Jesus said to his disciples: ‘If your brother does something wrong, go and have it out with him alone, between your two selves. If he listens to you, you have won back your brother. If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you: the evidence of two or three witnesses is required to sustain any charge. But if he refuses to listen to these, report it to the community; and if he refuses to listen to the community, treat him like a pagan or a tax collector.
‘I tell you solemnly, whatever you bind on earth shall be considered bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth shall be considered loosed in heaven.
‘I tell you solemnly once again, if two of you on earth agree to ask anything at all, it will be granted to you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three meet in my name, I shall be there with them.’ Matthew 18:15-20.
In ordinary church life if parishioners are offended by another parishioner they might sometimes complain to the parish priest. If parishioners are vexed by the parish priest they might write to the bishop. If they are displeased by the bishop they might appeal to the Archbishop of Canterbury. And perhaps if they don’t approve of the archbishop they appeal to God.
It’s a regular route to appeal to hierarchies to settle differences - thus avoiding personal confrontations. Often the last thing people actually want do is to actually confront the person who is offending them. But, this is what Jesus recommends in this Sunday’s Gospel reading. In fact Jesus insists that if another member of the Church sins against us then we must take the initiative and point out the fault when the two of us are alone: and we should not first appeal to some hierarchical figure. Jesus’ message is that the beginning of forgiveness lies in this personal confrontation and engagement. In other words, Jesus says our first response, if offended, should not be to push offenders away, but, instead, to engage, to have a conversation and to reason with them. And if that doesn’t work the next step of the process of engagement is to bring others into the reasoning process and not to rally the troops of like-minded so that we can get our way, but to get to the truth. Jesus’ message is that our default position is to be one of loving engagement with the clear aim to get beyond the face of the offending actions and remarks and to enquire more deeply into the reasons behind the person’s actions and to seek and to find the truth which, Jesus tells us, sets free. It involves going the extra mile and not giving in to premature judgements. Jesus’ message is a challenge to us all, to everyone in the community, it is the challenge to take responsibility and to exercise real servant-leadership in trying to discern and get to the truth in resolving disputes - gracefully and truthfully - for the good and wellbeing of all.
Jesus’ scenario begins in a candid and painful head-to-head between the person offended and the offender: his message, to repeat, is that the first step is to seek reconciliation personally and privately, without appealing to hierarchies. Jesus’ message is that this form of confrontation and engagement is an essential part of personal forgiveness and reconciliation. He does say that the ultimate court of appeal is to be the community and that the community has the power to treat recalcitrant members like tax collectors, but, of course, that raises the question:- how did Jesus treat tax collectors? This Gospel message is that the Christian community can never be finished with the recalcitrant and that the journey to final reconciliation is as long as the human story.
And our individual vocation in the human story is to be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ - the one who is God made visible, the one who has been and continues to be wronged by our trespasses. Yet, though humankind turned its back on God, he, nonetheless, assumed the state of his offenders and suffered and died at their hands. And then he redeemed and raised those offenders to a status they neither deserved nor could reach without his help. As today’s picture - Iain McKillop’s painting of the Reconciliation of Peter – shows, the offended binds himself to the offender in an extraordinary way - it’s God’s way of reconciliation. This is Jesus’ Gospel message for us to share today.
You may know the little story about Rabbi Yitzhak? Once, Rabbi Yitzhak saw a fellow Jew smoking on the Sabbath day, which was something forbidden. The rabbi asked his fellow Jew whether he had forgotten what day it was. The man’s response was, ‘No,’ he knew what day it was. The rabbi then asked him whether he had forgotten that smoking was forbidden on the Sabbath. Again, the man’s response was ‘No,’ he knew it was forbidden. The rabbi then asked surely his mind must have been elsewhere when he lit the cigarette, but the man replied that he knew exactly what he was doing. Rabbi Yitzhak raised his hands and turned his eyes upwards to heaven and said ‘Sovereign of the universe, who is like Your people Israel? I give this man every chance, and still he cannot tell a lie!’ Rabbi Yitzhak was concerned by the waywardness of one of his own, a fellow Jew, and, even though his behaviour presumably offended and upset him, still he could find something good in his neighbour and some common ground to keep him close. God bless