A sermon preached by Graham Low on 10th August 2022
The passage we have just heard is one of the most difficult to interpret in the whole of Matthew’s gospel. Some aspects just do not seem to ring true. It reads like the regulations of an organised ecclesiastical committee rather than the words of Jesus. There was no organised Christian church in Jesus’ time, but when the gospel was written some 50 years later active and organised churches were forming. This passage seems to imply that tax-collectors and Gentiles are outsiders, yet elsewhere Mathew tells us that Jesus speaks of such people as friends, with sympathy and even love. He says that they may go to heaven before orthodox religious people. And another apparently strange implication is that there are limits to forgiveness, which is the very opposite of Jesus’ teaching elsewhere. The final verse about binding and loosing suggests that the church has power to retain or forgive sins. So it would appear that this is a passage, adapted from something Jesus said, and used when church discipline was more about rules and regulations than charity and forgiveness.
In a broad sense Jesus taught that if a person sins against another no effort should be spared to get the sinner to admit his or her fault, and for reconciliation to follow. Wrongdoing should not be tolerated. This passage gives us several practical prompts about reconciliation.
Firstly, if we feel that we have been wronged, we should put it into words, rather than brooding upon it. To brood can poison the mind. Often facing up to what has happened can put it into perspective, and may even show how unimportant the issue is.
Secondly, we should go to see the offender personally. The writing of letters or emails, or nowadays messages on social media, can so often can distort a situation and make matters far worse. There is no substitute for the directly spoken word.
Thirdly, if a face-to-face conversation fails then the presence of a wise witness is merited. In this way the situation can be more widely explored and both parties may see and understand themselves in a new light: the accuser may even see that he or she is the guilty person. The rabbis used to say “judge not alone, for none may judge alone, save God”.
Fourthly, if that fails then troubles can be taken to a wider group within a Christian fellowship. Legalism alone can fail to settle issues, and may even cause more trouble. A Christian fellowship is one in which the issues are discussed and even judged in an atmosphere of patience and love rather than in terms of rules or procedures. About twenty years ago I was a witness to a priest I knew who was accused by a parishioner of being inflexible in his biblical understanding of matters of sexual ethics. Eventually the issues were resolved beyond the parish through the prayerful and patient work of a number of highly skilled Mennonites specialising in reconciliation, in the light of love.
Now we come to the most difficult part of this passage. If all attempts at reconciliation fail then the person is to be regarded as a Gentile and as a tax collector. We may have the impression here that the person is beyond redemption. But we can be sure that this is not what Jesus is saying. He never sets limits on human forgiveness. So what is meant here? We have seen that when Jesus speaks of tax collectors and other sinners, he does so with sympathy and gentleness and an appreciation of their good qualities. I suggest that what Jesus is saying is: when you have strived and failed to achieve reconciliation, and yet the person remains stubborn you may think he is like a renegade tax-collector or a godless Gentile. But Jesus does not find such people hopeless. They have hearts to be touched. And there are many of them: remember Zacchaeus and Matthew who have become close friends. Stubborn people can always be reached in the end, with love that reaches the heart. Nobody is hopeless and neither are we.
Finally, we heard statements about the loosing and binding of sins. These are matters beyond the sole authority of the church. It has no power in itself to determine someone’s destiny. Perhaps what is meant here is that our relationships with each other are lasting and we must do everything possible to get them right. And sometimes this may not happen until immediately before death, as priests quite often witness in the course of pastoral ministry.
Finally, I think that we need to see this passage in the light of the verses on forgiveness which follow and which can be seen as an antidote to the apparent rigidity and absolutism of today’s passage. To Peter’s question whether he should forgive seven times Jesus says forgive seventy seven times. This marks the attitude required in correcting another: this is so easy to say but so hard to do. Forgiveness, like love, must be limitless. Without such forgiveness a community cannot correct the wayward, pray with unity, and have Christ at its heart. And that goes for us as individuals too.