A weekly look at the narrative lectionary reading from a prophetic perspective.
It bothers me no end that some folks are going to take a look at Proper 18A’s Gospel reading, nicker to themselves and preach a sermon on church discipline full of emphasis on church authority and covenental relationships and probably as a bonus, gender hierarchy. Because hey, why not? This is Jesus speaking, and Jesus is saying folks should be “subject to” those “above” them; moreover, the church is necessarily more powerful because “where two or three are gathered…”
Shall we tread the same path as these folks? Is Jesus really padding the case for the church-centric theology so popular nowadays?
On a superficial level I suppose we can interpret this snatch of Gospel as Jesus prophetically injecting the future church with credibility and moral authority overs it members. Could he have foreseen the challenges of the church at the time Matthew’s Gospel was composed, several decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection? Yessir. So a straight reading wouldn’t be far off the beaten path.
But then this is Jesus we’re dealing with. Jesus, who so often said things to catch his disciples out in their assumptions, and who used irony as a way to weed wheat from chaff. This Jesus told his disciples that those resisting church discipline should be treated as “pagan[s] and tax collector[s]” (v17). The superficial reading cries: “Cast them out!” But when you’ve gotten accustomed to the tenor of Jesus’ ways in the New Testament, you’ll remember how Jesus treated pagans and tax collectors. You’ll remember the Roman soldier’s servant he healed, the prominent (and short-statured) publican he dined with, the Canaanite woman’s daughter he exorcised, the Samaritan woman at the well. You’ll remember that Jesus’ harshest criticism wasn’t reserved for the cast out, but for the let in: the ones “let in” who were so keen to police the gates.
If that isn’t enough to ween you off the superficial reading, the easy one that affirms traditional nexuses of power within the church and society, then run an eye over the stories before and after these few verses, specifically the parable that follows: that of the unmerciful servant. Far from commanding his followers to cast out those they deemed unfit to belong, Jesus, I think, foresaw the temptation of power churches so often fail to resist; the temptation of “group think” and spiritual abuse, of tradition and fear of change. It’s us he’s speaking to in these verses, the ones who would use a superficial reading of his words to bully. And he’s telling us to love the broken, love the broken, love the broken.
All that said, this “Jesus perspective” won’t be as easy to preach about as a more superficial reading. The leadership won’t like that their authority is being threatened, and you betcha there will be folks in the pews thinking that this excuses them from accountability for their harmful actions. The uncomfortable truth is that both leadership and errant congregant may be right. In his letters, John the Elder wrote, “Love covers a multitude of sins.” The Church tends to err on the side of power when it comes to love; we call it authority. But – oh dear – what if we err on the side of servanthood when it comes to love, and call it grace? Our churches will be messier, for sure, but might they not be more alive to the Spirit?
That Jesus post scripted his rumination on confronting sinful church members with verses 19-20 (“For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them”) is instructive. In treating each other the way he treated pagans and tax collectors, we leave much more room for His Spirit to work in them and ourselves than when we treat them the way we want to.