This blog provides a meditation on the Episcopal daily readings along with a headline from world news:
Assad may be offered clemency by UK/ USA
12 All who have sinned apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law.13For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified.14When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves.15They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them16on the day when, according to my gospel, God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all.<!– 17 –>
The Jews and the Law
17 But if you call yourself a Jew and rely on the law and boast of your relation to God18and know his will and determine what is best because you are instructed in the law,19and if you are sure that you are a guide to the blind, a light to those who are in darkness,20a corrector of the foolish, a teacher of children, having in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth,21you, then, that teach others, will you not teach yourself? While you preach against stealing, do you steal?22You that forbid adultery, do you commit adultery? You that abhor idols, do you rob temples?23You that boast in the law, do you dishonour God by breaking the law?24For, as it is written, ‘The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.’
He’s hard going, is Paul. Just when he’s penned something open-mnded and helpful, he goes on to write something prejudiced and hateful. So, yes, Paul’s words about decent gentiles who do what their consciences require preserve the church from daft notions like the damnation of all who don’t believe in Jesus Christ. Even better is his wilingness to leave the judgement up to God. But then he embarks on a rhetorical denunciation of Jewish people who don’t keep the law that they profess. Why should he be so generous to decent Gentiles, so hard on decent Jews? It seems to me that Paul is accusing all his fellow countrymen of being as bad as himself. He knew that it was possible to stand for Torah while doing evil things and he tars everyone with the same brush. In the course of this letter Paul comes to a more mature reflection on the destiny of his own people. As for this passage we have to put it down to Paul’s difficult task of insisting that faith in Jesus Messiah is not a branch of Judaism.
If sometimes we think that Paul set down words in the heat of composition which he might have been better to revise, how much more is that true of those of us who use electronic media, in tweets and emails and blogs! Yesterday listening to the former Bishop of Einburgh, Rochard Holloway, elegantly accessing writings about the holocaust in support of his own pert celebration of doubt on Radio 4, I had determined to write something suitably sarcastic about the offensive blandness of some of his utterances, but was disarmed this morning by reading in my newspaper about the same person’s involvement in a a wonderful musical initiative for children in the housing estate of Raploch, Stirling. Ah, how wonderful is is to have reasons to despise those whose achievements we envy; how galling when we are forced to revise them.
The Parable of the Lost Sheep
10 ‘Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven.*12What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray?13And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray.14So it is not the will of your* Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.
Reproving Another Who Sins
15 ‘If another member of the church* sins against you,* go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.*16But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses.17If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector.18Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.19Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.20For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.’
Matthew has brought together a number of strands of Jesus’ teaching here for the benefit of the faith-community for whom he is writing. Often we can sense the presence of this community-as for example when Jesus’ words have been adjusted to speak directly to it rather than to the contemporaries of Jesus.
1. The little ones, we remember, are not so much actual children as those who in the simplicity of their trust follow Jesus. Some of these are easily “made to stumble” (see blog 764) and some may have been prone to wandering from the true way. In either case Jesus uses the beautiful image of the shepherd to characterise his own ministry and the ministry of his followers. Those who get lost are especially precious. Behind Jesus’ words are of course those of the 23d Psalm and the great passages in the prophets where God is portrayed as the compassionate shepherd of his people.
2. What about those who don’t want to be brought back into the fold or who persist in behaviour which is hurtful to the community? The answer given applies the principle of “seeking to save the lost” to the practicalities of community discipline. A wrong-doer should be given every chance to repent and be restored but if he refuses, he is to be treated as an outsider, as a “tax-collector or gentile”. It’s hard to imagine Jesus saying exactly these words and they are probably the community’s attempt to reconcile the seeking and saving with the need to guard the life of the community from malicious disruption. The incomparable vividness of Jesus’ teaching sometimes disguises the difficulty of applying it. Honest attempts to obey him are much better than vain repetition of his words.
3. “Binding and Loosing”: Matthew takes these words of Jesus to authorise the teaching ministry of his followers: they must decide what is forbidden (bound) and what is permitted (loosed) in the life of the community. If they do so sincerely, God will approve their decisions, because the risen Jesus himself will be amongst them as they gather. At least I think that’s what Matthew is telling his readers, and if so, I would argue that he’s misunderstood the man whom he quotes as saying, “Do not stand in judgement in case you find yourself in the dock.” But then, Jesus never had to minister to a church community! There are real questions here as to how the joyful rescue mission of Jesus is to be continued amongst those who claim to be disciples but may be wolves in sheep’s clothing.