Sermon preached at St Mary’s Iffley
by Graham Low on 10 September
Reading this gospel passage reminds me of various situations in parish ministry when someone in the community had upset another by some word or deed. It would then become clear that the door was not left open for discussion, or forgiveness or reconciliation to occur. How we were to move forward in such situations was often hard to see.
Today’s passage from Matthew offers a possible way forward in such situations. But it is very important to read it within the wider context of the verses in this chapter of his gospel as a whole, otherwise we may easily risk turning grace into law, without intending to. Immediately before today’s passage Jesus tells the story of the shepherd who risks the livelihood of 99 sheep by looking for the one which is lost. We can imagine that some of those who heard him tell this story might have laughed at the apparent folly of it. How irresponsible of the shepherd! But for Jesus this parable is a model of the loving behaviour of God, by avoiding the loss of even one little one. Let us remember that the little ones mentioned here are not only sheep, but they are the little ones, the children, at the beginning of the chapter. They are the models of the greatest in the kingdom of God. In Jesus’ time children seemed to count for rather little, but he turned the tables in thinking about them, to the ire of his enemies.
And with this as the background, Jesus tells his disciples about how to cope when one person sins against another. Interestingly, Matthew chooses to turn to the language and situation of the church of his time. He reads the situation back into the teaching he inherited through the tradition. And this is what we do as we look at today’s situations in the light of scripture.
Each of today’s readings is concerned in some way with how God’s people are to live together in a very imperfect world. Ezekiel, who finds himself in exile, realises that he, like all who are called to care responsibly for other people, must offer them every possible opportunity to look again at themselves and their behaviour, and to re-shape their lives accordingly. Put another way, this is about allowing God to do what God deeply desires, to give people life. In this mornings’ reading from his letter to the persecuted people of Rome Paul is anticipating that the day of judgement is near. He sets out how the people should behave: he sums this up by saying love your neighbour as yourself, for love is the fulfilling of the law.
Now, let us turn to Matthew’s text where we are given a process for dealing with those who do wrong. Firstly it is important that if possible the offender should be reconciled to the complainant as quickly as possible, with the minimum of fuss, and in private. There is certainly no allowance for publicising the discord on Twitter as we see nowadays with a very well-known world leader. We might note here that when disputes are written about in the book of in Deuteronomy, there is a call for not one but two witnesses. Jesus by contrast says that if possible two people should seek to be reconciled without a witness. Failing that, two or three witnesses should be present. But they are not to back up the offended person. Nor are they to reinforce the complaint. They are to be listeners and to be independent. Failing that the whole church is to be involved. And then, if the person still refuses to listen, there is the startling comment “let this person be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector”. Jesus has already made it clear that such people are included in his love for all.
It is helpful to look at two verses following today’s text. Here Jesus is speaking to Peter about the extent of God’s forgiveness: it is essentially limitless, and without any boundaries. If we read these verses alongside the instructions of Paul to the Romans we see that our behaviour to others is to be exclusively based on love of our neighbours as ourselves. But this familiar injunction, which trips off our tongues, can also trip us up. This was put rather beautifully in a recent one-sentence homily, which said: “the trouble is that some of us love our neighbours as ourselves, and that’s why we’re so bad at it”. Paul says that the real expression of that love is to be expressed in action, by putting on the armour of light, being honourable in action, putting aside the works of darkness, and awaiting the day of the Lord. In today’s language, one could say that it is a call to be transparent.
There is a further point to reflect upon here. The instructions about how to resolve a dispute are presented from the point of view of the offended person rather than the offender. If your fellow Christians come to complain about you as the offender, how do you react? Maybe you genuinely cannot see their point of view. Maybe they do not know the whole situation. If you go and find try to find support for your view, you may find that these people do not support you. Do you compromise, or surrender even if you think you are right? Of course there are no simple answers to such questions. If we are the complainant we should always be open to looking at the situation anew, and accepting the possibility that we are in the wrong.
In all of these situations there may very well be a call patiently to offer the ministry of reconciliation. It is the most demanding of all ministries, and yet it is also the most important. Sadly, it is little used in parishes today and I think there is strong case for its renewal.
The collect for last Sunday and for the last week is particularly helpful as we reflect on today’s readings, for it speaks about the excesses of God’s love: more ready to hear than we to pray; giving more than we desire or deserve; pouring down an abundance of mercy; giving good things we are not worthy to ask for. And then we find the phrase about God forgiving us those things of which our conscience is afraid, and giving us those good things which we are not worthy to ask. It seems that Jesus may well have had in mind those, including ourselves, whose consciences are afraid, not daring to ask for forgiveness or mercy because they and we are afraid it will not be given, or feel unworthy of it, or cannot see how to receive it. If we find it hard to forgive someone, or to love someone we find very difficult, God’s astonishing grace is there, as the Collect reminds us. We shall always have another opportunity to reflect that unlimited grace if we allow God to help us show and receive it.