Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Gentiles and Tax Collectors

In an exaggerated gesture of “good riddance,” Jesus says of those who refuse to listen when confronted about a wrong they have done, “Let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” Good news: our church is full of Gentiles, so I’m not really sure whether those stinging words will have any effect. What does it mean to treat a member of the Gentile church as a Gentile and a tax collector? I don’t know of any IRS agents who go to St. John’s, but I could be mistaken. Still, I doubt we’d treat them any differently than the rest of us. So what does Jesus mean?

This Sunday’s gospel lesson is Matthew 18:15-20. And this is one of those weeks when the preacher will either have to reinterpret Jesus’ imperative into modern parlance or preach a sermon about the imperative rather than preach the imperative itself. And that’s where I’m leaning. Honestly, given how quickly the Christian movement became a predominantly Gentile church, I’m curious how this particular line survived in Matthew’s account. Why leave it in? By the time people were reading Matthew’s gospel text, treating a fellow Christian as a gentile would have meant about as much as it does today. Plus, Matthew himself was a tax collector, which makes me wonder what this is really all about.

Is Jesus really saying, “Let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector—an untouchable enemy who has no share in your fellowship,” which is what a Jewish reading of the text would imply? Or is Jesus saying, “Let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector—a sinner who needs redeeming and, whenever he comes to his senses and repents, should quickly be readmitted into the church?”

The problem is distinguishing between what I want this text to be about and what it is really about. I want this text to be about forgiveness. Having taken a quick glance at the passage in the gospel book on Sunday morning, I misremembered that it was about forgiveness, and I spent some time yesterday dreaming what sort of forgiveness sermon I might preach. But it doesn’t seem to be about forgiveness. It seems to be about judgment. I want Jesus to be soft on the Gentiles and tax collectors, but I don’t buy into the he-isn’t-really-saying-what-he-is-saying approach to the bible. Almost always, the text says what it’s supposed to say. So what do we do with this?

Let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Hmmm. Maybe the integrity of the church really does depend on resolving those differences or casting out the unrepentant. Maybe the three chances that the sinner is given to come to his or her senses is actually a sign of gracious leniency. Maybe Jesus wants me to spend time during the announcements each week naming those who have refused to seek forgiveness so that we can disown them. I don’t think so. I hope not. I’ve got the rest of the week to figure it out.

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