Jesus’ description of how to confront difference is not about groups or individuals who are defined as sinful because “they” will not “repent” and agree with our cultural definitions of behaviour. Rather, it is about internal interpersonal conflict within church communities and the imperative to seek peaceful restitution when we believe someone has wronged us or acted badly. This is a complex passage which could tempt us to exclude people who will not listen to our reasoning instead of continuing to treat them with love and compassion. If they will not seek forgiveness after repeated attempts at reconciliation, we are urged to treat them as Gentiles or as tax collectors. How did Jesus treat the Gentiles and tax collectors? Jesus welcomed them into a new community. Sandwiched between the story of the lost sheep and the question about how often to forgive, the process for seeking repentance is framed by an unrelenting desire for reconciliation and restoration. When reasoning fails, continue to love.
Peter asks Jesus how often he has to forgive a person who has sinned against him. Jesus’ answer suggests that the binding and loosening from the previous section is not about exclusion but treating recalcitrant members with forgiveness and acceptance. Perhaps the story of the unforgiving servant reveals that church members who believe they have the right to bind and loose people must be very very careful. They too owe much and must act as those forgiven and released into a new way of acting with justice and care towards those still struggling. The story is embedded in a question: how often should I forgive? The answer – many many, many times. Though this forgiveness does not mean we remain in dangerous domestic violence situations. The forgiven servant failed to change his behaviour and show forgiveness to another. Remember, that we too are forgiven many, many times. God’s forgiveness, grace, and mercy are never ending and available to us for all our imagined and real sins? Not the punishment but the never ending grace of God is the key to this story.
Matthew 20: 1-16
The saying, “the first shall be last and the last shall be first,” always irritated me when I was a young person. Going to some camps where the first in line for food were greedy, I was worried that there would be little left for me. A trivial example but one that seems all too true when the sharing of resources is compromised. Those who are first in line don’t want to lose their status and power. Those who are last recognise the grace and mercy of God who draws them out of oblivion. The saying is beautiful in a community of love where the grace of God is freely received, where all ensure that none miss out. In Jesus’ community, no one is jealous of what others receive but are grateful that the love of God is big enough for all. In Jesus’ community the first look around and see the despair and hopelessness on the faces of those languishing in the boredom of a long day as they wait to be hired. The first are happy when the long term unemployed are given the dignity of work and they rejoice that the love of God is shared equally for all.
A few years ago, I attended a Responsible Use of Power course in the US where George, a professor from England, told of his encounter with a rough New Yorker who wanted to smash his face. The mild mannered professor was standing on a corner when the lights changed. As he stepped off the curb, a van raced through the red light, almost colliding with him. Instinctively, and stupidly he admitted, George slapped the side of the van. Screeching to a stop, a mountain of a man lumbered out, towered over George and threatened to punch him to the ground. George knew he was outmatched and in trouble. Looking up at this man’s face almost covered by a large bushy beard, George suddenly had a memory of his beloved grandfather. Not knowing what to do, he simply kissed the man who, stunned, looked around at all the people laughing at him, climbed back into his van and raced away. Legitimate power is not coercive. Jesus acts with the power of God enabling him to evade the trap set by those who were trying to destroy him.
Rev. Dr Christine Gapes