February 26, 2023
So far in Matthew, Jesus has instructed the disciples on how people’s actions in the world could prevent them from entering the kingdom. He told them how to deal with barriers … stumbling blocks … to those coming to faith.
Now, the disciples hear how to handle such stumbling blocks with they appear in the new faith communities. These instructions will be shared with these new communities.
Matthew wrote his gospel at a time when those who followed Jesus were being excluded or expelled from life in the synagogue and in the temple.
In a time of fear, anxiety and uncertainty, Matthew’s audience was trying to start over and come together as a community.
Like a lot of passages in the Bible, what we hear depends on the translation being used. Today, the word “church” is prominent. But a more appropriate translation of the original Greek is “brethren” … “our sisters and brothers” … or “community … assembly.”
It is not the church as we know it.
The sharing of Jesus’ instruction and parable shows that Matthew was concerned with how the people will exist within this new faith community.
This morning’s passage lays out the process for how a member’s sinful acts are to be dealt with.
In much the same way, there is a white binder sitting on a shelf above the copier in the church office.
In that binder is a copy of the congregation’s constitution.
The document governs how the congregation is to function and the responsibilities of its lay leaders, its pastor and of congregation members.
There is even a clause on removing members who have been divisive or abusive in the congregation … treating them as “a Gentile or tax collector” is how Jesus puts it today.
The LCOS constitution includes a description of the process that needs to be followed in such cases. There are opportunities for atonement and for forgiveness.
Forgiveness and reconciliation lie at the centre of today’s passage from Matthew.
To Matthew, a person’s sinful actions … acts that are self-serving … diminishing … or oppressive … have an impact on the community. The wounds caused can fracture a congregation … so, dealing with them needs to be a communal practice. It seems a good course to follow.
Matthew’s audience hears that sin is not a private matter between the person and God, but rather sin is a communal concern.
Now, Jesus talks about how faith communities are expected to deal with members who have committed an offence.
Jesus tells the disciples that … rather than deal with such matters publicly and shame the offender … to do so privately … one to one.
Jesus tells them only to involve others when the first step fails … if the offender fails to listen. Two or three others to serve as witnesses and … if that fails … to take the matter before the entire faith community.
Through these steps, it is expected that the offending party recognizes what they have done … the hurt they have caused … and ask for forgiveness.
Once this happens, then reconciling with and within the community is possible.
It is only after this final step fails … maybe a person is so toxic that the relationship cannot be repaired or salvaged … does Jesus say the person should be excluded – treated like a tax collector or Gentile.
The offending party is to be beyond the boundaries of the community, but remember that Jesus ministered to the Gentiles and ate with tax collectors … so this means the person is not excluded from God’s grace … just from life in the community.
And even then, the offender could still be welcomed back if they become willing to listen … to acknowledge the effect of their words or deeds … be contrite.
Of course, there is always the possibility of the person choosing not to confess the wrongness of their actions or choose not to reconnect with the community, but, as Matthew points out, Jesus is still a presence in their lives.
Following Jesus means that we are always to look for ways to be in right relationships with one another and with God.
Through the process Jesus describes, offenders are able to listen to a person’s or a community’s pain and come to an understanding of the role one’s actions played in causing that pain … love would be allowed to heal the wounds.
This is not necessarily a quick and easy process … especially when hearts may be hardened or the offender is uncaring over the pain being caused.
But still we are to forgive … even if the offender isn’t contrite.
Then, Peter asks how far should people go in forgiving offences … forgiving the sins against them and against others.
Depending on how the original Greek is translated, Jesus’ answer is to forgive people either 77 or 490 times … either way, it seems that Jesus’ followers are to practice unlimited forgiveness.
God who forgives … expects us to forgive, as well.
Jesus offers a parable to the disciples to illustrate how they are not to forgive.
Through his story of a king, a servant and a slave … Jesus illustrates how the world places limits on forgiveness … forgiveness is calculated … monetized … how self-serving and limited forgiveness becomes when offered in the way handled by the king and the servant.
Forgiveness is only offered when there is a benefit to the person doing the forgiving.
But forgiveness … Jesus tells the disciples … needs to be absolute, complete, and beyond worldly calculations.
Forgiveness … like God’s grace … is to be unconditional and limitless.
Some believe that forgiveness lets the offending person off the hook … that it lessens whatever transgression a person has done and diminishes the victim.
That’s the way society is wired … that harsh punishments have to be meted out … that people are beyond redemption. That by offering forgiveness, the offender won’t properly learn their lesson.
But forgiveness is also an opportunity to let go of any anger … or bitterness … those things that can fester and colour or taint relationships.
I think it’s safe to say that we all have moments in our lives when forgiveness was hard to offer and there are even people who we don’t believe we could ever forgive.
But if we cannot forgive, then there we are bound by this inability when we enter the kingdom … just as the offender if bound by any lack of contrition.
Unconditional forgiveness forces us to consider our own sinfulness … our own brokenness … our own need to be forgiven.
During our Lenten journey, let’s consider a few questions regarding forgiveness.
Do we place limits or requirements on forgiveness?
Do we acknowledge when our actions cause others pain and ask to be forgiven?
During these forty days, we are called to consider when we have failed to forgive … or have failed to recognize the times when we have caused the hurt … and have allowed relationships to sour by placing ourselves and our wants first.
Forgiveness … like love … is intended to be shared without question … without a prerequisite. We are called to always to be a reconciling people … and forgiveness is a foundation to that call.
This is a time when we can look at our relationships with those in the sphere of our lives and look for ways to give voice to our hurt … and … especially … listen when other’s give voice to the hurt that we have caused.
And then … through the gift of grace … we bring forgiveness to the forefront … and our hearts can be truly open to the world.