EZEKIEL 33:7-9 | ROMANS 13:8-10 | MATTHEW 18:15-20
I love this passage because everything about it is wrong…and that’s important. The topic of Jesus’ discourse is forgiveness. Next Sunday we’ll be listening to Jesus’ parable about an unforgiving servant. Let’s cheat and take a quick look at that parable before we look at today’s passage.
A servant was forgiven a huge debt by the king to whom he was indebted. When the king learned that this same servant pounced on a fellow servant who owed him a pittance and had the man arrested, the king called him back and revoked his forgiveness. “Then, in anger, his master handed him over to the torturers until he should pay back the whole debt.” Jesus concluded the parable with a lesson. “So will my heavenly Father do to you unless each of you forgives your brother from your heart.” Let’s also link up this parable with Jesus’ answer to Simon Peter who had asked how many times he should forgive a brother, “Seventy times seven times!” Keep these thoughts in mind as we look at today’s passage.
Reading it, I feel like I’m in a class studying the legal procedures for excommunication. Step one: confront the person who has offended you. If you can’t reconcile move to step two: bring in two or three witnesses who are familiar with your case. If this doesn’t result in reconciliation move to step three: bring the case to the assembly of the Church. If this doesn’t work, take the ultimate step: excommunicate the brother, “and treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.”
Now, what makes this passage even more challenging to interpret is that this is what the Jewish community did in Jesus’ day, and what our community, the Church, continues to do today. Procedures like these were exactly what Jesus fought against. Over and over again, Jesus taught the need for radical forgiveness forgiveness from the heart. As far as treating someone
who has offended me as a Gentile or a tax collector, nothing could be farther from what Jesus taught. He asked to eat with Zacchaeus, the tax collector, an act that meant he was in communion with him. He called Matthew, the tax collector, to be an apostle!
Jesus cured the son of the Roman centurion and commented that he had not seen such faith in Israel. He liberated the Canaanite woman’s daughter from demonic possession. Dramatically, he fed 4000 people, mostly Gentiles, in the area of the Decapolis. Jesus flagrantly broke the religious and cultural prejudice regarding tax collectors and Gentiles.
Jesus had no tolerance for the intolerant. But we see from this passage, written around 70 CE, that the old ways still held on in the early Christian community and even crept into the written Gospel.
I said that I loved this passage because everything in it is wrong. It’s wrong because it doesn’t reflect the Jesus we see in the rest of the New Testament. It’s wrong because it advances a juridical process to exclude people from the community of believers. This “insertion” into the Gospel of Matthew stands as a warning to us. The Gospel Jesus teaches is a gospel of inclusion. It’s challenging. It’s messy. It isn’t black and white. It brings together sinners and misfits, king and queens, saints and ordinary people all in various degrees of conversion. You and I, the Church, must recognize that, as followers of Jesus, we face a complex and continual challenge every day, inclusion.
None of us is a finished product. God has gathered us, unfinished products, to witness to a broken, unreconciled world that each of us is a beloved child of God, loved equally, loved with our imperfections. Our baptism has anointed us to preach the gospel of inclusion, and to struggle, day by day, with all that it implies.