A wicked problem... and love

I want to be loved… I want to be cared for, to be safe. I want to be happy. I want to matter, I want to be worth something.

And Jesus says, "I have come that you may have life, and have it more abundantly… in all its fullness." (John 10:10)

The trouble is that my whole learning… our whole learning and indoctrination…  says that we get love, and happiness, and worth, by putting ourselves first.  In our house the cat, who is, frankly, needy, jumps up on our lap mewling for love and attention. And when she does, the dog often flies into our lap and pushes the cat out… and not gently. The dog is just like us. It doesn't believe that we still love it… if we love the cat; and we can't believe we are loved if we are not at the centre of things.

In fact, the doctrine of Original Sin might be understood this way:  in the fact that we are almost unable to conceive of being worthwhile without winning, or without putting ourselves first, or without being at the centre of things. All the other stuff we call sin flows from that.

This stuff is insidious. For a while, I worked very hard at being better than everyone else …. by putting myself last, and by being more humble than everyone else! My love was actually all about me.

And… I used to work at doing things really, really well. And had to learn I was not really serving God with excellence, at all; I was proving to myself, and to God, and to other people, that I was better, and that I was deserving. This stuff is what is called a "wicked problem"; that is, it is seems almost impossible to get a solution to it. How can we not be at the centre of our universe? It's not as though we can step out of our self and walk away, is it?

This wicked problem is what is at the root of our disagreements in church; not the fact that people are nasty and horrible. I wonder if people are nasty and horrible—inside— at all!!!  They are hurt— and sometimes deeply wounded. They want to be loved. They want to matter.

And… we are hurt. We want to matter. We don’t want taken away from us the things that let us begin feel that we do matter, and are worth something:  We don’t want someone to spoil all the work we've done for the kitchen, or the market, or the garden. Those are our places; they give us something to be proud of; they mean we matter; people look up to us, or respect us, or are grateful to us, because we do them.

And of course, other people want all the same sort of goodness they can see we have gained… they want to be good and happy like us…. so they try to join in, or even to take over, driven by their need. And of course… their need becomes… our loss.  

And it's true that a person may have spent many years living like this; trying to be like other people and get— or even take— what other people have. They can be so bound up in themselves that they have no sense that we deserve anything at all; it's all about them. Although loved by God, although not intrinsically nasty at heart, they are most certainly not pleasant to be with. And there are times when we all fit that description, are there not?

What does it mean if we say the universal human tendency to compete, and to put ourselves at the centre by excluding others, is what comprises Original Sin?

One implication is that our disagreements are not a distraction from the work of the church. Healing our disagreements, reconciling after the times when we sin against each other is the central work of the church which is faithful to Jesus.

Let me flesh this out. There would hardly be a church which hasn't thought that if we could get rid of such and such a painful person, we could finally get on with what we're meant to be doing. They keep mucking things up. They keep driving people away. They hurt people. They undermine what we are trying to do in being a place of healing in the community. They stop us growing.

And that may very well be true. They may do all of that.

But who are we as church? We are the ones being cleansed of our sin, are we not? We are the ones… not putting ourselves at the centre. We are the ones called to suffer loss— to deny our selves— in order to let other people be healed! And whom would we seek to heal first other than those who are already among us!?

Healing our disagreements is at the centre of being church— it is the central task of the church— because it is in healing our disagreements that we take ourselves out of the centre of our universe,  and ourselves find healing, and find that we are loved, and find that we are being made safe… by putting God at the centre. And in doing that, we show the world the glory of God… by the way we love each other. (Tertullian)

It is in living with each other— warts and all— that we will find these things! If we do not live together, we will never find them at any deep level.


When we disagree, and when we are hurt by each other, there's a lot of common sense in the reading:  Don't go and gossip. Don't storm out. Don't just whinge to someone else. Talk to the person with whom you have the problem!

Of course that's usually not easy. We may not even feel safe. And, some folk do carry such a world of hurt with them, that they are not safe to be around if they are the least bit upset. And here's the sad truth: we are all of us sometimes that person, and like them, often completely unaware of just how frightening and offensive we are towards someone else.

This is why witnesses are important. Witnesses do not only keep us honest to what has happened. Witnesses keep us safe from each other.

But none of this is the core of Jesus' saying to us here. It's a start, and it's a start we are not good at making. But, finally, what happens if we can't work it out. What happens then? What if a person won't listen… and let's give ourselves the benefit of the doubt for a moment: what if they really are a serious problem with their behaviour? What then?

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. (Matthew 18:17)

You can see in this that the member becomes an offender
and then, it sounds like they get kicked out…
because good Jewish people had nothing to do with Gentiles and tax-collectors.

So one reading of this text might suggest that there comes a point where a person is simply too bad to remain part of the congregation, or part of the church. And so then, we can treat them like a tax collector; in fact, we are commanded to do this!

Except …  as someone noted in our Bible Study this week, Jesus fed the Gentiles, healed the Gentiles, and welcomed the Gentiles into the Kingdom of Heaven.
And...  Jesus called a tax collector to be one of his disciples…

This is one of the really sneaky bits of the gospel. It sets us up… to discover that we have missed the point. We get all angry and justified about getting rid of someone, and treating them like a tax collector and a Gentile, and then Jesus says in his still, small voice, "You are loving the Gentiles, and tax collectors, and the outsiders, with all your heart… so they may hear the Good News Jesus brings... aren't you? 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… won't you?"

What he is teaching us is that if we require someone to leave— even if it is the only solution we can find…  we have failed them. We have failed them rather than regaining them.

We sometimes kid ourselves into thinking they left us because they stormed out in a huff… but it's often  us doing the pushing, or us using their pain— and calling it bad temper, as an excuse not to go after them.  We fail.

Sometimes we don't notice they've left… or breath a sigh of relief. We fail.

Or it's us convinced we are right, and failing to do the hard work of imagining how we could engineer our lives together so that a person can be included.

It is hard work, and it is costly. How do we relate to the person who has been, shall we say, discovered filtering the offering, and who we suddenly realise is actually a bit of a bower bird? Could we even imagine saying to the congregation, with him present: "Look, Jim has a problem stealing stuff. He is our brother, and we love him, and God loves him even more than we do. We owe it to Jim to hold on to our handbags, and we owe it to Jim not leave our phones sitting on the lunch table… because when we do that, we expose him to temptation that's really unhelpful for him. And Jim's not going to take up the offering anymore, and he would like you to gently remind him to leave the church office if you see him go in there."

People could leave the congregationover a revelation like that…

... not to mention the legal ramifications of statements like that, if we haven't done the hard work with Jim first... 
... not to mention that some of us will take it as an excuse to blame Jim if anything is missing…
... or even to use Jim as a cover when we feel like nicking something…
... not to mention the work that we would have to do following up anyone who did leave and seeking to regain them,
    or the work which would flow if someone complained to the Synod, or thought it would be a brilliant idea to complain to the police…
    or the work that it would mean if we found out during the police visit that Jim has serious form in other congregations…

Do we have the time and energy to work on that? You know that the example I have just given comes from the easy end of the spectrum; what happens in cases of assault, or worse… We have a café to run, and worship to prepare, and— well it feels like this— enough Synod compliance rules to sink the ship!

Our healing, our deep transforming discovery of how deeply we are loved by God,  our discovery that we always have a place in the universe, even despite death, and our discovery that we matter more than anything else in the world to God— along with everyone else— comes from God. We can't manufacture, or hasten that discovery. But… we open ourselves to God's gift so much more, when we live as though others mattered too; when our life's mission is given not to pushing out, but to loving in, the one who offends us, or who sins against us. Our calling from God to love each other is, in fact, a key part of our healing.

[And something more: when we are in a default mode which gets rid of trouble makers, it tends not to occur to us that maybe the trouble is us! If we actually do the hard work of listening and understanding and reconciling, there is just a chance that we may hear and see past our own limited boundaries. I have seen places where the trouble maker is actually the prophet, and the people being troubled are the ones resistant to God.]

Andrew Prior

  1. "A wicked problem is a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognize. The use of the term "wicked" here has come to denote resistance to resolution, rather than evil. Wikipedia

Also on One Man's Web
Matthew 18:15-22 - Could you imagine? (2017) This post is the basis for the sermon draft which 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)



This functionality requires the FormBuilder module