the light Christ. We cannot save ourselves. Following the Christ leads us away from being an abuser. If we expel the sinner— who is often largely innocent, we pass judgement on another and so condemn ourselves, and in this we drive ourselves out of the light of Christ toward the darkness from which we were called. And, ironically, may just bestow upon them a severe mercy by freeing them from our darkness— listen to the testimony of many who have left a church!

"But you can't just let the sinner off!" This is to look through the imaginative lens of punishment and, finally, exclusion. The lens of love will see another approach.

The church might suggest that Andrew's outburst has been part of a pattern; "To protect and to begin the healing of the church, and to protect you and begin your healing, we want you to undertake some particular counselling."  A particularly egregious breach of trust in one denomination resulted in a minister having their ordination revoked. To protect the church it was concluded that it was not safe to have this person continue as a minister.  But a church agency provided that minister with another job. Was this "jobs for the boys," or an effort not to expel someone who, in their own way, was a victim although also a perpetrator? A church judges itself at such a point by how much it helps, includes, and reconciles with the immediate victim. Too often, we cast off the victim, as well as the perpetrator, and sometimes, instead of  the perpetrator.

So how do we see the Gentile and the tax collector in this understanding? (18:17) Let us imagine that I will not repent of my abusiveness. Here, scripture is at its subversive best: "You are loving the Gentile and tax collector so they may hear the Good News Jesus brings... are you not? Well, how much more, then, will you love your brother and sister in the congregation! Surely you will treat them like a tax collector or a Gentile."

That we read the text as a warrant to exclude and expel— and I did this for years— is our judgement upon ourselves. It shows us that we are still viewing the world, and its people, through the old lens of exclusion and death.

I am not exaggerating about death, here. This is serious. Heresy was once a death sentence. It was, and still sometimes is, delivered as part of a call to purify the church and the nation, and to honour God. Which ignores the call to mercy, and to love, and the call to the rescue the sheep who has strayed.

There is no easy forgiveness here. People may leave us because of our refusal to expel someone. The very person we seek to forgive and help to healing, may rage against us because we no longer allow them the temptation of counting the offering. Churches have been groomed and betrayed by those they have loved. I have written none of this lightly. Yet there is a world of difference between my shouting someone on their way, and confessing to them our complete failure because we can imagine no way to keep them and us safe together.

Human society— life outside the Garden— begins with the murder of Abel by Cain, who builds the first city. The way of murder is continued by Lamech, who cried

I have killed a man for wounding me,
   a young man for striking me. 
24 If Cain is avenged sevenfold,
   truly Lamech seventy-sevenfold.’ (Genesis 4:1-24)

Jesus says we are to reverse this culture of violence built upon violence. Seventy-seven is not a literal number, but symbolises a way of living which is not the way of the Lamech and the world, but the Way of Christ. It seems to me that to deliberately confess our failure to those we inclusion we cannot imagine is at least some steering away from the way of Lamech.

To judge is to bind someone to their sin, and it is to bind us to our sin; our judging is our judgement. It is to stay facing the darkness. To forgive is to loose them from condemnation, and to free ourselves, because we are free to look toward the light. We have one less thing to fear, because we have not condemned ourselves.

We often imagine that we manage our small differences, but come unstuck with the larger or more intransigent problems of fellowship. But how often is it that in the small things, we have managed nothing at all? I think that often we have simply ignored or denied the smaller issues, so that the victim is once more expelled— into silence, or leaves us in grief, which we pretend was their own decision rather than our expulsion.

Or we continue the abuse. When we say something is nothing— "it wasn't that serious…" we are actually saying the problem is the victim. The one sinned against is causing this whole problem by saying they are being abused, but "we all know" it wasn't that serious; it was nothing, really.

If the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector.

An personal addendum
Someone might say, "It's not so much that you are wrong about this, Andrew. It's just that I cannot imagine how we could possibly continue to have such and such a person in our midst."

You may have noticed that although I began with the expression "imaginative and interpretive lens," I only use the expression imaginative lens, after that. It's because I have begun to see that much of what we do, or attempt to do, or not, is a matter of imagination. What we imagine to be possible defines what is possible. Our imagination limits our interpretation.  Imagination is either the hard work we accept as a disciple of Jesus, or is the limitation of who we are; indeed, it will be a limitation upon our conversion and healing! Much of our task as church is to seek to imagine how we could possibly continue to have such and such a person in the church!   Which is not to say that the enactment of an imagination may not have an enormous cost. But then, what is that for one to whom death is becoming as nothing because they know that in God, death is not? Now that would be a feat of imagination. But how many other things are there which I once could not possibly imagine but now know and do?

Andrew Prior
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!

* Tobacco growing was a major industry during her childhood in North Carolina.

Also on One Man's Web
Matthew 18:15-22 - A wicked problem... and love (2017) (This post is a sermon draft based upon the article you have just read.)
Matthew 18:15-20 - .... before I begin (2011)
Matthew 18 and 9/11 - What spirit dwells in me? (2011)
Matthew 18:15-20 - If another sins against you (2008)
Matthew 18:15-20 - If you are offended (2008)

You can find more reflections on biblical texts on the Lectionary page.

 


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