Further thoughts: I ended my reflection on Matthew 17 with these words. One does not capriciously withdraw support from a government or culture, but one can undermine those elements of culture which stand in the way of God’s dream for the world by spiritually disengaging from them, and by building alternative relationships that foster God’s dream, God’s purposes. Some further explanation may be in order. In light of the power of the Roman empire, the early Christians “spiritually disengaged” from the government and from certain elements of the culture. The empire ruled with an iron hand and possibilities for changing it were minimal. The culture valued power, prestige, position, wealth and saw the ordinary people as virtual “nobodies.” The church was open to all people, but it shared good news that was especially meaningful for those who were consistently told they really didn’t matter. With a democratic form of government one can argue that the more appropriate Christian response when we see things we believe don’t fit well with God’s dream for the world is to work for change. My doctoral dissertation was on Christian perspectives on political democracy. Even in a democracy, there may be elements of the political culture from which we want to disengage. Our tendency to look at politics as if it were a sporting event, where we focus on elections alone and who is winning and losing and why is something we would do well to resist. I don’t mean resist participating in elections, I mean resist seeing politics as primarily about elections. Politics should primarily be about the decisions we make on how we will live together, how we will provide for the common good, and not as much about who we elect. We would do well to spiritually disengage from seeing politics as a horse race. We would also do well to spiritually disengage from those elements of our culture which seek to define human persons merely as consumers and that define success only in terms of being beautiful or rich or famous. I know – that’s a lot to think about for a story about a fish with a coin in its mouth.
Matthew 18:1-5: In so many ways, the message and ministry of Jesus were countercultural (and that remains true). But cultural influence is difficult to shake, as we will see a few times in the coming chapters. Jesus has told the disciples that following his way will mean giving up some definitions of self. It will mean risking being identified with the despised and left out (the cross was a symbol that identified those most despised by the empire – taking up one’s cross is not simply about carrying small burdens, it is more about bringing good news to those who don’t often hear). Still, they ask about greatness. Well, Jesus isn’t against “greatness,” he wants to redefine it. Child-like humility will define greatness. Welcoming children will be welcoming Jesus. This is a rich image and my sermon on Sunday will explore it more. For now I offer these words (read Tuesday morning at the men’s group meeting) from author Kent Nerburn. They are his reflection on what it means to be a child. You are promise. You are possibility. You are hope when our hope has dimmed. You are joy when our hearts are heavy. In you we see the world as we dream it could be. Remain excited at the discovery of a leaf; it tells us there is still beauty in the small, when our eyes have gotten too focused on the great. Play with each other on playgrounds; it shows us that all people of all backgrounds can meet each other with open hearts. Keep talking to the dogs and the cats and the pigeons and the ducks; it reminds us that the spirit is present in all living things. Keep laughing and giggling when you are surprised and delighted; it offers our ears the music of grace…. You remind us what it means to be alive. (The Hidden Beauty of Everyday Life). You know, these might find their way into Sunday’s sermon.
Matthew 18:6-9: Matthew has constructed the whole of chapter 18 as an extended discourse on what it means to live as followers of Jesus in community. It is to seek genuine greatness in child-like humility. In these verses, Jesus cautions against putting stumbling blocks in the way of others, especially the most vulnerable. So important is this issue that the saying is filled with hyperbole – millstones and amputation. “Stumbling blocks” are left undefined. Part of what is being asked for is concern for how one’s behavior affects others. One can have a negative impact on others in many different ways – it may be best to leave the category of “stumbling block” left open. But let me share a story. Not long ago I met with a woman who had been confirmed in a United Methodist Church. She told me that she had a lot of questions then, and still had a number of questions about the church and Christian faith. Somewhere along the way she was given the distinct feeling from church people that her questions were not welcome in church, so she left. I give her a lot of credit for coming back again to see if her questions would be welcome. Seems to me that’s a stumbling block the church has too often put in the way of people who are seeking a deeper faith, but can’t get there without asking significant questions. The church should welcome questions.
Matthew 18:10-14: This is yet another saying about caring for the least among the community. Furthermore, when a member of the community of Jesus happens to stray away, every effort should be made to help them find their way back into the community. Our communities are full of people who for one reason or another found church to be hurtful or irrelevant or who simply just slipped away. How can we reach out to such folks?
Matthew 18:15-20: The community of Jesus will have occasions when persons hurt one another. Reconciliation and forgiveness are always the goal. When a matter is serious it may require a process to resolve and here a process is provided. This reflects the situation in Matthew’s day much more than anything Jesus would have dealt with in his own time. The process outlined here seems to presuppose that one person is primarily at fault in a fractured relationship and that their behavior continues to threaten the peace and well-being of the community. This is not, then, a generic model for resolving all conflict. Most interpersonal conflicts are such that each party contributes something to it. There is an irony in the words about treating persons who refuse to change their disruptive ways. They are to be considered as “Gentiles and tax collectors.” The irony is that Jesus often sought out these very persons, to bring them hope and healing. Jesus promises to be with the community, especially as it seeks to be a community of reconciliation and forgiveness.
Matthew 18:21-22: I am amazed at how central forgiveness is to the teaching of Jesus, and not just forgiveness by God, but human forgiveness. Forgiveness finally goes beyond calculation. Forgiveness is not an easy matter, however. Forgiveness does not necessarily entail reconciliation. You may forgive someone who has hurt you badly without putting them back in a position to hurt you again. Forgiveness does not mean becoming a door mat for another person. Forgiveness does not entail forgetting, and it is consistent with justice and accountability. One can be forgiven and still asked to pay the consequences for one’s action. Forgiveness is focused on what happens inside the person trying to forgive. It means letting go of some of the pain and hurt and anger and bitterness that accompanied being wronged. It means not letting that hurt define you at your deepest. Jack Kornfield has written that forgiveness is giving up all hope of a better past (The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness and Peace). I have come to believe that forgiveness is vital soul work and requires attention and thought. I have a deep appreciation for work being done on forgiveness by Lewis Smedes (Forgive and Forget) and Kent Nerburn (Calm Surrender) among others. Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s work with the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions in South Africa are a powerful reminder that forgiveness is not just a soft, touch-feely concept, but is relevant to difficult political situations (see Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness).
Matthew 18:23-35: Often when Jesus wants to emphasize a point he tells a story. Here is a story about forgiveness and its importance. One should not read too much into the behavior of the king who ends up throwing his slave into prison in the end. It is not primarily meant to say “this is what God will do to you” – though Matthew leans in that direction with his editing. It is a story meant to emphasize the importance of forgiveness, of accepting it and of giving it. I think it is unhelpful to look at forgiveness as a command. It is better to look at it as a goal toward which we work. When we don’t get there, we suffer – our hearts are harder than they should be, we are less free to love and care than we would like to be.