Thursday, September 7, 2017

Read the Surrounding Text

On Sunday morning, the congregation will hear two lessons that need some additional context. Both the Epistle and Gospel lessons are set in their own larger contexts that need some filling out before they make sense, but the preacher is likely (perhaps hopefully) only preaching on one of them (if not the Old Testament lesson). As the preacher this week, I'm tempted to lengthen either or both lessons, but instead I'll try to let the surrounding texts inform my sermon in a way that makes that lengthening unnecessary.

Start with the reading from Romans 13. Paul writes, "Owe no one anything, except to love one another, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law." That makes pretty good sense. He goes on to outline the commandments that deal with how we treat one another, showing that the one who loves her neighbor has fulfilled all of those expectations. But what else does Paul write in Romans 13?

At the beginning of the chapter, Paul writes, "Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God." This is the passage of scripture that Christians point to when describing why followers of Jesus should obey the laws of unholy civil leaders. But Paul is also making a statement here about obligations. As he explains in verses 6 & 7, "For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due."

As soon as Paul finishes urging the Christians in Rome to pay their taxes as a sign of their submission to the divinely appointed civil authorities, he writes, "Owe no one anything, except to love one another." In other words, pay your taxes, so you don't owe anything to anyone except love. There is an accounting image beneath this text. We pay our taxes and submit to the civil authorities so that we are not in their debt. The only debt we are to have with anyone is love. We owe each other love. Paul isn't only telling the Christians in Rome to love each other. He is inviting them to consider their relationship with each other as one indebted by love. The fulfillment of the law is love. Love makes everything complete. We might have financial or civil obligations to the government, but our real obligation to one another is love.

Similarly, the gospel lesson in Matthew 18 is a passage about the mechanics of forgiveness that, when taken out of context, has the potential to distort the real purpose of the passage. In the slice that we will read on Sunday, Jesus anachronistically tells the church how to confront a sinner. First, you go and tell that person in private. If that doesn't work, get a few others to go with you. If that doesn't work, make it public in the whole church, and, if you still haven't regained the sinner, write him or her off as you would a Gentile or a tax collector. (Remember, this is Matthew the tax collector writing this.) But what do the surrounding verses tell us?

Immediately before giving these instructions, Jesus tells the parable of the lost sheep. The lost sheep!?! God searches out the one lost sheep and rejoices in heaven when it is found. The purpose of the elaborate process outlined by Jesus in the following verses isn't to excommunicate the sinner. It's to show to what great lengths one must go for forgiveness. After these verses, Peter asks Jesus, "How many times must I forgive a member of the church--seven times?" And Jesus responds, "Seventy times seven times" or "seventy-seven times," depending on how you read the Greek. Again, these words about taking members of the church with you to confront the sinner are not about rooting out sin but sowing forgiveness. The preacher who cuts these verses from their surrounding context risks preaching a sermon about repentance instead of forgiveness. They're similar in a few key ways, but the differences are unmistakable.

It's Thursday in a holiday-shortened week, and I'm still trying to figure out whether I want to preach about loving each other or forgiving each other. Either way, the message is positive, and the surrounding texts help point that out.

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