September 6, 2008

Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time

There’s an old saying about the church that paraphrases scripture: “Wherever two or three are gathered, there will be conflict.”

Apparently this is not a new phenomenon. When Jesus was among his disciples he gave them instructions for dealing with just this kind of situation:

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. (Matthew 18:15)

It’s good sound advice – isn’t it? If you are having a problem with someone, go directly to that person and talk about it. No triangulating. Don’t talk behind someone’s back to other people because that quickly becomes back-biting or gossip. And don’t just stew over what you feel is an injustice; confront the problem head on and deal with it. But what if it doesn’t work? Well, Jesus addressed that too. Don’t give up try again but, this time, take a couple of trusted companions with you. Maybe they are there for moral support or as witnesses, but whatever the case, it is clear that we are not supposed to give up after one little try. It is possible, of course, that even the second measure will not be successful. If you fail to make peace on the second try, then tell the whole church about the matter. And now here’s where Jesus’ instructions get interesting. If you try all this, he says, and it still doesn’t work, than let your offender be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.

In Jesus’ day, the Gentiles and the tax collectors were the outcasts of religious society, which was all of the society that mattered. Good Torah-abiding citizens would have nothing to do with them. The Gentiles were ritually unclean, failing to observe the purity laws and ignorant of the ancient teachings of the faith. And the tax collectors? Well, they gouged the rich and the poor alike, skimmed from the coffers, and lived it up on the livelihood of others. And when one who has sinned against you will not listen to you, Jesus says, then let him or her be to you like a Gentile or a tax collector.

What do you suppose he means by that? Traditional religious folks would have heard this as an instruction to avoid the one who refused to meet, to listen, to be forgiven and reconciled; to treat that person as an outcast, someone to be despised. They would have understood that Jesus was telling them that, after a couple of tries – three at the most -- it was ok to give up on making peace and reestablishing relationship.

But as with many of Jesus’ teachings, there is a catch. The Gentiles and the tax collectors, the poor and the prostitutes, the lepers and the sinners -- these are the ones to whom Jesus reached out. He spent his time with the outcasts and the rejects, with those written off by polite society. And he also spent his life on those who sinned against him at every turn.
I’d rather hear Jesus tell me that it is okay at some point to give up on the one who has offended me. And instead what I hear is that I must invite that person to dinner, sit down, talk, listen, and try for relationship, whether the other seems willing or not.

What I hear is that Jesus is never ready to give up, on the sinners – on us – and that if we are going to claim to be Christian, then we have to keep at it, too.

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