Proper 18A September 4, 2011
Exodus 12:10-14; Psalm 149
Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20
Our Gospel lesson today is a little déjà vu from our lesson of two weeks ago. Both passages have a lot in common. In both passages we find the only time “the church” is mentioned in Gospels. In both passages, we hear Jesus talking about “binding” and “loosing.” So these passages are important. They say something about the character of Christian community, something about how Jesus wants his disciples to live.
Today, Jesus is talking about how to resolve conflicts. He lays out some rules, which some people and some churches take quite literally. If church members disagree in some churches, this is what they have to do, to the point of expelling the one who resists this “Christian” method of conflict resolution. But then Jesus says,
Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. If two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.
Binding and loosing. For generations rabbis had debated about the law. All of the law is sacred, every jot and tittle, which means every comma and squiggle of punctuation. But in some circumstances, the strict application of the law can be loosened a bit, and Jesus was famous for that. Take, for example, the commandment to love your neighbor. Remember Jesus’ summary of the law: “to love the Lord your God with all your heart, and to love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” When the question arose about, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus bound that law, strengthened it, tied it, to a universal understanding of neighbor that included even enemies. “‘You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” Not an easy task. Neighbors: we see why we should get along with the people who live next door to us. But enemies? People we do not even know? What in the world have they do to with us? Exactly, Jesus would say. Loving even enemies means we acknowledge our bonds of a common humanity. God binds us together, even enemies, even people we would not otherwise choose to associate with.
But just as Jesus, the rabbi, binds the law, we find him loosening it, such as the law prohibiting work on the Sabbath. If people are hungry and it is the Sabbath and they have no food, or if someone is in need of healing, then they may loose the law and do those works. That does not break the law, for it is still forbidden to work on the Sabbath – but the demands of the circumstances – the time, the place, the burning need of the neighbor – demand that the observance of the law be stretched on this occasion.[i]
What to do? What to do? To bind, to loose – in Supreme Court terms, are we strict constructionists, or do we interpret the law by taking into account changing times and circumstances? Must Christians work out our conflicts openly, in the community, just as Jesus describes? This must have been something the early church struggled with, too. In our second reading, Paul must have been answering someone’s questions. He lays out some of the original 10 Commandments given to Moses as part of Exodus story: “You shall not commit adultery. You shall not commit murder. You shall not steal. You shall not covet.” But then Paul, himself a rabbi, loosens some requirements of the law, even as he binds the one that is most important: “’Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”
Conflicts are never easy. In conflicted situations, we feel vulnerable. There is often a lot at stake. Reputations, fortunes, even lives may be lost. Sometimes the actual object of the conflict is petty but the stakes become enormously high. “Rise above it!” I used to say to my children, when they were locked in a conflict to the death, over some small toy.
Alas, I think these passages from scripture we read here today mean that God wants us to do more than “rise above it.” God wants to us to engage, with the hard work of love, with our neighbors and even our enemies. God wants us to face into these difficult, conflicted situations directly and openly – to hear when we have done wrong, to speak to another person about the wrong we feel they have done to us. God wants us to face into these situations, knowing the risk that it may not always work out -- that there may be peace but perhaps not reconciliation.
So there we are, in the middle of that hard conversation that we have tried our best to avoid. It could be at home, it could be here in church, it could be with your neighborhood association, or the town zoning board, or the state legislature. It could be in Afghanistan, or between Israelis and Palestinians, or between the northern Muslim Sudanese and the southern Christian Sudanese. Conflict and disagreement, fear of shame and loss, have been part of human nature from the very beginning.
But as Jesus reminds us, something else is also there in our human nature, from before the very beginning: love. Whenever two or three are gathered, Jesus reminds us, God is there. Whenever two or three are gathered in happy times, yes, of course, that is easy to see God among us. But whenever two or three are gathered in conflict, in disagreement, in fear or shame or hardness of heart, God is there. God is on “our” side, and on “their” side. God has hopes, that the next time we engage in a conflict, however petty, however immense, our deeper, truer human nature, our nature of love, will prevail.
[i] Mark Allan Powell, “Binding and loosing: a paradigm for ethical discernment from the Gospel of Matthew;” Currents in Theology and Mission, 2003