Tuesday, February 26, 2013

New Thoughts on an Old Practice

During this season of Lent, my boss Gary and I have taken it upon ourselves to read all four gospels during the 40 days and blog about what we are learning. We have invited our faith community and the students at the youth center where I work to join us on the journey. One section from our readings a few days ago is one of the more popular passages in all of the gospels. Matthew 18:15-20 has long been used by the church as a model for church discipline. The way the passage is typically read, understood, and practiced is that if someone is in sin, you go to them individually to try to correct their behavior. If they do not listen, you then go to them with two or three people. If they still will not listen to your advice and correction, you take their story before the whole church. And finally, if they still will not modify their sinful ways, they are to be expelled from your community, a practice traditionally known as excommunication.

But this is not how the actual biblical passage reads and is a grave misunderstanding of Jesus' words. Jesus says, "...if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector." While the church has often interpreted this passage as the license and liberty to excommunicate the unrepentant sinner, this is actually the EXACT OPPOSITE of Jesus' words. Jesus is not asking us to break communion with pagans and tax collectors, because these are the very people with whom Jesus frequently communed. He constantly befriended and loved those who the world loved to hate. He constantly communed with all the 'wrong' people. He constantly loved the unlovable.

"Treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector"

With these challenging and engaging words, Jesus is inviting his followers to actively engage and commune with people who are resisting the way of Jesus. He's not asking us to break these relationships and solely commune with those that are like us. He is inviting us to push further into community and fellowship with those who badly need the good news of Jesus. May we have the courage to not resist and avoid relationships with the other, those different than us, and our enemies.

P.S.  To add one more thought - I don't think it is just random coincidence that the section of text following this passage on church discipline is the story of Jesus telling Peter he must forgive others 70 x 7 times. What do you do when someone has wronged you? Sure doesn't look like Jesus wants you to kick them out of church.

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