Matthew 18: 15-20 and Romans 13: 8-14
There is a saying that we have 2 ears and 1 mouth because we are to listen twice as much as we speak. It is advice that is good for me – for all of us. It is also hard to do. Listening, really listening, is difficult.
There is another saying: Whenever two or more are gathered … it can be really hard to get along!
These two clever sayings likely go hand in hand. So, what does Jesus say? Well, first, that God will be present in the gathering of people. Whether that get-together is congenial or not, God is present. Also, that we are to listen to one another when there is conflict. Four times in the first 3 verses in today’s Gospel, Jesus make a reference to listening.
Hear again Matthew 18:15-17, this time from The Message, a contemporary English translation: “If a fellow believer hurts you, go and tell him—work it out between the two of you. If she listens, you’ve made a friend. If he won’t listen, take one or two others along so that the presence of witnesses will keep things honest, and try again. If he still won’t listen, tell the church. If she won’t listen to the church, you’ll have to start over from scratch, confront him with the need for repentance, and offer again God’s forgiving love.
I think it is important we step back and look at the context of today’s reading. What happened that led up to Jesus talking about conflict resolution? The setting is important. Chapter 18 begins with the disciples fighting over who is the greatest. That leads to Jesus using a child as an example of greatness in the Kingdom of God, with a warning to not be a stumbling block for the little ones, and not even to let your own body parts cause you to lose sight of your walk with God. Jesus illustrates his point with the example of a shepherd leaving the 99 sheep to search for the one that has gone astray. Not one, not even the inconsequential littlest one, is to be lost.
Jesus then comes to our text for today. As professor Audrey West puts it: Jesus is encouraging the church to be a community that nurtures honest dialogue and refuses to keep silent in the face of behavior that would harm others. This passage, when put in context, was a model of how to walk alongside one another and protect those who were most vulnerable, enabling them to speak so that others might hear. (Audrey West – Working Preacher)
So, while it might be a great step by step process to follow when conflict arises in the church – one I daresay is seldom used – I’m not sure that was Jesus’ intent.
In its context (and I am speaking as one who has a large amount of power particularly within our own church) Jesus is likely not putting those who have authority in the position of telling those with the least power how to walk in the paths of faith. Instead, in its context, Jesus is more likely modeling how we walk alongside and protect those who have been left without power, those who are vulnerable, and those who have no voice (West). Maybe we are the ones who have hurt another in the greater community – maybe we are the ones that need to be addressed by those who are not being fully included within the Body of Christ?
The disciples argue over who is the greatest. And Jesus lifts a child – one who in that day had zero power, very very little worth, was to be seen and never heard, and is completely dependent upon others. That is who we are called to stand up for – to nurture – to welcome.
We can stand with the most vulnerable only if we listen. We listen hard, deep, fully. We don’t listen in order to advise how they might change – we listen to hear their deeper story, the hard emotions, the places where they have been hurt. Active listening is work that doesn’t come easily. Yet, in a community that practices that honest listening, God is present. We experience that when we are a community that practices the greatest commandment that is highlighted in our text from Romans, as translated in The Message: “When you love others, you complete what the law…. The law code … finally adds up to this: Love other people as well as you do yourself. You can’t go wrong when you love others.”
We care enough about every member in the Body of Christ, great and small, powerful and weak, that we are willing to not only speak the truth in love, but be vulnerable enough to listen with that same love and then do the hard work necessary to make it right.
There are places in our world where we, as the people of God, need to listen with great love. We need to confront the places where we caused one of the “little ones” to stumble. It is only through listening that we can face the places of injustice. Only when we listen, will we be able to consider how systems need to be changed. It is only in reckoning with how systems hurt some people that we can reconcile the differences and become a healthy and whole Body of Christ.
Reckoning is hard work. To lay out the past actions and account for them all is not pretty. But without reckoning, we can not reconcile. Reckoning is the work of Good Friday. We prefer to go straight to Easter. We prefer to just forget the past wrongs and move forward. But Easter does not exist without Good Friday. We must confront the ways we have hurt others and the ways we have been hurt, before we can honestly come to forgiveness – to a restoration of relationship. That is how we love one another.
Jesus concludes his teaching by saying: “if the member refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” BUT – what did Jesus do with Gentiles and tax collectors? As it says in the Message translation of this verse: If he won’t listen to the church, you’ll have to start over from scratch, confront her with the need for repentance, and offer again God’s forgiving love.
We care enough to keep trying to be a healthy community, with all people heard and honored. And when it doesn’t work, we start over and try to improve the next time. And lucky for us, the verses that follow are all about forgiveness! Because in God’s kingdom, there is abundant and extravagant forgiveness when we don’t get it right!
To that I will boldly proclaim: Thanks be to God!