Proper 18(A): Who’s In and Who’s Out?
By: Chris Clow
I remember an old, odd piece of wisdom that I still need every now and again: “You don’t have to like everybody, but you need to love everybody.”
There were a variety of options for preaching and teaching today, but one common thread through all of them is the value of community and belonging: more specifically, how do you mark that you are a part of the community, and how do you properly try to keep people loyal to what that community believes? In Exodus, we see the Passover ritual given to the Ancient Hebrews, something where the quite literal blood of a lamb marks them as members of God’s chosen flock. In Ezekiel, we hear about the important need to speak call out when those in our community sin, as Ezekiel was called to do for the Israelites. In Romans, we are reminded to “conduct ourselves properly as in the day” and to avoid succumbing to unholy desires (particularly of the flesh as Paul notes). And finally, in the Gospel reading, Jesus tells us what we should do if another sins against us—namely, take it up with them first, then bring witnesses, then tell the church, then “treat [them] as you would a Gentile or tax collector.”
So, it seems pretty cut and dry. These readings all reinforce that we need to pay close attention to what marks us as Christians, to be on guard to call others out when they fail at it, and to be ready to cast them out of the community if they don’t change. It’s up to us to keep the church pure and holy and to cast out those who don’t measure up. The Catholic Church (to whom I belong) emphasizes this point in their text notes on the Gospel reading via their website: “Just as the observant Jew avoided the company of Gentiles and tax collectors, so much the congregation of Christian disciples separate itself from the arrogantly sinful member who refugees to repent.” So that must be it, right? Right?
Well, I hope it isn’t that simple, actually.
Don’t get me wrong—I think there is a real need for correction, within churches, within the Church, and within the world. This present moment in America is ripe for us to correct each other and to change our world–one with less racism, less sexism, less striving for power, and more desiring to serve each other and stand with one another.
BUT, and this is the tougher part to articulate, we need to be careful that in our desire to create a more just society we do not simply get rid of those who disagree with us and refuse to change (even if, in moments of weakness, that is a mighty tempting position to take). I want to look at that Gospel passage again—while on the surface it looks like a way to settle disagreements and to expel those who don’t relent, I think that isn’t doing the passage enough justice. After all, in the next two lines after this Gospel Jesus says that we should forgive “not seven times, but seventy-seven times,” (or seventy times seven in some translations – i.e. we should be constantly, always forgiving). The few verses before this Gospel passage talk about the shepherd who leaves the 99 behind to seek the lost one. How do we square that with the idea that people should be cast out of our community? Does it really fit together?
Jesus says that you should treat those who won’t acknowledge their wrong as you would a Gentile or tax collector. How exactly did Jesus treat tax collectors and Gentiles? In Matthew 8, Jesus encounters a Gentile centurion, yet is “amazed” at the man’s faith and heals his servant. Again in Matthew 15, he (eventually) helps the daughter of another Gentile. Oh, and what was the profession of the apostle Matthew, whom this Gospel is named after? Right, he was a tax collector. In fact, we see in this Gospel that Jesus regularly ate with tax collectors and sinners (Matthew 9), and showed more mercy to them than judgment. That seems like a weird way to treat people that you are supposed to avoid.
So what’s happening here? Is this passage really about saying who’s in and who’s out? Or is it about redefining who’s in and who’s out? Consider the earlier Parable of the Lost Sheep, where the shepherd leaves the entire rest of the flock behind to go find the one that got away. I don’t know if you know any shepherds, but that isn’t a great business plan for them. That doesn’t sound like someone wanting perfection out of their sheep. Directly following our Gospel today, we see Jesus emphasizing the great mercy of God in the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant. And then in turn we see that servant (who may very well be us) turning around and not showing that same mercy. Maybe God isn’t the one saying who’s in and who’s out. Maybe that’s on us.
This Gospel makes me think of a modern day saint (even if unofficial): Dorothy Day. A Catholic convert in the early 20th century who had earlier been a radical and an anarchist, Day would go on to start the Catholic Worker “houses of hospitality,” among many other things in her life. These houses were dedicated to those in need – i.e. the poor, and especially the “undeserving poor.” If you haven’t heard that term before, it should be easy to conjure up what it imagines – the ones who get called lazy, stupid, and sloppy; the ones who don’t smile at you when you give them money; the ones who aren’t grateful enough. I mean, sure, everyone can be like that, but those of us who aren’t poor have earned the right – because they’re poor, they shouldn’t be. At least, that tends to be the conventional wisdom.
But Dorothy Day saw it differently – she strove to see human dignity present in all people, no matter how insufferable they turned out to be. And believe me, some of the people who stayed at her Catholic Worker houses were insufferable. This piece from the Atlantic puts it well:
Dorothy Day lived with the forgotten man, and he was a huge pain in the ass. His name was Mr. Breen, and during his residency at the Catholic Worker house on Mott Street he was a vituperative racist and a fire hazard. His name was also Mr. O’Connell, who stayed for 11 ill-natured years at Maryfarm, the Catholic Worker farming commune in Easton, Pennsylvania, slandering the other workers without mercy, hoarding the tools, and generally making himself “a terror” (in Day’s words).
Even so, Day still recognized that they were human beings too, created in the image and likeness of God, and nothing, neither the hardships they had endured nor the ones they put on others, could get rid of that: “The Gospel takes away our right forever, to discriminate between the deserving and the undeserving poor.”
In light of Dorothy Day, I have to look at this passage differently. There will always be a need to settle disagreements. There will always be a need to speak truth to power, to act for real justice, and to change our systems so that justice may be possible. There is a need to tell people when they are doing wrong and harming others. But in doing so, we cannot lose sight that they too are children of God, and that they do not deserve to be dehumanized and ostracized either. This is a challenge, to be sure, but it is one that Jesus calls us to. After all, you don’t have to like everybody, but you need to love everybody.
Chris Clow is a stay-at-home dad for an energetic, noisy, wonderful toddler Xavier and loving husband and home cook for wife Emily Kahm. He was also a campus and music minister for 8 years before he and his family moved to Omaha for the next stage of their life. When he isn’t struggling to love those he doesn’t like, he enjoys playing video games, remembering what it was like when there was baseball on TV (just presuming this season doesn’t last), and coming up with new recipes and dishes to try and make at home.