Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 14th Sunday After Pentecost + September 10, 2017
Reading: Matthew 18:15-20
Story #1: Kamaria Downs was an honors student at a small Christian university. In 2015, her senior year, she had to fill out medical forms for her student teaching assignment, and through those forms the college discovered that Kamaria was pregnant. She was unmarried. The college told her she had to move out of the campus dorms and did not refund her the money she’d pre-paid to live there for the year. She had to scramble to find a place to live so that she could complete her degree.
Story #2: Peter courted Sally in the classic way: with flowers and lots of love letters. His charm won her over, and the she agreed to marry him. Almost immediately, Peter seemed like an entirely different person. He yelled at her for things as small as sleeping in on their honeymoon; he drank too much and flew into abusive rages; later, he was violent with their young daughter. When Sally went to the counselors at her church for help, they advised her to forgive her husband and submit to him. “When she [finally] left Peter, Sally also left her church parish, feeling isolated and unwanted as a single mother.”
Unfortunately, neither Kamaria’s nor Sally’s experience is uncommon.
Today’s gospel reading is a lesson on our stewardship of the Law and the Gospel — in other words, our stewardship of the message “You’ve sinned; you’ve done something wrong,” and the message, “God loves you and forgives you, and we love you and forgive you, too.”
It’s common for us to lean to one extreme or another. To emphasize the need to call people to repentance so that they may receive grace and new life from God and to protect our community from sin and its devastating effects. Or to emphasize the radical acceptance and forgiveness of God to the point where we feel uncomfortable even using the word, “sin.” We often think of whole denominations as leaning one way or the other.
We also tend to fall into communal habits of thinking of some sins as more necessary to call out than others. One of my professors gave an example of this in a very blunt and cynical way: the Church likes to keep arguing about sex so that we don’t have to talk about the more uncomfortable topic of how we use our money.
Jesus’s teaching in today’s gospel reading challenges us to get out of our comfort zone and see the importance of both Law and Gospel, both approaching a fellow Christian whose sin is affecting the community and being a place of welcome and healing for all of us sinners seeking grace.
For those of us who tend to want to speak only of forgiveness, this passage may help us think of reasons why pointing out sin and calling for change may be necessary. It may be good for the one who has done wrong: Martin Luther pointed out that we need to realize that we are stuck in sin in order to see that we need God’s grace and to reach for God’s forgiveness and God’s power to free us and transform us. We see that principle at work when families and friends stage interventions for someone struggling with addiction in the hope that she will accept help and start changing her life for the better.
Calling for repentance may also be good for the community. Telling a friend that they’ve hurt you is the first step toward forgiveness and the healing of the relationship. Though I am by nature and upbringing a conflict-avoider, I’ve come to realize that it’s an act of grace to tell my friend that I’m angry or hurt and why rather than to give her the silent treatment. We can’t reconcile if only half the party knows what’s wrong. In the case of Sally and her abusive husband, it would have been better for the church to help Sally confront him and turn away from him; for her safety; for their child’s safety; and for the well-being of the community. Then, if he was willing, others could give him the help and support he needed to change.
That’s a good segue into talking about what Jesus said to do if you approach someone three times and they still won’t repent. Jesus said, “Let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
At first that seems to indicate a total rejection of the unrepentant person: “Gentiles” means “people who aren’t Jews,” and Jews (like Jesus’s disciples) were not supposed to fellowship with those outsiders. Tax collectors were among the most reviled and rejected people of Jesus’s community.
But how did Jesus treat Gentiles and tax collectors? Matthew was a tax collector, and Jesus called him to be one of his closest disciples (Matthew 9:9). The gospel book that today’s reading comes from bears that tax collector’s name. Zaccheus was a tax collector, and Jesus invited himself over to his house and changed his life forever (Luke 19:1-10).
And though the gospels do mention times when Jesus specifically excluded Gentiles (e.g. Matthew 10:5), in the one story we have where he meets a Gentile face-to-face, he is so impressed by her faith that he changes his mind and heals her daughter (Matthew 15:21-28). Later, the still-very-Jewish Church decides to accept Gentiles and to reach out to them with the message of the Gospel (Acts 11:1-18); St. Paul’s main vocation was to be the “apostle to the Gentiles” (Romans 11:13).
So even when we are instructed to treat the unrepentant one as a “Gentile and a tax collector,” it does not indicate that we should utterly reject them and cast them out. Rather, the minute we remove them from the community, they become someone to be invited back in.
So for those of us who might lean towards over-emphasizing the need to remove sin from our community, Jesus’s teaching reminds us that God’s first priority is that all people would be part of God’s family, all people would be forgiven and welcomed. This becomes very obvious when we read Jesus’s teaching in this passage with what’s going on in the verses right before and after it. This lesson is set between two stories that emphasize God’s desire that all people would be forgiven and welcomed into the fold.
Right before Jesus gave the disciples these rules for dealing with sin in the church, Jesus told them a story. It’s that crazy story of the shepherd who loses one sheep, and he leaves 99 sheep behind to go looking for the lost one. Jesus summed up the moral of the story: “So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost” (Matt. 18:10-14).
Then he went into, “If another member of the church sins against you…” do this and this and this, and then after all that they still won’t listen, then “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
Peter then asked Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus responded “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times,” which we generally agree doesn’t mean “count to seventy-seven and then you can stop forgiving him,” but rather, “forgive endlessly.”
Then Jesus tells another story, which we’ll hear in worship next week, about a slave whose debts are forgiven by his master, but who does not forgive other slaves the debts they owe him. The king is furious, and says to the slave, “Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?” (Matt. 18:21-25).
Matthew sets today’s gospel story — of confronting someone who has sinned and how to treat them if they don’t repent — in the middle of stories that emphasize how important it is to God that not even one person be lost from the Church, how important it is to God that we forgive one another.
Jesus said to his disciples, “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” In church tradition, this has been called the “Office of the Keys” or the “Power of the Keys” — the great power given to the Church to bind people to their sins or to free them; to include them or exclude them from the community. To quote Spiderman, “With great power comes great responsibility.”
So let’s be careful and thoughtful with our stewardship of this power and this responsibility. Let’s be careful to help our fellow sinners find their way to God’s grace and to protect and heal our relationships and our communities. But let’s also remember that even the Law is a servant of God’s grace, God’s unending desire that we would be in communion with God and with one another, knit together by the mercy and love of God.
 Susan Donaldson James, “Student Changes Christian College’s Policy After Getting Kicked Out for Being Pregnant,” NBC News, September 16, 2016. Online: https://www.nbcnews.com/feature/college-game-plan/student-changes-christian-college-s-policy-after-getting-kicked-out-n649381
 Julia Baird with Hayley Gleeson, “’Submit to your husbands’: Women told to endure domestic violence in the name of God,” ABC News (Australia), August 10, 2017. Online: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-07-18/domestic-violence-church-submit-to-husbands/8652028