15 “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. 16 But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’[c] 17 If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.
19 “Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”
8 Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,”[a] and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbour as yourself.”[b] 10 Love does no harm to a neighbour. Therefore, love is the fulfillment of the law.
Our theme for today is Forgiveness, Love and Reconciliation. The lectionary readings from Matthew 18 and Romans 13 are challenging. The Matthew reading speaks of conflict, hurt and discipline while the reading from Romans implores us to love; to love our neighbour. “Love does no harm to a neighbour. Therefore, love is the fulfillment of the law.” Somehow these seemingly diverse concepts are bought together beautifully by this verse that is our call to worship today. “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”
Today is Father’s Day. The day we remember and give thanks to God for fathers, grandfathers, uncles and those men who have been important mentors in our life.
I’d like to wish fathers and grandfathers a happy Fathers’ Day. For many of us our fathers are not here with us, but memories live on and today is an opportunity to stop and reflect and appreciate the family structure God has ordained for life.
It’s significant on this Fathers’ Day that is family orientated that the Bible readings point us to love. We are challenged to express God’s love as we deal with hurts, conflicts, and differences that occur within our biological families and our church families.
This is not a reading I would choose to preach on; however, I have a belief that following the lectionary readings places a certain discipline on what we need to consider. Some churches and families have used this passage from Matthew 18 as the basis for their discipline policy. You know, three strikes and you are out, excommunicated and or shunned. Is this really the way Jesus intended this text to be read?
The two texts seemingly contradict one another, until we take a closer look.
The commandments are summarised with LOVE. Love is the fulfilment of the law. According to Jewish rabbinic tradition, there are 613 commandments in the Torah. Jesus, Paul, James and John all say that when we love our neighbour, we fulfill the law.
Love is the criteria for dealing with conflict, hurt and sin. Romans says, “Love does no harm to a neighbor.” Matthew says that if a brother or sister sins, go and point out the fault. If that doesn’t work, take two to three witnesses, and if that doesn’t work, treat the person like a pagan or a tax collector. Both treatments appear to be at the opposite ends of the continuum UNTIL this verse, “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” When God is in the midst of the situation there can be love, forgiveness and reconciliation. This becomes the force that joins the continuum into a full circle, making God’s way possible.
So, there are two possible approaches presented in our reading for today. The legalist approach: someone offends you, confront them. If that doesn’t work, try an intervention, gather a whole group (that’s not in the least bit threatening is it?)! If that fails, cut them off. If nothing else, it’s at least straight forward, which is perhaps why some Christian groups have read this passage this way.
Then there’s a community approach. What if Matthew’s major concern is actually settling disputes but creating an environment where Christ’s presence continues to bring forgiveness, healing, and joy?
The answer to this dilemma may be found in the context of this passage.
Immediately preceding this passage is the story of the lost sheep which begins in Matthew’s Gospel, “See that you do not despise one of these little ones.” The passage goes on to tell of the Shepherd who, leaving the 99, goes in search of the one that is lost. The passage ends with, “And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish.”
The verses that follow our text for today set a new standard for forgiveness, first multiplying Peter’s sense of appropriate forgiveness beyond imagination and then suggesting that our ability to forgive others may be the key determinant in whether we ourselves are forgiven. In answer to Peter’s question as to how many times we are expected to forgive, and Peter’s estimate of seven, Jesus replies, “seventy times seven”. This dialogue is followed by the parable of the unforgiving servant who is forgiven a great debt but refuses to forgive those in debt to himself. It doesn’t end prettily.
‘Then the master called the servant in. “You wicked servant”, he said, “I cancelled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?” In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
“This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart”.’
So, I believe we have to consider this passage in the light of the context in which it is written. “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them”. Jesus’ promise assures us that each and every time we are involved in hurt, conflicts or differences, he is there with us – instructing us in the way of love, urging us on, forgiving us, and sending us out to be agents of forgiveness and reconciliation.
It can be difficult living in community: we don’t always handle conflict well. We don’t like to be reminded of the splinters in our own eye. Oscar Romero, in his book The Violence of Love, says, ‘No one wants to have a sore spot touched, and therefore a society with so many sores twitches when someone has the courage to touch it and say, “You have to treat that. You have to get rid of that.”’ The calling of all Christians to love one another is a calling to touch and be touched, and even to touch the sore spots, in the hope of healing. We will hurt each other from time to time. Jesus calls the church to testify to the boundless mercy of the God who touches our wounds so that he can heal them.
As Nelson Mandela walked out of prison he said, ”I had to leave all the bitterness and injustice behind the cell doors or I’d still be in prison”.
Another Old Testament situation that touched me deeply as I read it again in the lectionary readings a week or two ago is the story of Joseph. You will remember that his brothers came before him in Egypt. Joseph is Prime Minister of all Egypt – drought sends his brothers to Egypt seeking grain. They do not recognize Joseph. Despite betrayal and injury, love and seeing God’s hand in all the horrid experiences Joseph has been through, he is able to allow God to heal so that he can love, forgive and be reconciled. This is incredible when you go back through Joseph’s experiences - thrown into a well and left to die by his brothers, sold into slavery, wrongly accused of raping his master’s wife, sent to goal - yet he is able to say, “I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt! And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you.” Forgiveness, Love and Reconciliation
And then there is the reading from 1 John 4:20–21.
"If anyone says, 'I love God,' yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother" This can be tough but, “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” God in the midst of our differences makes the difference.
“If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”
How did Jesus treat the tax collector and pagan? Answer: with love and integrity. Matthew a tax collector was called to follow Jesus and become Jesus’ disciple. Matthew wrote this text that we are working with today. Zacchaeus was noticed, not hated, as he was accustomed to by the community in which he lived. Jesus takes the time to go to his house, eat with him and the changed outcome is well known. Love and acceptance may be some straight talk, but more times than not we all know our weaknesses. Love brings about repentance not ostracizing or casting out. And the pagan? Jesus came to save the lost sheep and there is more joy over one lost sheep being found than … You can finish the verse.
Forgiveness is meant to be at the core of who we are, and if we can’t live it out between ourselves in our families and the church, how can we ever be agents of reconciliation in the world? The Lord’s prayer reminds us of our requirement to – “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors”.
I’m not saying forgiveness is always easy. Pain and wrong has to be acknowledged and dealt with, but in the end, held for too long, it enslaves us.
Earlier this year, the Adbaliah family stunned the world by offering forgiveness to the alleged drunk driver who ran down and killed three of their children and another friend in south west Sydney.
“I think in my heart to forgive him, but I want the court to be fair. It's all about fairness. I'm not going to hate him, because that's not who we are”, their mother told reporters. A Christian family coming to grips with unfairness and grief. This was very early in the grieving process to be able to say this but in the power of the God’s Spirit …
Jesus is giving us a clear blue-print for how our families and our church communities might be places where relationships might flourish. It’s something that we need to practice until it is so ingrained in our DNA, until we can’t imagine living another way, because for Jesus, there isn’t another way. Jesus’ example from the cross is another reminder, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do”.
Forgiveness is the true mark of greatness in the kingdom of God. There's a Spanish story of a father and son who had become estranged. The son ran away, and the father set off to find him. He searched for months to no avail. Finally, in a last desperate effort to find him, the father put an ad in a Madrid newspaper. The ad read: Dear Paco, meet me in front of this newspaper office at noon on Saturday. All is forgiven. I love you. Your Father. On Saturday 800 Pacos showed up, looking for forgiveness and love from their fathers.
Doesn’t this illustrate the great need in our society for love, forgiveness and reconciliation, innately and most importantly forgiveness and reconciliation is with our Creator and Heavenly Father.
Karl Menninger, the famed psychiatrist, once said that if he could convince the patients in psychiatric hospitals that their sins were forgiven, seventy-five percent of them could walk out the next day!
The great writer, C.S. Lewis, in his book, The Great Divorce, describes Hell as a great, huge, dark place where there is no contact between people. He says, “Hell started out small, but people quarrelled with one another and moved away from each other. Then there was another quarrel and the people moved farther away. And so on, and so on, until finally no one could even see anyone else. And there they lived, alone in the darkness. That’s what Jesus wants us to avoid. Jesus demonstrated this when he reconciled the whole world to God by hanging on a cross. If He can do that for us, surely, we can do this for each other, and for Him.”
“For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” We often claim this promise as we gather for worship or prayer or Bible study, which is fine, BUT in the context of Matthew’s Gospel this verse is about serious conversations of solving issues of conflict, hurt, wrong, forgiveness and reconciliation. It’s assuring us that as we live with family and church, because God is with us, love is more than possible. It is the, “continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law.” And: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” “In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish”.
Love is the only way.
Thanks to Adi Goldstein for sharing their work on Unsplash.