A Provocation: Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost: September 10, 2017: Matthew 18:15-20

Matthew 18:15-20
18:15 “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.

18:16 But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses.

18:17 If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.

18:18 Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

18:19 Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.

18:20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

A Question of Two:

  • Why are two or three witnesses important?
  • Why does Jesus’ “Father in heaven” need two or three witnesses(verse 19)?
  • Does this mean that human solidarity is important, even in the face of the Deity?

Some Longer Reflections:

First, some obvious things:

  • People disagree and people hurt each other, even when all the people involved are good-hearted and aiming to do right.
  • This is true in any and all communities, including congregations.
  • When people have been hurt, they talk to other people about it.
  • When we have been hurt, we generally talk to close friends who will commiserate with us, and then we talk to not-so-close friends who will agree with us, and sometimes we even talk to people who are nearly strangers.  It hurts to be hurt.
  • This scene in Matthew’s story aims to short-circuit what generally happens: Jesus directs members of the community to talk first to the person who caused the hurt, alone, when it is just the two of you.  This does not necessarily rule out close-friend-commiseration, but it does cut off the cycle of gossip.

All of this is obvious.  And probably useful.

But obvious.

But notice what this little scene requires of us.

Jesus requires witnesses.  Two or three of them.

What do you suppose happens when the person who feels wronged first speaks to the two or three who might serve as witnesses?

There are several possibilities.

  • The person seeking witnesses might begin by going to people who are likely to take their side.  Did the witnesses actually witness anything?  Or are they expected to simply serve as “wing-men” who will back any play the their friend attempts?  At that point, this becomes a matter of integrity.
  • If the people who are approached did indeed witness the event in question, they will surely have seen it from their own perspectives.  And they might, therefore, see it differently than does the person who feels wronged.
    • Maybe they saw the offense as even more serious than the person who felt wronged.
    • Maybe they didn’t see an offense at all.
  • If the witnesses saw no offense, the situation becomes deeply complicated.
    • The witnesses might be correct, which will be (at the least) awkward for the person who feels wronged.
    • Or, the witnesses might be (to sound an echo that goes back 40 years) “un-indicted co-conspirators.”
      • How many women have reported being harassed, only to discover that men who witnessed the abuse tell them to “just get over it?”
      • How many subordinates are abused by bosses and then discover that their co-workers see this as an opportunity to gain an advantage over them?
    • Dominators of every sort exert their power (and do their damage) by creating a system in which subordinates believe that it is to their advantage to take the side of their abuser.  That is the conspiracy.  That is the real abuse.  Those that refuse to be witnesses may not be “indictable,” but they are surely part of the plot, deeply implicated in the abuse.  (For a large and insightful analysis of this phenomenon, see Domination and the Arts of Resistance by James C. Scott.)

That is what is not, at least to me, immediately obvious in this little scene about making and breaking peace.

Though it may not be obvious, it is crucial to the interpretation of this scene.

When peace is broken, even the protocol that is set for making peace can be a tool used by oppressors.  And, perhaps even more important, the act of attempting reconciliation can catalyze the deep recognition of systemic abuse.  The very act of asking people to bear witness reveals that the harm goes farther than anyone had imagined.  In such a system, there is no integrity, and no peace, only more abuse.

I find myself reflecting at this point, not on the Ezekiel passage paired with this scene in Matthew in the Revised Common Lectionary, but on the indictment offered by Jeremiah (chapter 6).

13 For from the least to the greatest of them,

everyone is greedy for unjust gain;

and from the prophet to priest,

everyone deals falsely.

14 They have treated the wound of my people carelessly,

saying, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace.  (NRSV)

Jeremiah is not simply calling out deceitful trading practices.  Jeremiah is naming systemic abuse and the way it makes co-conspirators of us.  It is time we ceased treating the wounds of our sisters and brothers carelessly.  It is time we acted with integrity when called to bear witness.  And it is time that we actually started making peace and ceased pretending that there is peace.  Far too often and in far too many situations, there is no peace, there is only silence.


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