A sermon preached at St. Mary’s, Iffley by Graham Low on 16th August 2023
As we look at today’s gospel we remember that this passage from Mattew’s gospel was written for a small community living in a hostile setting and taking its own community life very seriously. It has something of the feel of a legal manual about how to deal with someone’s sin, leading eventually, if all else fails, to excommunication. It is cut and dried. It makes us uncomfortable. Yet it describes the kind of approach that may still be used in mediation between people of opposing viewpoints in a Christian community. I once witnessed this approach when I was asked to accompany a priest friend in a dispute between him and some of his congregation in which Mennonites sought to mediate.
But let us look at todays passage in the context of Matthew 18 as a whole, which does not seem to be about harsh judgement or self-righteousness. For example, when the disciples are asked “who is the greatest in the kingdom heaven” a child is put in their midst and Jesus says that those who become like this child shall be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Later the disciples are warned about putting stumbling blocks in the way of others, and to be self-aware, while avoiding disdaining others. Elsewhere, God cares about a lost sheep, a lost person, and, not just physically, rejoicing when one is found or restored.
After today’s reading we are reminded that forgiveness cannot be on a sliding scale or calculated. God does not keep a tally of rights and wrongs, and we are not to do so either. At the end of the chapter we read the parable of the servant who is given release of a debt by a king, but who cannot forgive one of his fellow servants for a small debt. When we withhold forgiveness to a fellow human being we raise questions about whether we have discovered God’s forgiveness.
Images of pardon, mercy and restoration are key here. God forgives freely. Those who are forgiven reveal this by forgiving others. When we are the injured party it is for us to seek out the preson who has injured us and initiate reconciliation. We are not to nurse our grudges, or complain about our wounds. We are to take the first step by risking starting an engagement that we hope will lead to a restored relationship. This is of course far easier to say than to do. This matter is covered later in the same chapter.
A second point to be aware of from this passage is that alienation is to be taken seriously. Breaches between people in a community can be both disturbing and important. Glossing over a situation or not talking about it in the hope that it will disappear is no answer. Forgiveness does not come about by default. It comes in the often very risky encounter between alienated parties.
We may think that the threefold process described in today’s gospel is not always appropriate for today’s world. It does acknowledge that not all parties in a disagreement will accept their part in the broken relationship. As I have said, we are called to take the initiative but may be rebuffed – what then? The issue is not ours alone. When a Christian community is involved in brokenness and reconciliation, it has a part to play. This is not only in the liturgical declaration of forgiveness at every eucharist, but also in the search for reconciliation of aliented parties. In the sermon on the mount Jesus says “when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go: first be reconciled and then come to the altar and offer your gift”.
A third point to draw from today’s gospel is the personal element. The process set out here begins with face-to-face encounter between the involved parties. We are not told what appropriate words, or what kind of action are needed to begin the process of reconciliation. We are simply told that if the person causing the difficulty listens, then restoration may come about. Perhaps it is not surprising that we are not taken beyond the call to listen, because every situation has its own distinctive elements and dynamics. Once the process of listening begins there are no specific rules.
Today’s passage ends by emphasizing the critical importance of reconciliation within in the Christian community, whether between people or groups, or between individual members of the community and people or situations beyond the community. Whatever the situation may we be assured of God’s presence in the middle, and that God will listen. Amen.