essentially concerns the management of conflict within the community of faith. However, it’s a notoriously difficult text. Those preachers who tend towards the embrace of authoritarian interpretations of Scripture site this text with enthusiasm. Preachers who reject interpretations of Scripture that support authoritarian views of social relations explain the text away often by suggesting that these are not Jesus’ words but the words of the later Church inserted into chapter 18. (So which message are you anticipating getting from me this morning?)
Our first question: how are we to read this text?
Christian history is strewn with examples of how this text leads to harsh judgment, then condemnation, then excommunication of others who we perceive to have sinned against us. We are all familiar with the tyranny of Christian mob rule. Authoritarian interpretations have relied on this text to conceal the evils of scape-goating that goes on in communities.
The passage seems to be suggesting a process of escalating conflict to the next level up and ultimately to the body of the Church. At first sight its got the feel of corrective re-education used in totalitarian systems where the perceived wrong doer is invited to acknowledge the error of their ways – in order to avoid collective judgment and punishment.
The cardinal rule of Biblical interpretation in our Anglican Tradition states that no word, no line, no section of Scripture can be interpreted to mean something that contradicts the spirit of the whole of Jesus’ teaching.
My approach to this text is to accept an invitation to struggle with it. I neither accept a naieve reading nor do I want to exclude the text from consideration. I suggest we look at the broader context of chapter 18 to see if this can help us with this text?
In 18:1-14 Jesus teaches:
- In answer to the question who is the greatest in the Kingdom of heaven Jesus replies that we are to be as a little child for such is greatest in the Kingdom of heaven.
- To abuse and/or confuse a child is a sin beyond comprehension.
- Then there is the slightly worrying passage about cutting of our hand and or our foot, plucking out our eye when these cause us to sin. But this is a typical Jesus hyperbole, for it’s not our limbs that are responsible for sin but something more deep-seated in our minds and hearts.
- In v 12 Jesus offers us and image of the qualities of The Good Shepherd who when having lost a sheep leaves the others and does not rest until he has found and restored the lost sheep to the fold.
- Then comes the section in today’s Gospel on the management of conflict within the community.
- It’s followed by the statement that where two or three gather in my name I am with you. Note that although Jesus in the line before is talking about agreement between members, here he simply says that he will be present not when two agree in his name, but when two or three gather in his name. Can we conclude that disagreement among those who gather is not a bar to Jesus being present?
- Finally the chapter continues with Jesus’ teaching about the nature of forgiveness as he rebukes Peter about the number of times he is called upon to forgive when his brother who wrongs him. Not seven, Jesus says but 70 times seven. The chapter concludes with the powerful parable of the unforgiving debtor.
Read in its entirety the thrust of Jesus’ teaching in Chapter 18 indicates that God’s judgment is not reserved for those who wrong us – but for us if we do not forgive those whom we perceive to have wronged us -from our hearts.
Our second question: how are we to apply this text?
In our community how does this text guide us in being able to address conflict?
- Is it possible for me to come to you and tell you how something you said or did left me feeling? Note I am not asking if it’s possible for me to come to you and accuse you of doing something to me.
- What if we can’t communicate about how we feel? Can others help? The answer is yes but only when others act as witnesses to the quality of the encounter between us without taking sides.
- When an issue becomes a flash-points between individuals or small groups of the like-minded the issue is best seen to be one that affects the whole community. Conflicts between individuals or small factions are usually a playing-out of wider tensions within the community that are being avoided and need an airing.
- Should we not be more careful about truth claims? Conflicts that emerge around truth claims are usually irresolvable. When we focus on truth claims we take literally the words in v19: And again I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my father in heaven. On its own this text makes no sense to me other than to support statements like: I say what I mean and I mean what I say. If you agree with me then obviously God is on our side because it says so in Matt 18 v19. Does this not sound familiar to us from the language of contemporary politics?
- However, could v19 mean where two agree to differ? V20 is then read as an extension: for where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.
Jesus emphasizes that where two or three gather that he promises to be present. Gathering presupposes agreement but not necessarily agreement as in the sense that we are all of one mind. A more accurate reflection of the reality we live with day in and day out is: where two agree to recognize difference and to respect disagreement then gathering becomes a powerful experience of the real presence of Christ in his body.
The hallmark of a healthy culture is not the absence of conflict but the capacity to negotiate our way through our differences. The ultimate indication of emotional and psychological maturity in both individuals and the communities – is the capacity to tolerate difference. Difference is more than the sum total of the differences between us. Difference is a fundamental fact of life that allows communities to flourish a thrive in celebration of diversity.
We live in an immature culture. Our body politic is a prime example at the present time because it’s a culture that is regressing to a state where difference can no longer be tolerated. We are currently less able to celebrate the rich fruit that the toleration of difference brings.
What can our collective history teach us?
This is Labor day Weekend. Its one of the few opportunities in the American work calendar to celebrate the equivalent of the great British institution of the Bank Holiday Weekend – so named because the Banks are closed on the following Monday.
The celebration of Labor Day is a reminder that there was a time when we understood as a culture the need to negotiate the conflicts that naturally occur in a system such as Capitalism. This is a huge achievement and so much of the post war prosperity depended on negotiating a balance in the unequal distribution of power in economic relationships. Are we really to roll time back to the period where the principle might is right governs our social relations?
History or historical accident has uniquely equipped Anglicanism for the task of recognizing and negotiating difference. As a rule religion likes to obliterate difference through the assertion of truth. The evolution of English Christianity into a national church required that the principle of gathering together could not be on the basis or agreeing together. Whether you held to the old Catholic religion or embraced the new religion of the Protestant Reformers, you had to meet one another Sunday by Sunday sitting in the pews of your Parish Church.
This gave rise to a remarkable principle – that right relationship did not require common agreement about right belief. As Episcopalians we embody the maxim – as we worship so we believe. We have no beliefs other than those expressed through the way we worship. Worship shaped by the liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer enabled difference to be tolerated over a period of some 500 years. This experience provides us with a very necessary antidote to the prevailing ideologies that privilege so called truth over being in right relationship together.
For us then Matt 18:15-20 is not a text about the heavy-handed correction of our brother and sister. Its not a justification for ganging-up or scape-goating. Viewing the text within the wider context of Jesus’ teaching in chapters 17 and 18, the text offers us a way to honestly recognize that difference stems from the nature of human experience. Human beings see the world through different eyes shaped by different experience. Following Jesus teaching on the need to be child-like in our actions it seems to me that humility is the cardinal virtue required in relations between us.
All of us stand under the judgment of God. All of us are indicted and none of us can selectively exonerate ourselves while condemning our sister, or our brother. Jesus enjoins us to face to face encounters with our brother, our sister. Social networking is not sufficient. If necessary call others in the community as witnesses to honest negotiation of differences. Privileging relationship with one another enables us to tolerate our differences and disagreements. Jesus enjoins us to gather together in his name. This gathering is an exercise in diversity. Jesus enjoins us gather together in all our diversity in tolerance of difference among us. Only then can the Lord be truly present in his Church.