What I’m Thinking: Love and Repentance

Paul and Matthew both understood that love – as high an ethical standard as anyone has ever set – was the basis for Christian living. Matthew included some thoughts attributed to Jesus for what to do when love failed.

Here’s a transcript:

I’m thinking about sections of the thirteenth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans and the eighteenth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel. The lectionary editors have done a good thing, I think, in pairing them, because they do bear a close relationship in theme.

In Romans 13 (Romans 13:8-14), Paul wrote about the relationship between law and love, arguing that as long as one was loving one was also fulfilling the law. Christian have accepted this as truth for all the centuries since and indeed, as Paul wrote, “Love does no harm to a neighbor,” so therefore loving is the fulfillment of the law.

In Matthew 18 (Matthew 18:15-20), Jesus is quoted as talking about what happens when people do not succeed in loving one another. Now I say attributed to Jesus because honestly it doesn’t sound like Jesus in some ways. For one thing, Jesus is talking about what happens when a member of “the Church” offends, and Jesus almost never talks about “the Church.” The “church” as a word is something that appeared later on, some decades after he had risen and then ascended. So this appears to be something based on a memory of Jesus, but which has been considerably re-worked in the years between Jesus’ departure and the writing of Matthew’s Gospel.

But you’re probably familiar with it. If somebody offends you, first try and work it out with them. If that doesn’t work, then you bring two or three other members of the church. If that doesn’t work, you bring it to the whole body. And if that person is still unwilling to make it right with you, well, then, “Let them be as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

These three stages have, in fact, been taken as exceptionally good advice, and again, with good reason. Working it one on one; working it out with the support of one or two; working it out with the community; and then finally, there do have to be sanctions. There has to be a time when one says this relationship cannot move unless both parties to it are willing to acknowledge harm, to make restitution, to make changes.

The curious thing about it all is the way that Matthew quotes Jesus as ending it. If the person will not reform, then let them be to you “as a Gentile and a tax collector.” Well, that seems on the face of it to mean well, that’s it. That’s the end.

Except remember how Jesus dealt with Gentiles and tax collectors. For Jesus, those were the people at the edges whom he invited into this new community of religious devotion but also of radical love.

And so I think in Matthew 18 what we’re looking at here is not the end of a relationship but rather the necessity for a new beginning. Now, once again, that Gentile or tax collector has to be willing to take steps to move forward, to repair the harm that’s been done. But if we remember who the Gentiles and tax collectors were to Jesus – members of his closest circle, some of them. Matthew, not the Gospel writer but Matthew of the Twelve, is said to have been a tax collector.

Well, then.

What it says is that there is always a new beginning for us. It may require separation and it may require a careful distance particularly in cases where there has been active ongoing physical harm. But because of repentance, because of change, because human beings can commit themselves to new ways of living, there can always be another beginning.

That’s what I’m thinking. I’m curious to hear what you’re thinking. Leave me your thoughts in the comment section below. I’d love to hear from you.

Categories What I'm Thinking | Tags: , | Posted on August 31, 2020

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