Matthew 18: 15-20
Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost
Sermon by Dr. Lisa Ozaeta
Today, I want to talk about Radical Love.
I love this part of the lectionary. We get to see Jesus teaching, telling parables, and performing miracles. When we get to this week’s reading. It feels different. It seems like it just a bunch of rules about what to do when we hurt each other in the church. It feels confrontational and even like relationships are ending. Where is the good news in that? That seems like a real downer after the feeding of the 5000 or Jesus walking on water to come find us when we are stuck in the midst of chaos.
But, this passage does have good news. The reason I like to write the background on the readings for the newsletter is that I think we have to read scripture in a greater context. The lectionary is great because we read through scripture every 3 years. But, we only get small snippets each week. We need to always zoom out so that we know what the author is really trying to communicate to us.
Here, this story is 5 verses of Chapter 18 in Matthew. If we look at the entire chapter of 18, we find that this story is sandwiched in passages that crescendo in teaching us about love. Before this passage is the story of the shepherd with 100 sheep. One sheep is separated from the rest. We don’t know why. But we can all think of times that we have been separated from the others. Either we have been hurt, or have hurt others. Maybe things just feel too tough and we need to just go be alone. We don’t know why the sheep is separated. Jesus just says that the sheep is lost. Sounds familiar. Jesus says that the shepherd seeks out that sheep and finds her and brings her back to the fold. The two things I love about this story are that 1) the shepherd knows that a sheep is missing. That shows an intimate connection between the shepherd and the sheep. 2) second, the shepherd goes to find the sheep. He does not just stand there and call for the sheep or hope it will be okay or wait for the sheep to find her way home. He goes to her. Jesus is telling us that God knows us intimately, and he will always come to us when we need Him.
So we have this remarkable parable. Then today’s reading. Directly after today’s reading, we have Peter asking Jesus about how many times he has to forgive people. You can hear Peter saying, Okay, Okay, I get it. I have to forgive. But, come on, when is enough enough? How many times Lord. Jesus answers with this ridiculous number. He says to Peter that we must forgive 70 times 7. There are a lot of people who have written about the symbolic nature of those numbers. That is interesting. Google it if you want to read more of that. But to me, it just sounds like a crazy high number. There is no way that I can keep count that far. And, I think Jesus knows that. I read this and think that Jesus knows that either 1) we wont be able to keep track and will have to start over, or 2) on our way to counting forgiveness up to 490, we get so much in the habit of forgiving that we don’t want to count anymore.
So, our passage today is bookended by teachings of great love and great forgiveness. That is what I think this passage is saying to us. It is not a legalistic list of things that we are supposed to do for mediation. It is an example of what it means to live out our love towards each other. Jesus knows that we will hurt each other. That is what humans do. Jesus is giving us the example of what it looks like to treat each other with respect and to build community rather than letting it disintegrate under human egos. The prescription that Jesus gives us is to be honest with ourselves and invite others to be honest about our actions and feelings. We approach each other with love and understanding. We humble ourselves and say we are sorry. We see the other people who surround us and make sure they know that they are seen and loved. Jesus gave us the example of forgiveness when he prayed, Father forgive them for they know not what they do. And then he taught us to pray, forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Jesus knows we will hurt others and others will hurt us. He says, forgive. Follow my example. The focus of this passage is reconciliation and Jesus’ acclamation of how important community is. We don’t do church alone. There were 12 disciples. Early churches met in homes to grow together in their love for God and the execution of their mission. The very nature of our faith is communal. The life of Jesus is God coming to earth to be among us. We need each other. That takes a love and forgiveness.
I want to talk a little about the last part of this passage because it seems hard. I don’t want to gloss over it. So, at the end of this passage, Jesus says and if you can’t reconcile, treat the person like the gentiles or tax collectors. What? What does that mean? This verse has been used as a weapon in the church to hurt people. To exclude people. But, when we watch Jesus through the pages of scripture. That is not how he treated the gentiles or the tax collectors. He sought out relationship with the. He went to Zacchaeus who was up in a tree listening to Jesus speak. Jesus, went to him and said, Hey, Zacchaeus, let’s have dinner at your house tonight. Let’s spend some time together. In fact, one of the scandals of Jesus’ life was that he was always around “the wrong kind of people.” The author of this book, Matthew, was a tax collector. So, I don’t think that Jesus is saying turn your back on these people. There is a time that a public process dealing with hurt is no longer fruitful. You can’t try to “win” an argument. You can’t force someone to forgive or accept your forgiveness. You have to let it go. But, you can always maintain a spirit of love, inclusion. You can seek a relationship that allows that love to grow and can create reconciliation with the larger community. It is Jesus’ invitation for us to go and find the lost sheep and bring her back to the fold.
Paul tells us in Romans to owe no one anything but love. It is the biggest debt that we have to each other. God loved us in such a great way that he compels us to love each other with a radical love that seeks connection with others and offers forgiveness. It is how we live out the incarnational mystery of Jesus’ life.