Shame on Matthew for such sloppy editing! Shame on Matthew for putting words into the mouth of Jesus! This grievance manual inserted in Matthew 18 is an intrusion! Such guidelines for conflict resolution may be necessary in the workplace but definitely not salutary in the church.
I can hardly believe Jesus could have uttered these words. The text concludes with the excommunication of an impenitent offender urging the church to treat that one as a Gentile and a tax collector. In his ministry Jesus embraced such people and much to the consternation of the Scribes and Pharisees, even ate with them.
Moreover, the placement of this passage is jarring. It separates two of the most graceful and expansive stories in the Gospels. It is preceded by the account of the seeking shepherd who leaves the 99 in the fold and begins his search for one who was lost. It is followed by the story of Peter probing the limit of forgiveness with Jesus ~ Lord, how many times should we forgive? Seven? Help me set the boundaries! No, Peter; 70 x 7 ~ unlimited ~ put your calculator away.
Whereas this text on processing grievances may have had relevance for Matthew's church, I would hardly recommend it today. I have neither preached on this passage nor practiced its admonitions in my ministry. Where I have seen it used, I have seen it abused. One of my friends whose parents were members of a small sect in Pennsylvania was shunned ~ literally disowned ~ excommunicated for becoming too worldly. Matthew 18 was used to throw the book at him. In a polarized society where we are often defined by our differences, in a climate of anger and violence, it is tragic when the Bible is used as a weapon to clobber others.
The church discipline recommended in our text assumes a close knit community of committed people of faith. Few churches can claim that in our age of radical individualism. In a litigious, sue conscious society, we are apt to solve our differences by going to court. The erosion of community is well documented today. We are not joiners. Believers are not belongers. Robert Putnam in his article, "Bowling Alone: America's Declining Social Capital" reports that between 1980 and 1993 the total number of bowlers in America increased by 10 percent, while league bowling decreased by 40 percent. We are busy doing our own thing. Bowling alone is symptomatic of the decline of associational life. The trust level in public institutions has suffered serious erosion. Volunteer organizations are hurting. Talk shows too often trade on private distrust, anger, frustration and do nothing to enhance community. In such a climate do we really believe that we could bring individual members before the congregation for dialogue and possible discipline? Hardly!
Let us not be too hasty, however, to label Matthew 18 as an anachronism applicable only in the early church. We would do well to hear God speaking to us through the text today. Perhaps its placement immediately following the story of the shepherd seeking the lost sheep is a necessary corrective. There is always a temptation to idealize ministry in terms of rescue outside the fold. We leap over the sheep we know so well to focus our mission on the lost in the far countries of this world. Perhaps by searching for the one, we can overlook the homework necessary to deal with the ninetyÂnine presumed to be safe in the fold. Living so extensively could be interpreted as escape today. Mission is on our door step. We need to live intensively. In his letter to the Romans, Paul offers this advice ~ "Do good to all people, and especially those who are of the household of faith." An integrity is demanded at home. Mission is from the inside out. Live intensively! Forgiveness and reconciliation are to be realized in the immediate and concrete: in "this family," "this workplace," "this community of faith."
How easy for us to forget that ministry of reproof, rebuke, admonition and exhortation has been given to the church. Listen to the words of Paul to his young assistant Timothy, "preach the Word, be urgent in season and out of season, convince, rebuke and exhort."
A ministry of exhortation can only be given and received in a community of faith grounded in the love and forgiveness of Jesus Christ. So it is that Paul urges us to speak the truth in love. Love is the anesthetic that makes the surgery possible, the pain bearable, and the truth receivable.
Listen to the words of Ernest Campbell ~ "a rebuke cannot be a way to build ourselves up by putting others down. It should not be delivered in passing. It requires the permanence of a community of faith. A rebuke should never be the first word in any relationship, nor should it be the last word. But it will, on occasion, be the right word."
Exhortation is becoming a lost art. A culture of silence is pervasive. Our cocooning lifestyles preclude the ministry of a community. Someone else's life is not our business. Even David Kaczynski has been criticized for turning in his brother as the Unibomber. He is defying our culture of silence says sociologist Jack Levin. "We learn from an early age that we don't tattle on family members." So our unwillingness to intrude masks our indifference.
I recall a fine teenage girl who destroyed her life doing drugs. I asked her peers if they were aware of her problem. Yes, they knew ~ they even knew the pusher who was her supplier; but they never confronted her or communicated her problem to anyone else. Was she killed by kindness? Surely there is a middle ground between playing God and playing possum.
Listen to this long lost verse in Proverbs 27:15 ~ "Better a frank word of reproof than the love that will not speak."
The love of God in Jesus Christ was willing to confront our sin and not avoid it. The Cross was not the easy way out. By it God has reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation. Matthew 18 reminds us that in the community of the church, reconciliation often begins with confrontation. I care for her so much I won't... No, you care for her so much that you must.
I have preached against the grain in this sermon. By nature I would rather avoid than confront, convince than exhort. As a reconciled and reconciling community of faith, God in Christ, sometimes calls us to higher ground ~ "far better is a frank word of reproof than the love that will not speak."
Let us pray. O God, in a day where many would rather not be involved in the concerns of others, enable us to care enough that when necessary we may be able to confront. Grant that we may speak the truth in love. We give thanks for good friends who know us well enough to reprove us for our own good. As we embrace rather than avoid a ministry of admonition deliver us from the love that will not speak. We pray in the name of Jesus Christ who cared enough to give his life for us. Amen.