The ‘Tao’ of Mutual Accountability

Previously in Matthew

Jesus has been exploring his ministry in the context of traveling about the Galilean countryside. He has been preaching, teaching, healing, miracle-working, and getting into hot, debate. He has experienced grief at the death of John the Baptist, rejection by his family, neighbors, and the religious authorities. He seems to have had an ah-ha moment on a journey into the neighboring territory of the Phoenicians, where confronted by the demand for healing from a woman of all people, a woman who would not take no for an answer, he grows into an expanded understanding of his ministry. From this point on Jesus’ ministry is no longer only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel, but to everyone, regardless of race, and we might add gender, class and sexual orientation.

We get a real sense of how Matthew is constructing his Jesus-storyline through this particular sequencing events:

  • Jesus’ ministry in Galilee culminates with the feeding of the 5000. 5000 along with the number 12 have particularly Jewish significance. Matthew is telling us that the miracle of the feeding of the 5000 is a Jewish meal.
  • Jesus then journeys into the borderland, by way of walking across the Sea of Galilee in the midst of a storm. On arrival in the region of Tyre and Sidon he is confronted by a foreigner, not just a foreigner but a woman to boot. From this encounter he seems to grow in his self-understanding of God’s purpose for him.
  • Upon his return to Jewish territory Jesus performs a second feeding miracle, the feeding of the 4000. For Matthew this is not a repeat of the earlier story. This is Matthew constructing a new event where the numerical signifiers 4, and 7 indicate that the feeding of the 400o is a Gentile meal.

It’s in the borderland that Jesus discovers the missing piece to his identity. The borderland is a place that is beyond his familiar, Jewish environment. There seems to be a message here for us!

We are at the mid point in Matthew’s narration of Jesus’ ministry. From now-on Jesus’ attention is directed towards Jerusalem. The road to Jerusalem is the road that he now takes and it’s the road to Jerusalem that we are to accompany him on, as we journey from summer to autumn. Accompanying Jesus on the road to Jerusalem is a journey of discovery. Along this road we will discover what it means for us to be his disciples.

Last week I noted Matthew Skinner’s comment, and it bears repeating that:

As we journey soon into the new beginnings of post-Labor Day autumn, what will it mean to deny ourselves, take up our crosses, and follow Jesus? More, certainly, than giving up a few things; more than suffering as part of the human condition; more than moving forward on new paths—peering into autumn’s transitions, we belong to one another.  

Today’s episode in Matthew

In Matthew chapter 18, Jesus addresses how his disciples are to behave towards one another as they begin to travel with him on the road to Jerusalem. One might imagine that his comments are particularly addressed to the process by which the disciples will negotiate differences and conflict between them.

If Skinner’s assertion that we belong to one another is to have any meaning then we have to understand Jesus’ teaching on our responsibility for one another, and our individual accountability for one another, especially around issues of difference and potential conflict.

In a culture where Episcopalians have come to treat membership of the Church as another version of our membership of any number of voluntary and nonprofit organizations, the idea that we are responsible for, and accountable to, one another rings alarm bells. No one is going to tell me what to do, we mutter to ourselves and, if I find I don’t like it, then I will just leave, has become our solution of choice when faced with the inevitability of conflict in our social worlds.

I love Rick Morley’s tongue in cheek characterization of so much of our behavior in Christian community in a blog entitled, Before you un-friend [1]:

If another member of the church sins against you…just talk about them behind their back. If another member of the church sins against you…just call a bunch of people in the church to complain about them. You may even want to start a letter-writing campaign against them. If another member of the church sins against you…just send them a nasty email. Copy the clergy. And, while you’re at it, CC the bishop. If another member of the church sins against you…don’t say anything. Just avoid them. Un-friend them on Facebook. And, if you can’t avoid them on Sundays, then just leave the church

Matthew 18: 15-20 has become engrained in our collective unconscious as the epitome of the abusive and oppressive way religious communities treat people. These verses have been used to justify the abuse in religious communities of shunning, which is invariably a form of officially sanctioned scapegoating.

We need have no fear of this happening to us within the Episcopal Church, because most of us don’t give that level of priority to our Church membership. That we might be accountable to one another makes us shudder. This is our collective unconscious fear coming out, a fear from a time when inclusion and exclusion from community carried implications of life or death. Our collective dread is further compounded in our individual experience because ostracism is one of the most painfully reoccurring personal experiences of growing up.

For not to

We don’t particularly care for the experience of being accountable to another person, or group of persons, especially if they seem to be just like us, with no more nor less claim to authority than we possess. We read Matthew within a frame colored by our experience of school days. For most of us being accountable to another leads to a step-by-step process of ratcheting up the pressure that groups use to ensure conformity. Firstly one person confronts you. Then if that does not go so well, and it invariably doesn’t, they come back with an ally. When that doesn’t achieve the desired result a gang of persons, and eventually the whole group or community then ostracizes or expels you, that is, if you haven’t jumped ship, first.

Yet, what happens if we read Matthew within a new frame created by substituting the word to with the word for? In this frame we are no longer accountable to, but become accountable for one another. The image of Jesus communicated to us through the Gospels is never one of him resorting to hierarchical authority. Even in Matthew, who presents us with the most Moses-like image of Jesus, Jesus is presented as having authority, not as being authoritarian. Reading these verses against this larger experience of Jesus leads me to suggest that Jesus is asking his disciples to be responsible for  one another and not to one another. Matthew opens chapter 18 with Jesus talking about the adult abuse of children. The implication follows that if we are not to abuse children then it makes no sense for us to use power as the instrument for abuse of one another.

I take Jesus to mean that within our community life we are to be accountable for one another. This means looking out for one another. Sometimes, looking out for one another involves addressing behaviors that are harmful to relationships between individuals. Sometimes, looking out for one another makes it necessary to challenge one another when if left unchallenged, our behavior endangers the stability of the whole community.

Journeying togetherimages-2

In The Essential Ingredient, David Lose commenting on Matthew 18:15-20 asks:[2]

So what kind of community do we want from our congregation — largely social, somewhat superficial (which is, of course, safe)? Do we want something more meaningful or intimate (which is riskier and harder)? Do we want a place that can both encourage us and hold us accountable? Are we looking for a place we can be honest about our hopes and fears, dreams and anxieties? Do we want somewhere we can just blend in or are we looking for a place we can really make a difference? 

Sunday September 7th is Homecoming Sunday at St Martin’s in Providence. Unlike anywhere else I’ve been, there is a sheer literality to Homecoming Sunday in the life of Rhode Island Churches, where the custom for many is to make good use of summer weekends for trips to the sea and elsewhere because as all Yankees know- winter is coming! So this is an appropriate time to pose the questions Lose frames above. As we journey together into the mists and mellow fruitfulness of the Fall, what kind of community are we on the way to becoming?

I would like us to be always in the process of becoming a community where relationship rests on a mature capacity to negotiate our differences face-to-face. For me conflict is inevitable in any healthy Christian community. By healthy, I mean a community where people engage with their passion in the task of worshiping together, loving each other and serving the world. Where passions are engaged strong feeling is always in play. I don’t fear strong feeling. My fear is to be part of a community of lukewarm feeling, where difference can be avoided because ultimately, nothing is important enough to fall-out over. Where the personal cost of leaving the community is so inconsequential because if we don’t like St Martin’s there’s always somewhere else to go; though evidence shows that when Episcopalians stop going to one church, we stop going to any church. 

Where two or three agree to gather

Our Gospel pericope (section of verses) ends with Jesus’ enigmatically speaking about agreement and gathering together in his name. Given that this comes at the end of a teaching on mutual accountability, agreement must refer to some form of common accord.

Does this mean that we have to agree with one another before we can gather in his name? Does agreement envision eradication of difference?  Because most Christian traditions stress theological agreement does gather together mean the fruit of theological agreement about what’s true and what is false? My answer to each of these questions is a resounding no!

Shared agreement is not available to Episcopalians. We can be likened to the Jews of the Christian world because the only thing we can agree on is that we don’t agree about much. What this actually means is not that anything goes, but that we are a communion, which is a word that signifies relationship rather than structure. We recognize that the world can be viewed through several difference lenses. We acknowledge that there are broadly speaking, several worldviews possible. We see no reason to pretend that these differences of worldview will not be reflected in our communities. It’s not shared truth, but common worship that holds us together. It’s within a communion of relationships we become accountable, i.e. lookout for one another.

Because of this, and in this way I believe we are able echo Matthew Skinner’s words:images-1

peering into autumn’s transitions, we [find that we] belong to one another

[1] http://www.rickmorley.com/

[2] http://www.davidlose.net/

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