Exodus 12:1-14 – The commandment to observe Passover.
Ezekiel 33:7-11 – 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.
Psalm 149 – Sing to The Lord a new song… Let them praise his name with dancing, making melody to him with tambourine and lyre.
Psalm 119:33-40 – Lead me in the path of your commandments, for I delight in it. Turn my heart to your decrees, and not to selfish gain.
Romans 13:8-14 – Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The Ten Commandments… 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.
Matthew 18:15-20 – If another member of the church sins against you… How to manage conflict.
Prayer of the Day
O Lord God, enliven and preserve your church with your perpetual mercy. Without your help, we mortals will fail; remove far from us everything that is harmful, and lead us toward all that gives life and salvation, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
Alleluia. In Christ, God was reconciling the world | to himself, entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. Alleluia. (2 Cor. 5:19)
Let me begin by saying thank you to Pastor Don Carlson for researching my lectionary notes for the last dozen posts. He did this a few years ago during my sabbatical. His insights, coming after leading In Search of Paul, to Turkey and Greece so many years, were insightful and thought-provoking.
I must also thank the good people of the Texas-Louisiana Gulf Coast Synod, for supporting me in this work. It is a wonderful gift to be able to study and reflect on these texts every week.
My heart goes out to all of you, and to the folks in the Southwestern Texas Synod as well, as you recover from the devastation of Hurricane Harvey. I won’t elaborate on this now, but if you want to know more check out https://gulfcoastsynod.org/hurricane-harvey/.
September and October our gospel texts are from Matthew 18-22. These are teachings and parables that are instructive to the church and to life in Christian community.
Here’s an overview of our upcoming RCL gospel texts:
- September 10: Matthew 18:15-20 – Conflict
- September 17: Matthew 18:21-35 – Forgiveness (The Unforgiving Slave)
- September 24: Matthew 20:1-16 – Grace (Vineyard Laborers)
- October 1: Matthew 21:23-32 – Humility (Two Sons)
- October 8: Matthew 21:33-46 – Fruit (Wicked Tenants)
- October 15: Matthew 22:1-14 – Expectation (Wedding Banquet)
- October 22: Matthew 22:15-22 – Taxes (Render unto Caesar)
- October 29: Reformation – John 8:31-36 (The truth will set you free.)
On to the texts. Our Hebrew Bible texts are Exodus and Ezekiel. The Exodus text is the commandment to observe Passover. The Ezekiel text is God’s call to Ezekiel, asking him to tell the house of Israel to repent, for God does not wish the death of sinners, but rather that they turn and live.
The Romans text embodies the theology of love that Jesus espouses when asked the greatest commandment. He says the greatest commandment is to love your God and the second is to love your neighbor. It is the theology of 1 John 4:7-8. “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” Paul’s clearest exposition of this theology is in 1 Corinthians 13, where love, for Paul, transcends eloquence, ecstatic speech, prophecy, even faith and self-sacrifice.
Here in Romans 13 Paul boils it down three times, in three consecutive verses:
- “Whoever loves has fulfilled the law.” (13:8)
- “The Ten Commandments are summed up in a single saying, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” (13:9)
- “Love is the fulfillment of the law.” (13:10)
It is this passage from Romans 13 that famously caused Augustine to convert to Christianity.
The gospel text for this Sunday is one that absolutely must be studied and understood by anyone living in community. It is almost as if Jesus told this story for every church I ever served. As we take a look at this text, it is well for us to keep Paul’s words about love from Romans 13 in our heads.
It is likely that Matthew, writing in AD 80 or so, included this story because of stuff going on in his church. The Gospel of Matthew is the church’s manual, after all. Mark, Luke and John must not know this story, because if they did they would most certainly have included it. Wherever there is human community, there is conflict. Jesus had to deal with conflict even among his own disciples. We can expect no less in our congregations and church bodies. There is nothing unchristian about conflict, but there are Christ-like ways to deal with conflict.
This passage on dealing with conflict outlines a way to keep community healthy. If we respond to conflict without love, we have missed the point. In fact, some have pointed out even this procedure could be misappropriated as a tool to wield power over someone else. Any process can be abused. To use it in this way would be to miss the point.
So let’s look at it. Matt 18:
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.
So we have a 4-step process:
- If a member sins again you, go and talk to that person privately.
- If you aren’t listened to, take one or two others along.
- If that doesn’t work, take it to the church.
- Gentile/Tax collector
Every pastor should preach this text every time it comes up in the lectionary. It only comes up once every three years. Perhaps this should be an annual sermon. Boundaries and leadership are the immunity system of a healthy organization.
This is not how most communities function. Therefore you have to teach this. It’s counter-cultural. When someone sins against them, most people tell everyone else, except the very person that offended them. “Do you know what so-and-so did to me/said to me? Well, let me tell you! Isn’t it awful? I am never speaking to him/her again…”
Thus we create a triangle. What was a one-on-one conflict now involves others, who are brought into the anger. The offense may be quite real, but now we have less chance of resolving it. We spread our conflict throughout the whole community, like an infection. Communities that function like this constantly throb with conflict. It will be hard to get a vibrant sense of well-being and health in a community that doesn’t know how to handle conflict in healthy ways.
Some churches are made up of extended families. We have one congregation where 2/3 of the members are part one of of two families. In this situation, methods of managing conflict (avoidance, blaming, computing, distracting, placating…) are deeply ingrained in generations of family systems. One pastor is not likely to change this, but it should not stop us from living into a new reality. Engaging the council in a study and discussion of this text will certainly have some impact. If leaders set the example, the culture begins to shift. You now have your council devotions. You’re welcome.
The first step is to go to the person privately. When this happens most of the time reasonable people, who love one another, will be able to work through things. Equally important, the community has not been dragged through the drama.
Notice whose responsibility it is to initiate the conversation: It says, “If a member of the church sins against you…” The person who is wronged is to initiate the action. This is because sometimes the offender does not even know that he or she has offended. Jesus seems to understand that left unchecked, resentment can turn into anger and anger can harden into hatred.
Here’s what St. Augustine had to say about it:
Our Lord warns us not to neglect one another’s sins, not by searching out what to find fault with, but by looking out for what to amend. For He said that his eye is sharp to cast out a mote out of his brother’s eye, who has not a beam in his own eye. Now what this means, I will briefly convey to you, Beloved. A mote in the eye is anger; a beam in the eye is hatred. When therefore one who has hatred finds fault with one who is angry, he wishes to take a mote out of his brother’s eye, but is hindered by the beam which he carries in his own eye. A mote is the beginning of a beam. For a beam in the course of its growth, is first a mote. By watering the mote, you bring it to a beam; by nourishing anger with evil suspicions, you bring it on to hatred. (Sermon XXXII)
Augustine points out something important. We are not to go around looking for people to offend us. But when something happens that we can’t let go of, it’s time to act.
Jesus says, “If the member listens to you, you have gained that person back.” The goal of the conversation is reconciliation. The Christian life is about forgiveness, compassion and reconciliation. We interact not to humiliate, but to heal. That is why Jesus says to talk alone. Think about it, when confronted by a group, most people will put up their walls and get defensive, but one-on-one softens the heart. The meeting can end with an embrace.
But not always. Sometimes people can’t or won’t hear. Sometimes we are hard-headed. Other times we are blinded by privilege. We have stomped on others’ feelings with ignorance. Or they have stomped in ours. Or worse, a brutal violence has been committed. When this is the case, they may not be able to hear. Don’t give up. Try again. This time take someone along with you. When two people are in conflict, a non-anxious third party can often bring stability and clarity.
When someone comes to me and starts complaining about another person, my first response is “Have you spoken to him about this?” Most of the time the answer is no. If anger and anxiety are infectious in the community, the leaders are the immune system. Leaders model conflict resolution, one way or the other. They can convey a sense of well-being in the community. If they do, many will follow suit. The pastor, the staff and the church council/board are the most important people in setting the tone of how we are going to be in community together.
Leaders teach people to talk to one another directly. Quite often, those offended will say, “I’ve not spoken to him/her yet.” Sometimes they say, “I’m afraid.” Other times they’ll say, “I’ve tried.” In those cases a caring response is, “Would you like me to come along with you?” Some people need moral support. The Scriptures say there is much wisdom in many counselors. And Jesus points out, having witnesses means there can be no he-said/she-said. Every word can be confirmed. If most people respond to the one-on-one, many of the rest are going to respond to a caring, conversation with a couple of people.
But not always. There are some situations that need extra care. To these Jesus says, “Take it to the church.” Keep in mind that in Matthew’s day (AD 80) churches were small. They met in homes. Matthew may mean the leaders of the church. Take it to those in a position of authority. This system protects the leaders from having to arbitrate every conflict. Deal with it one-on-one, and if that doesn’t work then in a group of two or three caring people. It only comes to the leaders of the church if those first two steps don’t work. If the conflict reaches the leaders, they will often be able to take care of it.
But not always. The first three steps are going to get most folks. There are, however, some conflicts so deeply entrenched and some people so unwilling to bend that they cannot be resolved. There are some people who simply cannot let go of bitterness. It may even come from a former conflict that has nothing to do with the current situation. If that person won’t listen to the leaders of the church, then he or she is to be treated “as a Gentile or tax collector.” (By the way, this is a clue that Matthew is writing to a Jewish-Christian community, unlike the Gentile-Christian communities with whom Paul worked.)
One way to interpret this is that Jesus is suggesting once all these efforts have been expended, it is okay to ostracize that person completely from the community. This is a form of excommunication. We know that orthodox Jews were not to speak to Gentiles or tax collectors, touch them or even make eye contact.
But there is another interpretation.
How did Jesus treat Gentiles and tax collectors? It just so happens we have quite a few stories of such encounters. As it turns out, Jesus interacted freely with Gentiles, tax collectors and sinners. In fact, it got him into a bit of hot water with the Pharisees and Sadducees. They complain in Luke 15 that he even eats with them. Good heavens! And isn’t it interesting that this gospel is named after a tax collector who was one of Jesus’ disciples?
Could it be that when Jesus says to treat someone as a tax collector or Gentile he means to treat them with compassion? To see them as a target for mission and conversion? I’ll leave it to you to think this through.
Are there times when this process should not be used? Of course. There are exceptions to most rules. If someone is in physical danger from the offender, caution would be advised. If the offender has committed murder or rape, or physical abuse, then one must go to the person who has the direct authority to administer discipline. I wouldn’t ask a bruised and abused wife to go put herself at risk. But appeal to the person who actually has jurisdiction, not to every person around, who may have no authority. Justice become juicy gossip all too often.
This process of conflict management is so important to the life of the Christian community that it is included in the ELCA model constitution for congregations, chapter 15 on discipline of members of the church.
Chapter 15. DISCIPLINE OF MEMBERS AND ADJUDICATION
*C15.01. Denial of the Christian faith as described in this constitution, conduct grossly unbecoming a member of the Church of Christ, or persistent trouble-making in this congregation are sufficient cause for discipline of a member. Prior to disciplinary action, reconciliation will be attempted following Matthew 18:15-17, proceeding through these successive steps: a) private admonition by the pastor, b) admonition by the pastor in the presence of two or three witnesses, and c) citation to appear before the Congregation Council.
I have been asked if I would suggest this method for international global conflict. It is doubtful that Jesus or Matthew, who conveys the story, were suggesting strategies for international diplomacy. They could hardly have pictured modern nation-states. But would these be bad strategies? Are they not in fact what actually often happens? A president calls a president. Advisors and ambassadors are brought in. Sometimes parliaments have to get involved. I’m not suggesting this is the way to operate every time, but if we are to take Jesus’ injunction to love our enemies seriously, it might be worth consideration.
I wouldn’t miss an opportunity to preach on this text in a second. The last time we heard it was in 2014. If the average congregation has at 10% turnover per year in people who move, die or leave, then at least 30% of your congregation may not have heard this important message yet. It might be about time for the congregation to hear these important words again. For they call us to love one another, to take sin seriously, to not let hurts fester and get infected. They call us to be a community of reconciliation and peace.
Where love rules, there is no will to power,
and where power predominates, love is lacking.
The one is the shadow of the other.
– Carl Jung (1875-1961), Swiss psychologist
On the Psychology of the Unconsciousness, 1917.