How did today’s Gospel reading strike you? I hope you found it as cranky and confusing as I did. The subject matter is surprising – how to resolve conflicts in the church. Now, I always thought that the church came into being after the resurrection. Is this passage, an add-on, a 1st century church problem, troubling the Gospel writer so much that it skews his retrospective account of Jesus’ ministry? The tone jars, too. Jesus says that you may have to give up on those you can’t be reconciled with because of the serious offence they have caused. You must consider such offenders as Gentiles and Tax Collectors. Hang on, surely Jesus was the one who reached out with compassion to tax collectors like Zacchaeus, Levi and Matthew and to Gentiles such as the Centurion, whose slave was dying and the Syrophoenician woman whose daughter was possessed by a demon. Strange, because earlier in his Gospel, the author, Matthew, has described both the calling of Matthew, the tax collector, and the healing of the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter .
We can, of course, identify with similar conflict situations in our modern context and understand the danger of covering up dangerous issues. We respect the Law and accept the need for regulations to safeguard one another in the home, workplaces, and organisations including churches. We value the protection offered by our legal and policing systems. The advice in the Gospel about addressing issues face to face, being guided by impartial witnesses and persevering to bring about reconciliation holds good today. But some of it needs imaginative unpicking – authors who take liberties with their time frame, must expect us to question the text! Maybe if we could ask Jesus what he meant by comparing the unrepentant and unreconciled to Gentiles and Tax Collectors, he would say that no person and no situation is beyond redemption – he would remind us that he included Tax Collectors in his circle of friends and healed Gentiles. He was often accused of seeking out the company of sinners, collaborators, prostitutes, and breakers of the moral codes. He might have commented, once again, that so-called “sinners” are those who most readily perceive their desperate need of God’s compassion – and therefore find it easiest to enter the Kingdom of Heaven.
The saying about loosing and binding is a tough one but I can’t believe that it gives any one permission to damn another person to eternity – that would fly in the face of Jesus’ teaching about not judging others. Maybe it’s saying that our relationships last through time and eternity and that it is crucial to get them right.
What about the prayer bit, then? Experience tells us prayer is not a numbers game – the petitions of two or more people praying together are no more likely to bring exactly the outcome which those praying desire, than individual prayers. Perhaps, instead, the words are guaranteeing something which Jesus has promised and will promise again, his abiding presence with his disciples. What brings me to this bold conclusion – St Paul has come to my aid, again, in today’s reading from Romans 13. Paul’s been dealing with the whole issue of how Christians should respond to authority – in much greater depth and he draws everything – obedience and disobedience, one’s contribution to society or lack of it, keeping and breaking the law into Jesus’ commandment to love one another – love is for Paul, the fulfilling of the law. And so, from the Gospel reading, I intend to take that pledge of Jesus’ loving, accepting presence inspiring us, whenever and wherever we worship and pray together, even in times of conflict.