If you are offended
Week of Sunday September 7 2008
The first thing I noticed about the gospel for this week is its location. It comes immediately after two statements about little ones. For example, in verse six, If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me... This is not actually about children. Jesus says people who enter the church are humble (humble = obedient to God) like children are humble. They are the little ones... If we are abusing a church member in some way, it is like we are abusing a child.
There are some good principles that apply to church behaviour and governance in this reading. But this proximity to the verses about caring for the little ones says to me that Matthew 18:15-20 is about more than church governance. It is about caring for each other like the children among us who we love so much. When we deal with an issue that concerns someone who has offended us, we should be gentle, respectful, loving, and as caring as we are when we deal with the children. This person is loved by God like a child.
We should note too, that although modern translations say "If another member of the church sins against you..." the original Greek says "If your brother sins...." We change that in translation because of gender sensitivities, but perhaps we could have said "If another family member sins against you..." A lot of church fights split along family lines; "blood is thicker than water," we say. The text implies there is only blood. A true church community is one family. My blood brother is no closer, no more deserving, and no more precious than the man in the next pew.
I am challenged by the emphasis of the first verse. If another member of the church sins against you... Has my brother actually sinned against me? Or am I jealous, angry, or disappointed?
Why did they elect him last year? I was better than he. So his suggestion about how we do things must be wrong, and I will oppose him, and heap my anger against him.
Even before we look at pointing out someone's fault to them, we should ask very carefully, "Where does the fault lie?" More often that I would like to admit, when I am upset with someone, the problem is with me! Even if this is not the case, being slow to anger, and careful to analyse why I am offended, often reveals that the behaviour of my brother is not the only issue.
Then there is a hint about what "sins" should concern us. "If your brother sins against you..." Perhaps I should be even slower to react if I think you are sinning against someone else, rather than me. True, if you are really attacking my sister, you are offending me. But is my sister feeling attacked or sinned against, or is it me who has the problem? Is there something you are saying to her that offends ME, and she is not offended at all? It could be that the way you are offending me is something that should stop, but it would be better if I spoke to you about me and my offended feelings, rather than muddying the waters by drawing my sister into the affair.
Beyond these things, this little group of verses, is a brilliant summation for the way things should be done!
- ...go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone... The thing is not to publicly explode all over the place about someone who may not even be aware they have offended us! Why escalate a dispute when one party is perhaps not even aware there is a dispute! Granted, this is an ideal situation. There are some people to whom I would not speak anything beyond banalities unless I had a witness. I guess they are in the second level category, already.
- ...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.... Such common sense! Common sense because it protects all sides in a dispute. Common sense because it minimises damage by restricting the broadcast of an issue to all NOT concerned and makes it easier to solve. This approach is the direct opposite of that evil which plagues churches and is called Gossip, and of another one called Backstabbing. But finally there is a third level of how we interact. We are called to be an open society. In the end a thing cannot and should not be hidden. It needs to be dealt with in the open.
- ...If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church.... So much damage is done by secrecy that should not remain secret.
We saw a similar verse about binding and loosing in a recent lectionary reading: (Matthew 16:13ff) 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. What I said in my sermon that week applies here too:
The keys of the kingdom of heaven is at least in part referring to the fact that a church, a body of people who live the way of Jesus together, begins to experience the life of heaven. They begin to experience new depths of community, and all the power and healing that flows from that. In the language of the old imagery that imagined heaven as that perfect place we go to after death, a church should begin to experience "heaven on earth. " If I do not forgive you, and release you (unbind you) from our clashes and hatreds in our daily lives (that argument over the colour of the paint in the church kitchen, or the fact that your kid beat up my kid at school) then you and I will be bound by that same argument in heaven. Our unresolved and unforgiven issues will come into heaven, come into church with us, and taint the church, and suffocate the glimpses of the new deeper life our discipleship and community together is offering us. We will be bound in heaven, prisoners to our earthly arguments.
Of course there are legalities about libel and slander, and there are church regulations to follow. But this little pericope in Matthew is superb in suggesting some basic principles to follow. It is not followed enough.
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!