Readings: Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20
A couple was having a heated discussion about what to see and do after they arrived safely in Paris for their honeymoon. Trying to assert himself right off the bat, the husband exploded, “If it weren’t for my money, we wouldn’t be here at all!” The wife replied, “My dear, if it weren’t for your money, there wouldn’t be any “we” in the first place.”
They say, ‘money makes the world go ’round.’ And I suppose this is true to an extent, for better or for worse. And while many pursue wealth, this pursuit generally entails falling into serious debt. In fact, we can probably rightly assert that our society is built on debt. According to economists like those writing in BusinessWeek, the accumulated world debt is estimated at $200 trillion dollars, or three times the size of the entire global economy. The pandemic has only heightened concerns about the skyrocketing cost of living. Individuals use every financial morsel available to them to find enough money to purchase a home in this inflated real estate market. Families struggle to make minimum payments on credit cards whose ridiculous interest rates keep them running in financial quicksand. There is a Persian proverb that says, “There are four things every person has more of than they know; sins, debt, years, and foes.”
Debts of a Different Order
Debts aren’t solely financial in nature either. There are social debts we pay as well. If someone invites us to dinner, it’s presumed we now ‘owe’ them an invitation in return. When Christmas dinner is hosted by one side of the family one year, it is mandatory that the other side of the family has the honours the next year. When we are given a gift, if we fail to send a thank-you card, often the gift-giver feels slighted, as if they are ‘owed’ a written acknowledgement of their generosity. There is a certain quid pro quo to favours exchanged in our workplace, and even in our friendships.
As much as our world runs on debt, the Roman context into which Paul was speaking was even more obvious in the demands placed upon its inhabitants. Roman citizens “owed” honour and allegiance to Caesar; money, possessions, and honour to benefactors (which many had); slaves owed service and their very lives; wives owed submission to their husbands, and on and on it went. The consequences for failing to meet one’s obligations could range from social ostracization to capital punishment. The Roman Empire thrived on order and structure and those stepping outside the social mores and cultural expectations would face significant backlash. Into this context Paul writes,
“Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”
Reconfiguring the ‘Mental Furniture’
When Paul exhorts his audience to “owe” nothing except love, he is in a sense reconfiguring the arrangement of the ‘mental furniture.’ To owe nothing except love forces his people to reconsider their priorities. He doesn’t say that they are to love on top of fulfilling all the obligations thrust upon them by their culture. He says to owe nothing except love. The pressures and expectations, the burdens, and even religious requirements (ie, ‘the law’), are all relativized by the edict of love. Love transforms our understanding of ourselves and our society. Love causes us to rethink our place and what is truly required of us. Love liberates us from impossible expectations thrust upon us, and those expectations we thrust upon ourselves. This is what Paul is getting at throughout his letter when he talks about the transformation of the mind and being clothed with Christ. Kyle Fever writes,
“While certain cultural or civic obligations cannot be dismissed, ultimately, the transformation of the mind and offering of the body, being clothed with Christ, is to rearrange the mental furniture of those in Christ from what they had known. It is to owe nothing, and live differently than what they’ve known, to adopt a new pattern and ethic.”
This new way of life gives witness to the work of the Spirit in the believer. It shows forth the pattern of death (to sin) and resurrection (to life) of Christ in our very lives. It is a life lived by faith, like Abraham, where wanderings and trials are met with steadfast resolve to trust in a Loving God. And it is a life that doesn’t judge our brothers and sisters, as Paul writes about in Romans 2, but rather calls us to love, forgiveness, and radical acts of reconciliation.
Matthew’s Gospel: How to live in Community?
This is the thrust of today’s gospel reading. We’d be tempted to read it, as many have through the ages, as a prescription for dealing with those deemed to be ‘in sin’ within the believing community. Tragically, many in positions of authority within the Church have used passages like this one to abuse those under them they disapprove of. They couldn’t be more wrong in their use of this teaching.
Scholars tell us that Matthew was probably writing to a small community of new Christians, and these believers were incredibly dependent upon one another. To have someone within their midst causing problems due to their destructive attitudes and behaviours could be a matter of life and death for their community. Facing threats on all sides (Matthew’s audience would have faced persecution not only from the Romans, but from the Jewish folk who rejected their new faith as well), it would be extremely tempting to immediately expel any internal threat.
How do we React when Wronged?
We understand this temptation. When one has wronged us, it is far easier to ignore them – to passive aggressively push them out of our lives. When we’re hurt, we determine we’re simply ‘setting boundaries’ so that we won’t get hurt again. There are times when we must cut people out of our lives that are reaping destruction in our lives, situations of abuse are the easiest to identify as falling into this category. But if we’re honest, most of the time we don’t ‘fall out’ with people because they are unrepentant abusers, we do so because we are hurt, and on some level, we want them to feel our hurt.
I don’t think I’m very good at confrontation. I remember my mom telling me when I was young that I was a peacemaker, like her. I prefer to bend and compromise to keep those in my life happy. And I think this can be a virtue to a point, but it can also keep me from engaging in the hard work of reconciliation that sometimes only comes about through confrontation, hard truth telling, and the hashing out of differences.
Reconciliation, not Punishment
Jesus offers guidance laced with grace. Jesus tells us that a sinning believer is to be sought out with reconciliation to the community being the goal. They are approached first by the one they wronged, then a few others, before the entire community gets involved. This isn’t about shaming that individual, but its purpose is to bring the one wandering from the fold back into the family. Stanley Saunders writes,
Matthew’s Jesus is…concerned about “the least ones,” the vulnerable, the ones at the bottom of the power pyramid. Better to tie a millstone around your neck and jump in the ocean than cause a little one to stumble (Matthew 18:6). Better to leave ninety-nine sheep on the mountains than lose a little one (18:12). The point of Matthew 18 is not that the church or its leaders possess special authority or insight when dealing with disputes, but that whenever it does exercise authority, it must pay ceaseless attention to the least powerful members of the community. Whenever and whatever we bind or loose, the Christian community is called to defend the interests of the least ones in our midst, as well as to create the space and conditions for forgiveness and restoration to flourish.
What Might this Mean for You?
Are there those who have hurt you that you need to forgive? Are there those you’ve wronged that you need to ask forgiveness of? Who have you pushed away from your life, and might it be time to pursue restored relationships? Is there anyone here, in the Church, that you need to make peace with?
Scripture tells us that we are to make peace with one another before offering our gifts at the altar in worship. We have a time of confession prior to receiving communion for a reason, we need forgiveness and God to cleanse our hearts. But we also need to forgive each other and do what it takes to work towards reconciliation.
It takes a discerning of the Spirit to know how and when to pursue wholeness in our relationships and spiritual family. But whatever the outcome of our efforts, we must remember that they are to be rooted in love. We must be rooted in the reality that we are all dependent on God’s grace, not only for our forgiveness, but for our very existence, and this reframes how we live in relationship to one another. We must understand that the genuine love Paul speaks of earlier in his letter is the kind understood through the lens of the cross. It means giving up our claims to ourselves and our claims over others, however ‘right’ and ‘just’ they might seem. It means thinking and acting in a way so as not to please oneself, but others. It means making our love for others not just lip service, but authentic and even costly. And this activity is not all up to us, but it is rooted in God’s love, and manifest in and through the community of believers.
“Owe no one anything, except to love one another…”
That is a debt we are all called to share. Thanks be to God.