Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 10, 2017
Matthew 18:15-20 Commentary
In some segments of the Christian church, “Matthew 18” has become rather like “Miranda Rights.” As anyone who has ever watched police dramas on TV know, when arresting a suspect for any reason, the arresting officer is supposed to “read him his rights,” which is a set series of statements that most of us have heard so often on TV and the like that we can quote at least parts of it by memory. “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can or will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford one . . .” and so on. It’s part of the legal system now in the United States. It’s standard. It’s rote. It’s cut-and-dried.
The verb “to mirandize” is now even listed in the Merriam Webster Dictionary! “Did you mirandize him?” someone might ask a cop who has just brought in a robbery suspect. Failure to do so can lead to a miscarriage of justice as suspects might have to be released—or a judge will throw a case out—on account of this.
In some places, Matthew 18 has become something like this. When dealing with a seemingly recalcitrant sinner in the church, a lot of people’s first line of response is something like, “Well, did you ‘Matthew 18-ize’ him? Did you give him the treatment, follow the rules, read him his rights as Jesus laid them out?” If the answer is “No,” the person with a grievance against another person is sent back to do due diligence. If the answer is yes, then the church proceeds forward with some manner of formal discipline, distancing itself from the woeful sinner. It’s rote. It’s cut-and-dried.
But you have the overwhelming feeling from Matthew that Jesus never quite intended his words here to be turned into a template, a method, a routine set of steps to be followed woodenly and legalistically so as to arrive at a certain outcome. Yes, Jesus is giving advice for dealing with troubling situations and persons within the midst of his people but it just seems so unlike Jesus to reduce the complexities of life to some simple set of 1-2-3 steps that would have all the nuance of a recipe for baking bread.
So many people in history have turned Matthew 18 into such a simple set of steps as to give the impression that by following this method, you will know when you may be finished with the need to forgive or pray for a certain person. But little if anything in the surrounding verses here lend any credence to the notion that the goal here is to arrive at an end-point when it comes to mercy, grace, and forgiveness. Jesus has just told a parable about a lost sheep that demonstrated—among other things—that God at least knows no bounds when it comes to seeking out those who stray, who wander, who find themselves in need of his mercy and care.
Immediately following Matthew 18:15-20 comes another strong parable about the need to forgive and not be unmerciful. We are, Jesus says, every one of us people whose debt has been forgiven again and again to astonishing degrees. Only a self-deceptive fool would ever conclude that the amount he has had forgiven in his life amounts to a relative pittance. No, we are each one of us the servant who had a billion-dollar debt canceled free and clear. The harshest words Jesus speaks anywhere in Matthew 18 come not in these Year A Lectionary verses but at the end of the final parable regarding what could happen to those who have been forgiven much but who then turn right around and refuse to forgive someone else even a little.
Whatever else you make of Matthew 18, please don’t preach it in a way as to make people conclude that by following Jesus’ words here and reading a brother or sister his or her Miranda Rights from Matthew 18 that you will then know when it is OK to dam up the stream of mercy toward someone.
Because that is absolutely not Jesus’ point!
“Ahhh,” someone may object, “that is all well and good but doesn’t even Jesus conclude this with the call to treat the unrepentant person “as a pagan or a tax collector? Looks to me like that is, in fact, the end of the story.”
But really? After all, it was Jesus who said those words, and that must change everything in terms of how we view this.
If most anyone I know said something like this to me, I think I’d know intuitively how to understand this. If the average person tells you to treat so-and-so like “a lowlife and a bum,” you’d know that this means to ignore the person, brush him aside, have as little to do with him as possible.
And in Jesus’ day if the Pharisees or most anyone else in the religious establishment of the day told you to treat someone like a pagan or a tax collector, you’d know what that meant, too, because all you had to do was observe how the Pharisees treated people who fit into either one of those categories. Pagans and tax collectors were bums, lowlifes, undesirables. They had no place among God’s chosen people, no seat at God’s holy table. They could not eat with you, and you would never be caught dead eating with them because that kind of tight association with sinners was precisely what a religious person in good moral standing would not and could not do.
Yes, we’d know how to understand this if the Pharisees said it. But what about when Jesus says it? Did Jesus ever meet a pagan he didn’t seem to like? Did Jesus spurn and shun tax collectors and other “sinners” who fit into these broad categories of people? Of course not! He got into trouble with the religious establishment of his day precisely because of his routine willingness to flout moralistic convention and associate with these folks. If Matthew had anything to do with the gospel that bears his name today, he surely knew himself how good and wonderful it was that Jesus did not avoid and disdain tax collectors. Where would Matthew be if that had been how Jesus operated?
Precisely because all of that is true, it seems at best unlikely—and at worst all but impossible—that Jesus would have used the terms “pagans and tax collectors” in their most robust, pejorative sense. By way of analogy: A person whose life was devoted to racial reconciliation and to fostering peace among persons of different skin colors could never invoke racial epithets in a way as to validate their negative, pejorative use. It would undermine his whole life and all of his integrity. If you spend your life devoting yourself to fostering understanding of Muslims over against stereotypes, then how could you ever say to someone, “So far as I am concerned, you can treat old so-and-so over there like a turban-wearing, wild-eyed terrorist fanatic!”
No, that would never do. And it would not have been anything Jesus would have done, either. Instead I would suggest that Jesus was being gently ironic here, telling his disciples that even when you’ve done all you can to come to an understanding with a person whose behavior is genuinely difficult—and even if you had to keep some distance from such a person for various reasons—you are even so never finished with reaching out to that person in grace and love. Even as Jesus started his ministry reaching out to those deemed pagans and tax collectors in his day, so we continue being loving toward and hopeful about (and much in prayer about) even those people who don’t want to listen to us or to the church.
When you combine this insight about Jesus with the surrounding material in Matthew 18 (especially the Parable of the Unmerciful Servant that comes next in this chapter), you realize that what Jesus is actually saying is that even when things to about as wrong as they can go within the Christian community, the need to proffer love and grace never ends.
You never just “read ‘em their rights” and be done with it.
In The Lectionary Commentary (Eerdmans 2001) section on this passage, Marguerite Shuster points out that verses 15-20 really are a unity and we should not lop off verses 18-20 from the more famous verses 15-19 where the “method” of ecclesiastical confrontation is laid out by Jesus. A key unifier of this passage in the original Greek is the repeated presence of the word EAN or “If’ as the set-up of many sentences. EAN is used repeatedly in verses 15, 15b, 16, 17, 17b, and again in verse 19. Throughout these verses Jesus is helping the disciples—and now all of us—imagine their way in to likely scenarios that would take place—and that would repeat themselves, alas—in the life of the church throughout all future times. And although the words on loosing and binding are difficult to understand precisely, what they make clear is that the power of forgiveness is not only a main task of the church community, it is also one of the church’s singularly most powerful expressions of divine grace. Grace has the power to change the world. In Christ, it already has. And it is just this power that the church wields. We handle it with care but also hold it with no small amount of awe at what the Lord of the Church has given to us.
Some years back the Templeton Foundation funded a major nationwide study on people’s attitudes toward forgiveness. Co-sponsored by the University of Michigan and the National Institute for Mental Health, the study found that 75% of Americans are “very confident” that they have been forgiven by God for their past offenses. The lead researcher, Dr. Loren Toussaint, expressed great surprise at such high confidence, especially since many of these same people are not regular church attenders. Still, three-quarters of the people surveyed had few doubts about God’s penchant to let bygones be bygones.
The picture was less bright, however, when it came to interpersonal relations. Only about half of the people surveyed claimed that they were certain that they had forgiven others. Most people admitted that whereas God may be a galaxy-class forgiver, ordinary folks struggle. It’s difficult to forgive other people with whom you are angry. It’s even difficult to forgive yourself sometimes. But where forgiveness does take place, the study found a link between forgiveness and better health. The more prone a person is to grant forgiveness, the less likely he or she will suffer from any stress-related illnesses.
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