Brief synopsis of the readings: In Ezekiel the people are warned that if they see wickedness in another, they are required to say something. If they see wickedness and say nothing, the wicked person will die, but the witness be will held responsible for his death. In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus makes a similar point. If a person sees another doing something wrong, he should point it out to the sinner. If the sinner doesn’t listen, then bring in another person. If the sinner still doesn’t repent then bring in the whole community, and if that doesn’t work, then treat the person as a pagan or tax collector. Finally Jesus tells those gathered that “where two or three meet in my name, I shall be there with them.”
Certain passages in Scripture cause my eyes to roll, not because of what they say but because of how they are misused. A few years ago the police in a small town learned of a church that had covered up sexual abuse claims. It seems that the leader of that congregation abused several young boys, and while it was known among members, nobody reported it. When questioned these members justified their inaction by pointing to this passage from Matthew. They insisted that they had done what was required: they confronted the man who denied the abuse. They then drafted a committee to confront him, and when that didn’t work they expelled him from the church. Despite the fact that several members were mandated reporters (required by law to report wrongdoing) they maintained their innocence by claiming following the law of God superseded following human laws and there was nothing in the Bible that required them to notify the authorities.
But these readings do raise an interesting question: how much responsibility do we have to others? We read about this first in the 4th Chapter of Genesis. The two sons of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, competed for God’s blessing. When God favored Abel, Cain murdered his brother. Seeing this, God asked Cain where Abel was. Cain sarcastically asked: “Am I my brother’s keeper?”
Much of the rest of Scripture answers this with a resounding “Yes!” but it’s not always that simple. Last week I spoke about the difficulty we have in standing up to peer pressure and we find that theme again this week. Sometimes we can see someone doing something wrong and point it out, and the issue is resolved. But most of the time it’s not that easy.
A few months ago a young black man died in police custody. He suffocated when a police officer kept a knee on his neck for several minutes. Three other officers were present and did not stop it; when asked why they talked about how they were new on the job and didn’t feel they could intervene. On one hand I understand the difficulty in rebuking another officer in the middle of a crowd, but on the other hand a man’s life was lost because they didn’t. As I’ve said many times before, accepting the mantle of Christianity isn’t always easy.
But I’d also like to look anew at these readings. These readings smack of what some call “tough love.” Tough love contends that sometimes we need to be confrontational and even harsh when pointing out how someone is straying off the path. And it’s true that we all need to have difficult discussions from time to time. But too often I think the phrase “tough love” provides an excuse to express our anger under the banner of “I need to make this clear to you.”
There are times when our path doesn’t need to be confrontational: sometimes it can be creative. The American historian and author Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote and excellent book years ago about growing up rooting for the Brooklyn Dodgers (Wait Till Next Year). She was Catholic and as a child went to confession where she admitted she wished harm on someone. The priest pressed her on this and she admitted she wished the New York Yankees pitcher Allie Reynolds would break his arm. Instead of lecturing her the priest chuckled and admitted that he, too, was a Dodgers fan. He suggested that instead of wishing harm on the Yankees she wish success to the Dodgers. It was a nice example of reconciliation.
And reconciliation, not confrontation, lies at the heart of these readings. We can think creatively about how to achieve this. We can also work toward structures that make the idea of acting sinfully just doesn’t make sense.
So often these days we turn on the evening news and see looting in the street after a difficult event. In listening to the coverage I’m struck by how many voices call for increasingly violent response. Police bring tear gas, and protestors bring leaf blowers to blow the gas away. Instead of overpowering the beating looting, I believe we can explore ways to calm the situation and stop this.
When we talk about winners and losers, or even who’s right and who’s wrong, we are heading in the wrong direction. The reconciliation that Jesus talks about makes all of us winners and all of us right. But it requires all of us to stop trying to win and to be right. We need to turn the tide of escalation and move toward reconciliation.
Finally we have a happy ending in today’s Gospel. We are told that “if two of you on earth agree to ask anything at all, it will be granted to you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three meet in my name, I shall be there with them.” In other words reconciliation doesn’t require us to negotiate and agree alone, but God is present to encourage us. So many times when I’ve prayed with people I’ve expressed gratitude that God is present with us.
We need to keep our eyes on God and reconciliation and not the winner’s trophy.