Brief synopsis of the readings: In Isaiah we read that he was called as a “sentry to the House of Israel.” God demands that when he hears a wicked man he is required to demand that his wicked man renounce his ways. Otherwise the wicked man will die for sins and the listener will be responsible for his death. However, if the listener warns the wicked man and he does not repent, the wicked man will die and the listener will be saved. Matthew describes how to deal with a brother who does something wrong. If you see him doing something wrong, call him on it. If he heeds your advice, it’s all good. If he doesn’t, bring the evidence to two or three others. If he refutes the judgement of this group, “treat him like a pagan or a tax collector.” Jesus finishes this reading by telling them that “where two or three meet in my name, I shall be there with them.”
There’s no way around this: these are troubling readings. Some readings easily call out the better angels of our natures. Others puzzle us. But sometimes we can (too easily) look at readings in ways that we can easily view through the lenses of our worst angels.
If we ask any question as Christians, our deepest and most important question is this: What must we do to be saved? And, candidly, we’ve never come up with a simle solution. Some look at John 3:16 while others look at Matthew 25:31-46. John appears to tell us that our salvation rests entirely on our decision to believe in Jesus while Matthew argues that our salvation depends on how we treat each other.
And while good people can parse out these verses, there are others who step into dangerous ground by tying our salvation into the salvation of others. Frightenly easily, we can slip into the belief we will be judged not by our faith or our generosity but instead by our success in getting others to accept our path.
Cards on the table, we all want others to agree with us on the choices we make. Here in the United States we find horrific divisions in the ways we think, believe, and dream. And while we say that our differences enrich us, we spend a scary amount of time trying to convince others to agree with us.
So what is our responsibility when we encounter someone doing something we know is wrong? Both readings appear to give step by step instructions. Ezekiel tells us that we should point out their wickedness; that seems clear. But it appears to come with a warning: if you don’t point out their wickedness they will die and we will be responsible. That’s troublesome because it appears to show that we are commanded to action, regardless of the circumstance.
And the Gospel appears to extend these instructions. If someone does something wrong, “have it out with him alone.” If that doesn’t work, bring in others of the community. If that doesn’t work, bring in the entire community, and if that doesn’t work, expel that person from the community.
Unfortunately, in our history we see countless times when these readings have become excuses to abuse power, or even worse. Some Christian communities, even to this day, discourage its members from reporting crimes to the police because Scripture appears to order them to keep these “disputes” in house. This has even extended to pressuring members not to report cases of sexual abuse.
And aside from that, we’ve seen even more countless times when these readings have provided a defense for bullying and traumatizing those we believe to be in error. I grew up in the American South (Virginia) and many of the people I knew were Christians who looked on Catholics with suspicion. I can’t tell you how many times I was asked: “I understand that you’re Catholic, but have you ever thought about devoting your life to Jesus?” I was once even told that I was going to Hell for being Catholic (I responded by telling her that I understood it was a dry heat).
I think we need to look at these readings with new eyes. Perhaps we need to look on these situations not in terms of responsibility, but in terms of opportunity. We certainly see wickedness around us, and I do think these readings give us permission to have an honest, if painful, conversation with those around us. But I also think we need to think long and hard about what we consider wickedness. Many years ago I gave a talk to religious educators and was dressed down after the talk because she claimed I was giving permission to use birth control. I really wasn’t, and the talk wasn’t about sexuality, but I was startled to hear from her that she honestly believed that anyone who used birth control was condemned to Hell. She felt that I was “playing fast and loose with their souls.”
Apartheid South Africa was heavily influenced by the Dutch Reform Church and many of them viewed integration as a violation of God’s law. They pointed to the 9th Chapter of Genesis (God’s edict that Noah’s son Ham would be “the lowest of the slaves”) as justification, as people of color were (in their mind) descendants of Ham.
Can we instead look on these readings as giving us permission to have painful and difficult discussions? I hope so. Last year I suggested that parents discipline their children in the view that “I love you too much too much to allow you to behave like this.” I think we can do this with each other too.
At the end of the day, any community lives best when there no wickedness. And while “no wickedness” is probably not possible, it is indeed a worthy goal. It’s a worthy goal in a conversation between two people, three people, or the entire community. Because if it works, the whole community benefits.
Finally, the Gospel ends with one of my favorite readings from Scripture: “For where two or three meet in my name, I shall be with them.”