One of the major challenges in living the Christian life is often other Christians.
How often do we hear of Christian people acting in way that we know is quite wrong...
Some of them have political, moral or theological views that are obviously just wrong, even unchristian... by which we sometimes mean that they are different from ours.
Then of course there is serious sin, when Christians commit offences that tear the church apart. Tragically we’ve seen that too often in recent years.
In this gospel today we are given basic principles for dealing with the challenge of behaviour by a fellow Christian that harms the Christian community.
The first principle is - acknowledge the problem. Don’t try to look away as if there’s nothing wrong.
Following on from that - engage with the person. Have a conversation.
Let’s reflect on how issues are often dealt with today on social media.
Often rather than conversation, the genuine sharing of ideas and a charitable pursuit of truth, social media is a platform for shaming, blaming and humiliating others. We see it in so-called political “discussions” but, tragically, in Church-related matters too. Faced with someone who expresses different views on faith and morals, the response can frequently be one of ridicule and exclusion. The first response can too often be that of pushing away.
In today’s Gospel, Our Lord is quite clear that our first response, when someone does something to wrong us, is not to push them away, but instead, in a sense, to draw them closer, to reason with them, to engage with them, to have a conversation.
If that doesn’t work, then one proceeds to the next step of engagement by bringing others into the conversation. Throughout, one’s default position is one of charitable engagement. We see this in Our Lord telling us to have that conversation initially alone. The aim is not to humiliate and shame the person before others, but rather to get beyond the face of the offending remarks and actions, and to enquire more deeply into the motives and reasons behind the person’s actions, to seek the truth of the matter. It involves taking the extra mile and not giving in to premature judgement.
So, no premature judgement, but the church does need to guard itself. There are times when we have to say ‘no’, when we have to say ‘that behaviour tears the community apart, and we can’t allow it to continue’.
If the offender won’t amend their behaviour, then they must be treated as "a pagan or a tax collector" – a catch-all phrase used at that time by the Jewish community to mean anyone considered unclean and outside the faith. However, think about that a bit more deeply. This is Matthew’s gospel. Matthew had been a tax collector before Jesus called him. ‘Pagan’? A few weeks ago we heard the story from this gospel of the pagan Canaanite woman successfully challenging Jesus, and him curing the woman’s daughter.
Treating someone as a pagan and tax collector may mean that they are not any more part of the household of the church, but the door is still open for them. They can still hear Jesus’s voice, they can still challenge him and be challenged by him.
How do we do this? Paul gives us a general principle in today’s reading, mutual love. This is a great challenge for all of us in the church today. How do we show mutual love? Condemning those who offend, whose behaviour harms God’s people, is easy; ignoring the behaviour can be even easier. To look at a real example of this problem in the church now, how do we deal with those who held authority in the church and then abused others?
How do we go from ignoring the behaviour, which is what often happened, to naming and condemning the sin, which needs to happen, without leaving the offenders hopeless and despairing, stuck in their sin and separation from Christ’s church?
This is not an easy issue. In the Eucharistic Prayer of the Mass we pray for the Pope and our Bishop by name, not because of any particular holiness they may possess, but, because their vocation to hold the church together, to exercise authority with love, is a difficult one that needs God’s grace. Any of us who hold authority, as parent or priest, as teacher or manager, knows the temptations to either ignore bad behaviour, or condemn, punish and dismiss the offender. Let’s pray that we can exercise whatever authority we hold with love, and that our church will be a place where all authority is distinguished by love.
6 Sep 2020
Deacon Jim Curtain