Sunday, September 10, 2023
The Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Treat them as Gentiles or Tax Collectors?

The Rev. Mark D. Wilkinson, Rector
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
Katy TX 77450

Click here to watch the Sermon

Today’s gospel is problematic if you take it in isolation from everything that is before and after it. Two weeks ago Peter acclaims Jesus as the Messiah and Jesus gives him the keys to the kingdom and we hear binding and losing language. Last week Jesus calls him Satan and a stumbling block and we get the lesson about denying yourself and take up your cross. Then we jump over chapter 17 and the first half of 18 and get a lesson in middle of a section church discipline.

Today’s passage is a lesson in how to be church. Just before this is when the disciples ask who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven and Jesus asks for a child to stand in their midst. He cautions them about putting a stumbling block before one such as this. If they do it is better to have a millstone put around your neck and be thrown into the sea along with several other examples. This is followed by the example of the shepherd who goes out into the wilderness to find and retrieve the one lost sheep. Then we get out teaching today. Following this is the question of how often must I forgive another?

It is the opening portion of today’s passage, that has caused trouble for the church over centuries if you are reading this as a strict rule about how to handle someone who “sins” whatever that means.

Matt. 18:15 ¶ “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. 16 But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.

There is a lot of discussion about whether or not Jesus actually said the opening part of our gospel today. For example the word ecclesia Greek for church only appears two times in the gospels. It is very unlikely that Jesus before his death would refer to a church and it certainly would not be church as we think of it. Matthew’s disciples might speak of church and Paul does. Part of me wonders about this and part of me says does it make a difference? In this case I think the misread that I see happen in this passage would be not really thinking about what Jesus would be saying here. If it were Matthew’s community well maybe they meant it. Certainly a lot of church leaders and congregations have read this literally and used it as the basis to excommunicate or shun people.

Now for some of the church, I would be the one that they want to excommunicate and so would many of you. No matter which side of the debates and arguments in today’s church that you are on, some on the other side, no matter what that other is, would like to use this passage to get rid of us.  Yet is this what Christian Community is about? I want to offer a different look but first why do I think this passage is misused. Here is an example and I will let you judge.

Sadly, this is a true story. There was a minister of a huge non-denominational church. He used this passage as the basis for “shunning” the unrepentant.  I know of a family who were seated in the large auditorium among the 1500 members when this pastor called on them to stand. He named whatever sin it was that they as a family had committed. I wish I could remember, for it did not seem terribly sinful to me. Then called on all those present to turn their backs on them until they repented. He then turned away from them and waited until all the others, all 1500 of the congregation did the same. The family walked out and never darkened the door of a church again.  The children were students in the local school system and the school was made aware because the other students in the building who attended the church were not allowed to speak with or even acknowledge the shunned children’s existence. This was all done in the name of Christ.

They were damned in the eyes of that church forever if we accept the next couple of lines about binding and loosing here on earth having eternal ramifications. Is this really what Jesus would do or want us to do? This I fear is a tragic misreading of not only this but other Bible passages. It runs the risk of destroying community rather than building community. This reading builds walls around us, rather than opening doors.

What bothered me about this passage is that Jesus says to treat them like Gentiles and tax collectors. The reason this passage has always bothered me is how it is used by the type of people I have just mentioned. Many like those who ran that church use this as an excuse to punish. They view this passage as allowing them to make the judgment of who is in and who is out. It takes the view that Gentiles and tax collectors are the lowest of the low and should be rejected and excluded. The implication is then that those kicked out here on earth are also kicked out of heaven.

However, stop and think for a moment. How did Jesus treat tax collectors and Gentiles? If I am not mistaken, he sat down and ate with them.  A few even made it into the ranks of his disciples. This passage in fact this whole chapter of Matthew is not about punishment and exclusion, but about compassion and forgiveness.  Seeking to use this passage out of context is in my view a tragic misreading of the verse.

The verses immediately before this contain the parable of the lost sheep. Where the shepherd, abandoning all common sense and normal practice, leaves the 99 alone and goes after the one lost sheep.  Then there is rejoicing about the return of the one lost sheep.  The verses following, which are in next week’s readings, are the command to forgive 7 times 70.  Where is the forgiveness and love in throwing someone out, abandoning them to damnation and turning our backs on them? I will tell you one thing. On a personal level, I am very hesitant to play the judge. I believe ultimately our theology teaches that this is for God and Christ.

Once again, I turn to Eugene Peterson and his translation of the Bible called The Message. He translates verse 17b as follows, “If he will not listen to the church, you’ll have to start over from scratch, confront him with the need for repentance, and offer again God’s forgiving love.”

There is no cutting off of community here. There is no concept of ex-communication or shunning, but a command to continue to reach out.  Permission is not given to stop the dialogue, to turn our backs and wash our hands of entire portions of society.

For me, when the time comes for me to answer for what I have done, I would rather explain to God that I was too willing to love, erred on the side of being too forgiving than have to explain that I excluded those who Christ would include. If I must be convicted, convict me of loving too much and too freely. I will gladly accept the consequences.

And so now I return to some of my original thoughts for we are gathered not just two or three, but all of us, and Jesus is here with us to teach us a powerful lesson about community and his saving presence with us.

Jesus is always present with us in the last and least in the world. Jesus changes our definition of neighbor from those just like us to every human-being. This is why I have spent so much time on the homeless woman that was on our property over the past couple weeks.

For the message of today’s gospel is one of the open and inclusive nature of a Christian community. This is a message that no one is outside of God’s forgiveness, mercy and love. This is a message that we are all God’s children and yes we should treat all as Jesus treated tax collectors and Gentiles, for those are the ones whom Jesus invited to his table. He invites you to be bold enough to join him as well at the table in the community we call the church and live into all that this community demands.