With Whom Do We Stand? (Exodus 12:1-13; Romans 13:8-10; Matthew 18:15-20)
Each of today’s readings, though diverse, can be read as making a distinction between “us” and “them.” First, there’s the story of the establishment of the Passover from Exodus 12. We are used to hearing this text as a call to remember what God has done for us. We’ve been taught, at least tacitly, to hear this text as triumphant Israelites, about to be delivered from slavery by the God of our ancestors who will make quick work of the might and wealth of Egypt. The commemoration of this event remakes Israel’s year. Before, it had begun in the autumn, but now it will begin with a the Feast of Passover in the Spring. Again, we are encouraged to read this text as Israelites who must keep this “throughout our generations, as a perpetual ordinance.” Just so.
As Christians, we may have been taught or encouraged to hear this text in the light of Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 5: “Christ our Passover lamb has been sacrificed.” In the Old Testament they had their Passover, and now we have ours. As old Passover remade the calendar, so this act of Jesus remakes all our days. Easy. Us and Them.
There is no doubt that reading this text as Israelites (even as New Testament Israelites, so to speak) has its benefits, but what if, this morning, we try to hear this Exodus text as if we were Egyptians? How to you think we’d think of Passover then? What would it be like for us to experience it from the other side? I have used this technique through the years with seminary students to force spiritual ears open more widely, allowing them to hear things more inclusively.
Imagine what the Passover would have felt like to those who lost their first born heirs? I don’t mean the Pharaoh, but the everyday folk. What of the poor Egyptian farmer who lost his family’s only animal because it happened to be “first born”? What kind of god does that? We have not often permitted ourselves to stand in the shoes of the “losers” who are out there – in Egypt, who are not in our “in-group,” or as we sometimes say now, “in the shadows.” We resist reading texts that way because we’re not those people, I often heard. I don’t want to resolve that tension, but ask you to think about this as we consider reaching out to those outside our comfortable community. If we want to communicate and live with others, we’re going to have to get off our high horse and do more than say “become just like us,” or even, “become us,” before we’ll have to do with you. Rather we must try our best to understand them and what they dream and hope and fear first.
Next, let me turn us to our Gospel Lesson in Matthew 18. This chapter is about how to be disciples in a hard world. Taken by themselves, verses 15-20 have been commonly taken to set out a procedure to settle disputes in local communities of faith, beginning with the one to which Matthew was writing his story of Jesus. Here’s the deal: If someone “sins” against you (does you wrong), first, go talk about it directly. If that doesn’t resolve it, take a two or three folk from the church along to “deal with” the offender. If that doesn’t work, take it to a meeting of the church where all the laundry can be washed in at least a semi-public place. And if that, still, doesn’t “work” (whatever that means by now), then treat the “sinful” party as what he or she really is, an outsider with no claim to be a church member – in short throw them out – declare them to be an Egyptian, or a Canaanite, or an enemy, as they say in Britain, a blighter, a dirty rotter. And I can refer you to any number of commentaries and works on pastoral practice that pretty much just rehearse this “plan” as God’s way out of problems in a congregation. I’ve heard it all my life. I’ve watched churches use this procedure.
I’d like to have a big finish for this story that says, “I did it, it worked. Gee, isn’t the Bible great!” But to be honest with you, in every case I’ve seen it tried, when it gets beyond step two (the little talk with the church board) it’s brought more grief and division in churches than it has healing. Why is that? Isn’t it always supposed to work when we just quote the Bible?
Here’s where I really want to get serious about my little game of reading the text with the eyes of those on the outside. How might we hear this passage in Matthew if we’re one of those who have been on the wrong side, been trashed by a church fellowship, and thrown out for whatever reason? How would you, or, maybe, did you feel? What difference might that make to us? Do we not resist hearing texts and practicing our faith from the point of view of the other people, the bad guys, the outsiders, the losers? Why? Is this resistance another name for the pride of being the winners, or is it greed that grasps at keeping all the privilege that we imagine we have coming? Or what is it?
Don’t lose that thought, but I’d like to suggest to you that our lesson from the Epistle to the Romans, chapter 13, may give us some help in allowing ourselves into a place that lets us identify with and think and feel with those others “out there” we sometimes exclude by what we do – even unintentionally.
Full disclosure, I’m grateful that we don’t have to do the first part of Romans 13 that concerns being subject to the ruling authorities. Without getting into it, I must confess, my Baptist separation of church and state as well as every political and pastoral fibre in my body gets in a knot every time I think about These verses that have given authority to tyrants through the centuries. After that, thank God, come the words of today’s passage, through the lens of which I may read the first half of the chapter (but not today):
Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery: You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbour as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.
What if we read difficult texts in the Bible such as Romans 13:1-7 and Matthew 18:15-20, and even Exodus 12, and made decisions about the people out there using this principle of neighbour love as the key to our reading and our decisions? To put it a different way, what if we actually lived as if love for others did fulfill the various requirements that we tend to lay on ourselves and others? No, really! What if we did?
Recalling what we’ve learned before, in the Mediterranean world of the Bible, the word love is not about emotions, but about actions that embrace, validate, and nurture others. That is most surely true of the word for love here in Romans 13 (and 1 Corinthians 13, celebrated in our second hymn this morning) is agape, actually a rare word in Greek until the New Testament. Agape is concern for others, no matter who, no matter where, and no matter how. Agape centres on allowing these others to be who they understand they’re created to be, not as we want them, and caring for them as they are. The very first of the nine-fold fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5 is love, and, in fact, love sums up the whole harvest of virtue in that chapter.
In computer terms love is the wallpaper on our desktops. It’s the background of all we see and do. Or, it’s as if agape is the lens through which we look at the world. This love gives us a way to stand in the place of those out there that are usually only thought of as the losers of a battle: whether they’re “enemies” like the Egyptians or like those who get turfed from the church after a church fight, or those who lose an election, come from away, or are even targets of our evangelism, outreach, etc.
If we assume that the basic standpoint from which we approach thinking about and relating to those others is “loving neighbour as self,” might it also lead us to read such passages as Matthew 18, with its supposedly cut and dried rules for excommunication, in a different light? On the other side, might it make us less willing just to throw out these passages of the Bible as irrelevant because we can’t figure them out?
As a test of my hypothesis about allowing neighbour-love to form our thinking, let’s look at the context of Jesus’ words in our Gospel Lesson. At the beginning of chapter 18, when disciples asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Jesus put a child in their midst, and said, “Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (18:4). Next, disciples are warned not to do or say things to make faith more difficult than it is for those whose faith is immature. Then disciples are invited to become aware of how important it is to those that are watching out there, to be humble in their own discipleship (18:6-9). Further, in verses 10-14 Jesus makes it clear that disciples are not to disdain others (he calls them “little ones,” perhaps to show their impressionable nature). God in fact cares a great deal about both the sheep and goats that stray and rejoices when one is restored – even to the point of leaving the safe and sanctified 99 to go looking for that one. The implication is that disciples are to imitate God in this attitude. That’s what comes before our Gospel Lesson and sets the tone for the procedures in it. Neighbour love is deep within the text.
Following our Gospel Text Peter asked Jesus how many times he had to forgive to keep the rules. Jesus said, God doesn’t keep a scorecard of rights and wrongs, and disciples are to imitate God, not make rules. Jesus then tells that story about a servant who accepted forgiveness of a great debt from the king, but could or would not turn this forgiveness and release a fellow servant’s paltry debt. Withholding forgiveness and reconciliation raises questions about whether one’s own discovery of God’s forgiveness. Looking at it this way, the whole context requires us to read what verses 15-20 tell us against the wallpaper of love and mercy. The procedure becomes a way of facilitating love and reconciliation, not a few verses to quote to get rid of awkward folks. More and more of God’s people are called in, not to judge, but to listen, help and support. And, even if all their efforts do not succeed, and the wrong is not repaired, and the so called “wrongdoer” is treated as a tax-collector and Gentile, remember how Jesus treated these folk. He treated them as special objects of God’s love, who had to be treated with respect. Jesus himself was an outcast among many of his own people for eating with such dubious ones.
The last words of the text for the morning assure disciples that, if we are really putting ourselves in the place of the other, that God honours our decisions. The whole business of “binding and loosing” things in heaven and earth has to do with that. “Binding” and “Loosing” were rabbinic ways of talking about making decisions to forbid or permit things. If even two of God’s folk agreed on how to work through to wholeness in a specific case, God underwrites it. God trusts disciples to do their work of reconciliation. For even when two or three disciples gather to do that kind of work in Christ’s name, he is present there as a party to what is happening. The passage is not, as some would have it, a quick but biblical procedure kicking folk out. Rather, it assumes the worth of each person, and the unlimited nature of God’s forgiveness and love, and promises that, it is possible for disciples who attempt to put themselves in the other’s place, and who attempt to imitate God in Christ in that, that it is possible to live together, even in all our differences. And we need to learn to do that now as never before!
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.