Year A — The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 18)

Commentary for September 4, 2011
Click here for today’s readings

Exodus 12:1-14
New beginnings. We all need them at some time in our lives, don’t we? This may be the biggest “new beginning” in the Bible, short of the death and resurrection of Christ.

After many of years of faithfulness, followed by many years of suffering, oppression and prayers, the children of Israel are about to be delivered from their misery by means of the tenth (and most “awe-ful”) plague — the death of the first-born children in Egypt.

God gives detailed instructions through Moses for salvation from the plague. A sacrificial lamb, the shedding of blood, a common meal, preparations to depart into a new (if somewhat unknown) life. All of these are themes that will echo in the Christian telling of the Jesus story.

Why is blood required? Why must life be ended in order for life to be gained? Are there “innocent” lives involved here…children, mothers, families who had nothing to do with the stiff resistance of Pharoah?

All of these questions speak to the horrific consequences of sin — unfortunately, sin always leads to death. And even more tragically, we may be affected by sin that is committed by us or someone else, completely unbeknownst to us. Talk about a bummer!

What, then, is the takeaway from this Passover passage? 

God takes sin very seriously; God provides a way of salvation; that way is dreadfully costly; ultimately, it is God who not only provides the way, but pays the price, as well.

Psalm 149

It is pretty difficult for us to relate to a service of worship and praise in which we celebrate God’s vengeance on the nations and punishment on the people who are our enemies. (Well, maybe it’s not that difficult for some within the Christian community, but it is for me!)

I’m still struggling with what to do with a line like v.6: “Let the high praises of God be in their throats and two-edged swords in their hands…”

Perhaps the best I can do at the moment is to acknowledge my discomfort, and recall the words of the Apostle from last week’s lesson, “…give place unto wrath: for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay,’ saith the Lord.” (Romans 12:19)

Ezekiel 33:7-11
This passage offers some balance to the language of the psalm; it was also quoted often in the aftermath of the slaying of Osama bin Laden earlier this year. That God does not take any delight in the loss of human life — even of those who are “wicked” — is an important element of the divine character. We do well to remember that.

Psalm 119:33-40
Dominican priest Girolamo Savonarola cursed the secular Medici society of Florence, Italy during his day (late 15th century) — leading his followers to a frenzied “Bonfire of the Vanities” in which they burned collections of art, literature and cosmetics on Mardi Gras, 1497. (What a dude! Read more about Fr. Savonarola here.)

Author Tom Wolfe used the phrase to great advantage with his 1987 novel (and subsequent movie adaptation) about life in New York City during the decade of the 1980’s. The book illustrated Wolfe’s theme (taken from Ecclesiastes — “all is vanity” — according to some sources) that no one really has any control over their own life, regardless of wealth, wisdom or success.

(Read the book, or catch Tom Hanks in one of his most underwhelming roles in the movie…a nice suggested companion book is Ragen, Brian Abel (2002), Tom Wolfe: A Critical Companion, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, ISBN 0313313830)

Psalm 119 is right on the mark again!

Romans 13:8-14
Paul gets us right where we need to be got, especially after all these heavy lessons about killing the first-born and owning up to our vanities.

You don’t really owe ANYTHING to ANYBODY…except to love them. That’s the real point of what God has been trying to say all along. Period.

Matthew 18:15-20
We are sometimes afraid of this bit of relational wisdom from Jesus. We oughtn’t be; this is not a process to try when somebody in the church has been bad and we want to get rid of them. It’s a powerful injunction to give the respect due to each other — and to try to work things out face to face when we’ve hit a bump in the highway of human frailty.

The thing is, it’s absolutely amazing how often v.15 does the trick!

by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to visit my mother on the farm where I grew up in the foothills of Virginia. I went for a drive to check on old familiar places and leaving the parking lot of Hatcher’s Chapel United Methodist, I glanced down the road and across a pasture at the Pentecostal Church and remembered a story my late father had told me about that church. It brought a smile to my face as I stood at his grave later that day.

Most of the denominations in that part of the world were against tobacco, but the vast majority ignored the fact that many of their members were tobacco farmers or worked in tobacco factories. Not the Pentecostal Holiness. They took their anti-tobacco stance seriously.

Daddy told me that every spring, when the farmers in his congregation planted their tobacco, the Preacher would go and see them and read them the section in the Pentecostal Holiness Discipline forbidding involvement in “the tobacco trade” and the scripture we read from Matthew. A few weeks later he brought two elders with him and did it again. And some time before Memorial Day, the women and children of the congregation gathered in solemn assembly to excommunicate their fathers and husbands and brothers, etc. Then everyone would go home to a nice Sunday dinner.

Sometime in the Fall, after everyone had harvested their crop and sold their tobacco, the women and children would gather again and vote their menfolk back in, just in time, my father added with a wink, for the church to collect a tithe on the proceeds of the tobacco sale.

Somehow, while following the Bible literally and carefully, the good folks at the Pentecostal Holiness church managed to miss the entire point of Jesus’ teaching in this matter. They used this text as a way to keep the church clean from the messiness of sin while Jesus meant it as a way to bring messy, sinful people back into the household of faith.

It is interesting to note that Matthew 18:15-17 is the only bit of Scripture cited explicitly, chapter and verse, in the Model Constitution for Congregations of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. It is in Chapter 15, THE DISCIPLINE OF MEMBERS.

The wording of the constitution is important here. It says, “Prior to disciplinary action, reconciliation will be attempted following Matthew 18.” Did you notice? “Prior to disciplinary action, reconciliation will be attempted.”

This text is not about “How to throw someone out so the church will be pure.” This text is about “How to love somebody back in so that they might be saved.”

There are three things in the text that show us this:

1) Context: Matthew placed this episode between two important sayings of Jesus about forgiveness and the reclaiming of the lost. It comes after the shepherd leaving the 99 to go search for the one lost sheep and before Jesus tells Peter that we should forgive sinners not seven times but
seventy time seven. It is obviously a part of a forgiveness reconciliation section.

2) Within the text itself, verse 15, Jesus says, “If the member listens to you, you have regained that one;” indicating that the whole point is to bring people back into the family of faith.

3) And for me, the most important point is the one most misunderstood, verse 17, “if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a gentile and a tax collector.”

This text is usually taken to mean that we should exclude, ignore, shun, excommunicate, disown, debar, avoid, treat as null and void and nonexistent these folks; but let me ask you an important question: “How did Jesus himself treat gentiles and tax collectors?”

Let’s see. Matthew, in whose gospel we read these words, was a what? Does anybody know? Matthew 10:3 “Matthew the tax collector.” That’s one tax collector he invited into his inner circle.
And what about Zaccheus? The “wee little man” in a sycamore tree; a Tax Collector.

The Pharisees were always fussing about Jesus, mostly for eating and drinking and partying with whom? “Tax collectors and sinners!” That doesn’t sound like shunning and avoiding to me.

And what about Gentiles? Let’s see. There’s the Samaritan woman at the well. What about the Canaanite woman whose daughter had a demon? Then there’s the Roman Centurion who sought to have his daughter healed. Wasn’t that the person Jesus said had more faith than anyone in Israel? That doesn’t sound like shunning and avoiding and excommunicating to me?

Matthew certainly had a reason for telling us that Jesus said we should treat sinners like gentiles and tax collectors; but it does not seem to be have been the reason we have traditionally assumed.

We thought it meant that we should wash our hands of them, shun them and have nothing to do with them. And because middle-class Americans, generally speaking, just don’t act like that, we have ignored the whole thing. We have not attempted reconciliation under Biblical standards because it is too messy emotionally and we don’t want to deal with getting to the end of the process and having to kick somebody out.

But kicking them out is not the point. What Jesus really meant was that we should treat people with whom it is hard to reconcile as people in need of serious love. This text is about learning to love people, even when they don’t particularly want to be loved.

It is about reaching out to people, even as they push us away. It is about loving others enough to talk to them about their behavior and to offer them help in changing it. And it is about refusing to give up on anybody, anybody at all. It is about the willingness to go that extra mile to find a lost sheep. It is about a willingness to forgive and forgive and forgive, until the sinner is redeemed.

Simply put, it is about treating other people the way Jesus treated gentiles and tax collectors,

as people to be loved and brought into the Kingdom of God.

Amen and amen.

4 thoughts on “Year A — The Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 18)

  1. Delmer,your daddy's story about the Holiness preacher is the best illustration of the misuse of Matthew 18 I've heard. I'm afraid many of us have chosen the alternative of ignoring the text entirely. (I'm serving in a Moravian Church these days; I'll take a pass on mentioning the ELCA model constitution.)

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