Matthew 18:15-20 Despite being children of God, and no matter our age, vocation or situation, we all at some time, have, do, and will either be hurt by someone, or hurt someone ourselves. The youth’s wonderful dramatic sermon gives us a glimpse into the drama of broken relationships for them in their time of life, but we are all familiar with these situations. A comedian featured on a TV show just a couple years ago once touted, “Do you know what reality TV and everyday life have in common? Drama. Turn on your TV and watch “America’s Got Talent,” “The Apprentice,” “Jersey Shore” or “Housewives of (Fill in the blank)” and you will see first-hand the intrigue, emotion, joy, and heartbreak of life. Church life can be a little like that too.
We are human and as broken, fragile creatures, we, like our reality TV favorites, succumb to the sin of strife and unhealthy conflict. Many of us have experienced the community life of church in many different places. I am sure you or someone you know has been on the receiving end of a conversation like this, “Hey, I have to tell you what so and so is saying about you.” Maybe it was something like, “Can you believe that he would do something like that to me,” or “have you heard the latest rumor about so and so?” Conflict, strife, and dissension do happen, but the problem is that it devolves into an unhealthy desire to participate in human drama and it usually undermines our Lord’s command to “love our neighbor.” When that happens, people get hurt and we risk losing our grace-filled witness in the world. Drama is nothing new. Disagreements, squabbles and rumors happened even in the church to which Matthew is addressing with his Gospel. In today’s reading Jesus gives us some solid advice about how to deal with the conflict and strife of relational brokenness.
Our holy mission in the world is to proclaim to the world our loving bond with God, and through our shared baptismal identity in Christ, we proclaim our mutual love, peace and support with and for each other. Is this easy? Not really because when humans gather, you can surely expect drama, conflict and strife. The Body of Christ is different though, because we are all about inviting and restoring folks back to the flock; we are to be about the business of reconciliation. There was a young man who took his inheritance and left his family behind. He squandered it all and found himself broken, alone, and living in a feed trough with pigs. He decided to come home though, hoping for a job as a hired hand, but upon his arrival he was surely surprised. His expectation of a trial and judgment for his failures, was not to be found on that day. His father received the young man, not with condemnation, but with open arms and a party in his honor. This reception is reconciliation at its best. This reception is what Jesus means when he commands us to find the lost sheep and bring them home.
Forgiving, making amends, and restoring is complex, but Jesus gives us some sound and simple advice on how to go about it. First, he recommends when we hurt one another that we take the initiative to talk about it one on one. This suggestion is grace-filled because it avoids the unhealthy human drama associated with spreading rumors, backbiting, and the behind-the-back sin of tearing each other down. Now, if that tactic does not work, Jesus suggests we go return to the person who caused the hurt, but this time bring a friend along. Partnering with another brother or is sister is unlike unhealthy triangulation, by which we might go to a third person and say, “do you know what so and so did to me?” No, this option is about bringing a sister or brother along who lovingly works with both parties to try to heal the broken relationship. It is kind of like spiritual arbitration, but without the attorney’s fees.
Now, if that does not work, Jesus offers another option, which is to bring this before the church. In other words, Jesus suggests that we bring someone in authority in to the conversation. Notice that is not the first thing Our Lord recommends when we have disagreements, but only after we have tried to work it through together should we consider going that far.
Then, when all else fails and we have exhausted all other options, we are admonished to “treat the offender like Gentiles and Tax Collectors.” Some folks hear this and might say, “Oh I like that one.” They might be able to get to the drama. “I did my best, I tried everything, and I just couldn’t get them to see the light, so I’m writing them off my list.” Hang on there. Listen closely to what Our Lord is saying. How was it Jesus treated Gentiles and Tax Collectors? Let’s see, He showed favor to a Centurion soldier, he healed a Gentile woman whose daughter was possessed, and he healed a Gentile demonic in Gennesaret. That doesn’t sound like “writing someone off” to me.
What about those old crooked tax collectors? Let’s see Matthew was at his tax booth and Jesus invited himself to go to his Matthew’s house for dinner. What a scandal! That doesn’t sound like he “wrote Matthew off.” By the way, today’s Gospel is according to him. This little phrase, “treat them like Gentiles and tax collectors sounds more like a little twist on words. Jesus was not advocating for mistreatment, he was promoting an attitude of “don’t give up on them.” Treating those hardheaded folks like Gentiles and tax Collectors (those who refuse to reconcile), is not a permission slip to write someone off, nor is it a mandate to remain in an abusive situation either. Some broken relationships may never be reconciled, at least not in our lifetime. We have to remember, that more harm might be done by remaining in a broken relationship than lovingly distancing oneself from it. Treating others like tax collectors and Gentiles, especially when the relationship is grounded in maltreatment and exploitation, may mean that we are being asked to continue to work on our own struggle to forgive, and then prayerfully and reverently turn the whole situation over to God. I am convinced that God does not want us to remain in the muck and mire of the pig trough of an abusive relationship, but we can pray for the other person and hope that reconciliation may someday be possible; maybe not in our time, but in God’s time.
The point is, when it comes to those folks who we would just as soon write off, we just cannot do that. Jesus never gave up hope of the possibility of reconciliation with the people of Israel and the Gentiles (those on the outskirts of the community), nor should we. To restore our sisters and brothers, who have fallen away, requires God’s grace and it requires our obedience to “love our neighbor as ourselves.” This reconciliation work is thorny and complex. It is not a ministry of sentimentalism. It is difficult work, but its work we must do, and it is work that requires honesty, humility, courage, and gentleness.
Honesty is vital to reconciliation because it requires open dialogue when we hurt one another. We must be willing to take a risk and be authentic and vulnerable in order to participate in God’s desire to restore relationships when broken. Humility is crucial because it requires putting away our desire for power over one another, in order to participate in God’s desire to restore relationships when broken. Courage is basic because it may require us to go to someone who has hurt us and reveal our painful emotions or in the case of unhealthy relationships, let go and let God, in order to participate in God’s desire to restore relationships when broken. Gentleness is fundamental because it may require us to put on Christ’s meekness and even in the face of persecution, love those who may not love us.
The ministry of reconciliation is important to God, because it is essential for our common life together. If we are to remain a lighthouse of love and restoration in the world, if we are to fulfill this mission of grace given to us by God, we must love and restore each other when we fail. We must recognize that we all are broken and we all will fail each other at some time. All of us. No one, better yet, only one was perfect and that was Our Lord Jesus Christ. The drama of common life is messy, it is complex, but it is also joyful, it is enriching, it is Spirit-filled, and it is the life to which have been given to live together as one family. In the coming days, our prayer should be that God bestows the opportunity upon us, to be strengthened by the Spirit, so that we can with open our arms of love, say to a lost sheep of the flock, “welcome home dear sister; welcome home dear brother.”