Author: Reverend Averill Elizabeth Blackburn
Disclaimer on Literalism
I want to start off today’s mini sermon with a disclaimer because not only do we live in an age of disclaimers, but because I feel it’s important before we continue.
Our text for today is a wonderful piece of historical insight into the life of the early Christian community. That being said, it should not be taken too literally when applied to modern day churches.
Oftentimes, when reading the Bible, literalists and traditionalists have the habit of slapping Biblical text into a modern situation with potentially disastrous effects.
For example (and I use this only as an example because it comes to mind), as a young girl I read the Harry Potter books when they came out with most of my peers (and, let’s face it, the planet). I was, however, attending a Christian school and my desire to become Minister for Magic one day (with my wonderfully childlike innocence of wanting to be a woman in politics “when I grew up”) was met with my books being confiscated, letters being sent home to my parents, and a private meeting culminating in my being invited to not enroll in school the upcoming school year.
I will admit there was also a situation with my younger brother liking the Disney Channel show Gargoyles, which is about stone gargoyles who protected a Scottish castle being transported (by magic or science, it depends on which human is involved) into modern day Manhattan. The show, interestingly, was inspired by Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
However, to get back to a young Averill and her love for Harry Potter at her Christian school:
Exodus 22:18 (“You shall not suffer a female sorcerer to live” (NRSV)) was perhaps not taken to its extreme, but it was taken (in this situation) with a seriousness that I have had cause to regret in the many decades since. As a result of a Bible verse from Exodus, I had to change schools along with my brother, partially because I liked a good fairytale about the struggle between good and evil (which happened to be set in a magical English boarding school).
Now, of course, this is a massive oversimplification meant to illustrate a point.
I would hope that we (as a society) have moved on from the idea of executing witches en masse (there were, if you remember, disastrous consequences during the Salem Witch Trials, when Exodus 22:18 was taken quite literally) … and we live in a very different age where words and concepts such as “witchcraft” or “female sorcery” have very different meanings and applications.
We live in a time of technology that would have been considered magic less than 100 years ago. Today, we have worldwide religions that seek to recreate harmony with the earth (sometimes called “witchcraft” by its practitioners). And a 1998 poll showed that over 50% of Icelanders believe in the existence of elves (wonderfully parodied in the Netflix movie, Eurovision Song Contest).
So, while I would hope that none of the readers of this blog would actively go out and murder a woman who liked to make her own personal cough syrup, specially designed to combat Covid-19 (and – before you ask – a “medicine woman” that I just described fits the Exodus 22:18 description) … so, too, would I ask you to pause while reading today’s sermon lesson before actively applying the text to a real life situation.
This is not to say that the Bible is not the Word of God, as a majority of Christians believe. This is to say that it is a historical text as well as the Word of God, and should be treated as a historical text. As such, this mini-sermon looks at Matthew 18:15-20 through the lens of when it was written, who physically put it down on “paper”, why it was written, and for whom the writer(s) were writing the text we now know collectively as “the Bible.”
All of these factors cannot be completely addressed in this mini-sermon, but please keep them in mind.
Why this Doesn’t Quite Make Sense
Although this is the Book of Matthew, these thoughts and words are presented as the words of Jesus during his lifetime.
Here we have Jesus commenting on the inner workings of the church. But this is where it gets interesting as there was no formal church at this time. During Jesus’s life, his teachings and his followers were a movement within Judaism. The early church as we know it was established after Jesus’s crucifixion, and there was a great deal of infighting and misunderstanding in the early centuries AD.
So, from a historical viewpoint and off the top of our heads, we should be wondering how Jesus is possibly talking about something that doesn’t exist.
This is where we (as modern Christians who want to understand Jesus and what he was talking about) must look closer. Now, if you recall, Jesus didn’t speak English. He spoke Aramaic as his primary language (this is a language related to modern Arabic and Hebrew, which is now considered a dead language), but the Gospels were recorded in Biblical Greek.
The word used here is ekklesia (roughly transcribed into our alphabet), which is the root word for “ecclesiastical”. To us, this is a very Christian word. To the writer and audience of Matthew, however, it was not expressly Christian, or wouldn’t have been quite yet.
Ekklesia is a noun which means “a gathering of citizens” or “an assembly.” It was used during the time of Jesus and in the decades after when Matthew was written to mean a church – but also a synagogue. The assembly, in fact, didn’t expressly have to be a religious assembly, although this was often the connotation. It could perhaps be the equivalent of a town meeting or even a peaceful protest of citizens against Rome (although there were other, more specific words that were usually employed for such occasions).
So, when the historical Jesus was talking about ekklesia, he was speaking about the potential church as we came to know it. More specifically, Jesus was talking about gatherings of his followers and other believers in his new, peaceful, Jewish movement.
A Blueprint of How to Get Along
Now that we’ve clarified what Jesus was talking about, we can look at the text.
The idea here is that Jesus wants people to talk out their problems. If there’s a problem, address it. If someone’s being a bit pigheaded (and it happens to the best of us), bring along some people to bear witness and try to talk it out again. Next step: go to the assembly at large. If that doesn’t work – well – this is where it gets really interesting.
Jesus’s solution when disputes cannot be solved internally is to go outside the community. In Matthew 18:17, he suggests going to a “Gentile” (i.e. someone who is not Jewish, not a true believer, and therefore an unbiased third party) or a “tax collector” (someone who is Jewish but works for the Roman government; a tax collector is despised for being a “race traitor” and is treated like an outsider).
This is revolutionary (and a bit bizarre). The thought that someone who is a Jewish believer in God should go to someone who isn’t remotely Jewish or a member of the community is astounding.
At this point in history, Israel was occupied by Rome. Romans had the power to tax Jews (and they did), to regulate Jewish religion (which they certainly did although Jews, fortunately, were exempt from Emperor worship), appoint kings (the Herods were never popular with the Jewish people), and to try Jewish citizens in their Roman courts and sentence them to Roman penalties (we need only look at the arrest, trial, and crucifixion of Jesus to see how this played out).
The Romans, also, were not the first occupiers to control Israel–so this sort of injustice had been experienced for generations upon generations of Jews.
The idea that the Romans – that anyone – could have such power over the children of God (as such people were outsiders, nonbelievers, and NOT GOD HIMSELF OR HIS REPRESENTATIVE) was a horrifying reality to those who lived in Jesus’s time. That Jesus would suggest a gathering of believers (an ekklesia or church) would submit to such outside authority would be unthinkable. It was practically blasphemous, and yet we have these words recorded from two thousand years ago plainly saying that Jesus said just that.
To draw a parallel, this is sort of what early Colonists in what is now the United States of America felt when King George taxed their tea. This “foreign rule” and “taxation without representation” led to the Boston Tea Party, the writing of the Declaration of Independence, and the American Revolutionary War (1775-1783).
But Jesus recognized something about his followers and about the believers of the One True God: they could be prone to internal disagreement. Those of us who have at any point in time been an active member of almost any congregation know that “where two or more are gathered in his name” there will be two or more opinions. This, inevitably, leads to disagreements.
The idea of an outside party was, as I said, revolutionary and practically blasphemous, but it was smart. Jesus recognized that if our faces are pressed too closely to the glass, we cannot see the smudges our noses make. If you are too close to a problem, then you cannot see the big picture. As the saying goes, if you are looking only at one tree, you cannot see the forest around you.
Jesus wanted people to believe in God. He wanted people to know the truth. He wanted them to have faith. He wanted them to have a place in heaven.
What he didn’t want was for people to fight so much and too often to the point where they lost their faith, that they didn’t see the big picture, where they could potentially not end up in heaven.
So, Why the Disclaimer?
To circle back around, the words of Jesus, though brilliant, should be taken as a blueprint and not an exact google map on how to get from Point A to Point B.
Why do I say this?
Firstly, Jesus was speaking to a very specific situation and speaking about how to solve problems in first century Palestine.
If we, as Children of God and Followers of Christ, were to have a problem, it would be a bit redundant to seek out a Gentile (as most, though not all, Christians tend to be Gentiles themselves) and 9 times out of 10 times going to a tax collector makes little sense.
Secondly, when taken completely literally, these words could lead to potential (and I said potential) bullying and misconduct.
If the original perceived “offender” is in the right or has a very valid point that should be considered (even if not completely popular), one can imagine these words taken out of context could result in a literal witch hunt.
(I did previously mention the Salem Witch Trials in 1692-1693. Many consider the activities under Senator Joe McCarthy as a “modern witch hunt”.)
We should never be so righteous that we will not listen to a solitary believer who disagrees, that we will not examine ourselves and honestly consider our own motivations. No one is perfect. No one is always right all of the time. It’s part of the problem (but also the beauty) of being human.
I, certainly, am not perfect. I am not always right even if I can be opinionated. In fact, if you disagree with this reading of Matthew, I’d be happy to connect and revisit the passage.
“But These are the Follies of Men”
This passage, however, contains the words and ideas of Jesus Christ – both fully human and fully divine. He is as close to perfect (or completely perfect) as a human being can be.
His roadmap is a way toward faith, a road to a place in heaven.
It is only when applied by humans that corruption and misunderstandings may occur.
Sadly, this is a nearly universal story throughout the New Testament and, more specifically, the Gospels. Jesus would speak and his disciples would not understand or would misapply his teachings, through no malice of their own.
We must seek to understand the worldview around Jesus and his teachings. This will lead to a better understanding of our Lord and Savior and, from that, we might then adapt his teachings to our lives today.