By Steve Schlossberg
This Sunday and next, we’re reading through a passage in the gospel where Jesus talks about how we live together inside the kingdom of heaven; and more specifically, inside the Church. The distinction is worth noting, because in the gospel, the Church and the kingdom of heaven aren’t necessarily the same thing. The kingdom of heaven is what materializes whenever and wherever God rules. The Church is what materializes whenever and wherever as few as two or three Christians get together. And if you’ve ever known two or three Christians, then you know that when you get two or three of us together, God doesn’t always rule.
Sometimes something else prevails. Sometimes egos prevail. Sometimes anger prevails. Sometimes gossip prevails. Sometimes the devil prevails. One way to tell who or what is prevailing in the Church is to look at the relationships in the community. Are the relationships real, and growing increasingly whole, honest, and mutually supportive? That’s a good sign that the Church is manifesting the kingdom of heaven. Are the relationships bad? Are the relationships broken? That’s a good sign that the Church is manifesting something else.
Here’s the catch: it’s not always that cut and dried, because it’s not as if the kingdom of heaven is a castle, with a drawbridge, into which only those whose relationships are perfectly in order are admitted. The kingdom of heaven is more like a church, a community, into which people whose relationships are all messed up are freely invited to enter — so that their relationships can be repaired.
The best picture of this in the gospel is Jesus: he brings the kingdom of heaven to Israel; he embodies the kingdom in Israel; and he is the man in whom God prevails. And whom does he invite to join him in the kingdom? With whom does he break bread? The people in Israel whose relationships are most messed up — like, for instance, the tax collectors. In first-century Israel, the tax collectors were messed-up people who messed up other people, gouged their neighbors, bled their neighbors, ruthlessly took advantage of their most vulnerable neighbors. And how did Jesus respond to the tax collectors?
Next Sunday, the gospel is about forgiveness, which is hard. This Sunday, the gospel is about something that for some of us is even harder. Hard as it is to forgive a person who’s doing us wrong, it’s harder still for some of us to confront a person who’s doing us wrong. And even harder than that, for many of us, is the hard teaching in this morning’s gospel that if we tell the person he’s doing wrong, and he doesn’t listen to us, and he doesn’t stop it, then we should have nothing more to do with him. Shun him. Treat such a person, Jesus says, like a tax collector.
Now what’s hard about that for us, I’m afraid, is not that we find it hard to shun certain people. For most of us, shunning certain people comes naturally. It’s just that we don’t expect Jesus to tell us we’re supposed to do that. We sort of thought he told us we’re not supposed to do that. And coming from the man who never shunned tax collectors, that’s hard to understand.
Here’s the context: the disciples are having an argument over who among them is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven — and right there is a picture of the Church. There’s a handful of Christians among whom ego is prevailing. And loving the disciples, Jesus confronts them. Calling a child over and setting the child in their midst, he says, “Do you want to be great in the kingdom of heaven? Do you want everyone in heaven to look up to you? Then look down for a moment — look down upon this child. This child you look down on, who to you is small and weak and worthless: this child is great in heaven.”
And then says this: If any of you puts a stumbling block before one of these little ones, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea. Do not despise any of these little ones. It is the will of your Father in heaven that not one of these little ones should be lost.
It’s on the heels of that that this morning’s hard teaching comes. And in that context, you can see what the hard teaching is about. It’s not about ecclesiastical authorities excommunicating sinners. It’s not about shunning people who make us uncomfortable. It’s about protecting the children.
And when Jesus talks about children in this context, he’s not just talking about children. He’s talking about people of any age who, like children, are vulnerable and defenseless. People who can be preyed upon, manipulated or exploited by the strong. He’s talking about defending the weak. And when the Church does that — when the Church speaks up for those who have no voice, takes the part of those who are exploited and rushes to the defense of the defenseless — the Church is manifesting the kingdom of heaven.
The gospel this morning is talking about what we do when someone is victimized inside the Church. And the protocol it gives us is this: if I am injuring you or someone else in our community, you’re not supposed to get two or three Christians together to talk about what an awful person I am. You’re supposed to go to me directly and confront me, tell me about the awful thing you see me doing, or the awful things you’ve heard me say, which are hurting others, and you’re supposed to implore me to stop it.
And if I’m able to hear you, to receive what you’re saying and to repent, then as Jesus says, not only have you saved the person or persons I’ve been hurting, you’ve saved me. I’m the messed-up person you’ve brought back inside the community for repair.
But if I’m not able to receive that from you, because I’m too proud or too defensive or too deluded to recognize that what you’re saying is true, then at that point it becomes appropriate to go to one or two other brothers or sisters, and ask them to come with you, to speak to me, to plead with me to listen to you.
And if, at that point, I still won’t listen, and I still won’t stop injuring the people in our community, then at that point, Jesus says, you need to let the whole community know what I’m doing, for the sake of the community. And for the sake of the community, you should treat me like a tax collector.
The plain meaning of that is that you should treat me like the Pharisees treated tax collectors. How did the Pharisees treat the tax collectors? Well, for starters we can say that the Pharisees took the tax collectors seriously; and they took what the tax collectors were doing to their neighbors seriously. The Pharisees didn’t despise the tax collectors because they had some irrational prejudice against tax collectors. They despised the tax collectors because they despised what the tax collectors did to the children of Israel, and they treated them like people from whom other people needed to be saved.
How did Jesus treat the tax collectors? He took them no less seriously than the Pharisees did; he took what they did to their neighbors no less seriously than the Pharisees did; and no less than the Pharisees, Jesus despised what the tax collectors did to their neighbors. The difference is that Jesus did not despise the tax collectors. He loved the tax collectors. He treated them like people from whom other people needed to be saved; and he treated them like people who needed to be saved. He thought of them as lost sheep who had gone astray.
There are two fields of concern here. First, there is a concern for the weak and vulnerable in the Church: children, and those who are similarly powerless and defenseless, who are easily preyed upon and victimized. And if they’re being injured or exploited, then their exploiters must be confronted and they must be stopped. And if they won’t stop, then they need to be fenced off from the vulnerable and fenced out of the flock.
This happens. We had to do it in a church I once served with a person who was physically strong enough to threaten other people but not strong enough to control himself. So one of us spoke to him, and then a couple of us spoke to him, but he either couldn’t or wouldn’t hear what we were saying, and so I had to tell him that until he was able to hear us, and until he was able to ask us to help him stop doing what he was doing, I couldn’t let him be here with us.
In effect, I excommunicated him. That was hard for me; I know it was many times harder on him, but to do anything less would have been wrong. It would have been wrong to leave the vulnerable people in our community in danger, and it would have been a disservice to the man who endangered them. I would have been allowing that man to continue to visit a place which for him was full of temptations he wasn’t strong enough to resist. I would have been helping that helpless man to hang a millstone around his neck.
Two fields of concern: we are concerned for the little lambs who are vulnerable; we are equally concerned for the sheep who have gone astray. The Father’s will is that none should be lost.
Thank God, that scenario doesn’t often play itself out here. Our church is not running amok with people who need to be excommunicated. Our problem is that the world is full of people who have been excommunicated, and some of them are in the Church. People who are shunned, not because we’re honestly afraid they might do us injury, but because we’re trying to spare ourselves a difficult conversation.
When we do that, we are despising them, we are cutting them off; and when we do that, we are hanging millstones around our necks. Thank God, Jesus doesn’t shun people like us. He takes people like us seriously enough to confront us, because he loves us: victims, perpetrators, sinners, Gentiles, Pharisees, and tax collectors, whose relationships need to be repaired.
What is the sign that Jesus is among us? We are gathered together here in his name. He is here among us. The question is, Who do we want to prevail?
The Rev. Steve Schlossberg is rector of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, Virginia.