Reflections on the Readings for Sunday 4 September 2011
Ezekiel 33:7-9; Psalm 95:1-2, 6-9; Romans 13:8-10; Matthew 18:15-20
Confrontation is never easy to do well. Some of us avoid it not from love but from fear. Some of us find it easy, not because we’re courageous, but because we are arrogant and insensitive. On the receiving end, it is hard to take challenge and criticism without either retaliating or withdrawing behind our defenses to try to block it out. To know when to speak and when to be silent, when to take to heart and when to ignore, requires wisdom and humility. Most of all it requires love.
Paul tells us that when we act in love, we fulfill our whole obligation to others and we fulfill all that God requires of us. Love is not a feel-good, cowardly option. It requires that we act respectfully for the good of the other, to the best of our ability.
Ezekiel was called to be a prophet to his community in exile. With the gift of special insight into what God was doing, came the responsibility to speak prophetically into the situation. God likens Ezekiel to a watchman standing on the walls of the city, looking for approaching danger and warning those inside. His responsibility was to faithfully report what he saw. If the watchman sees the danger and does not warn others, then he is criminally liable for their fate. The church is called to a prophetic role in society. To perform that role she does not have to be powerful or popular, but she has to be credible. It is hard for her to speak the truth to power when she is benefitting from a cosy relationship with the powerful. And if the watchman has shown himself to be self-serving in the past or prone to crying wolf, does all the guilt really lie with those who chose to ignore him in the face of real danger?
Once the prophet has faithfully delivered the message, the responsibility passes to the hearer to respond. When we are praising God, joyfully celebrating in God’s presence and bowing down in worship, are we truly open to actually hearing God’s voice? What if God’s voice comes to us in unexpected times and places, or through the ‘wrong’ person? Jesus claimed that his sheep know his voice. No doubt many people who claim to speak in God’s name can safely be ignored. But when God speaks, if our hearts are receptive, we will recognize God’s voice. Our responsibility then is to listen and to respond. There are many ways and reasons to harden our hearts against God’s voice, not all of them obviously wicked: fear, laziness, a love that has grown cold. We can even use our theology or faithfulness to duty to help us wiggle out of obedience sometimes!
Jesus has given his followers guidelines for loving confrontation within the community of faith. We are to take the difficult but respectful step of one-to-one communication directly with the person who has sinned against us. No gossiping and ‘venting’ behind their backs! If that doesn’t work, then the wisdom of a couple of others can be drawn upon. If Jesus is present where two or three of his disciples are gathered together, as he has promised to be, then this small group has all the resources it needs to discern the situation correctly and to know the correct resolution to the problem. If that is unsuccessful, then the larger community is called into play. I think that is what Jesus means when he says that whatever we ask, agreeing among ourselves, will be granted – not that numbers will bully God into acceding to our request, but that the wisdom of God is available to the community of believers as together we seek God’s will. The agreement among the believers is the confirmation that we have correctly discerned God’s voice in the situation. Of course, all of this presupposes that our hearts are not hardened, that we are living lives characterized by love, and that the church is living as the community of faithful Christ-followers, not as an institution following its own murky agendas. Even if someone refuses to listen and to turn from their destructive way, the obligation to love them does not cease. How should Jesus’ followers treat an outsider or a tax-collector? They are no longer part of the community who together can discern and act upon God’s will, but they are still people in the image of God who are to be treated with respect and loved into new possibilities.