Matthew 18:15-20 – The 13th Sunday of Ordinary Time â€“ for Sunday, September 7, 2014
â€œIf your brother or sister sins against you, go and correct them when you are alone togetherâ€¦â€ (Matthew 18:15)
Before knowing my father had dementia, I blamed his vexing behaviors on other things.
Dad was elderly and tired. His hearing was awful (and had been for years). Heâ€™d become human cement, set in his ways. He resented, as his body weakened, his loss of independence.
So when he lashed out at me during a visit to Mom and Dadâ€™s home, with his eyes ablaze and jaw clenched and his voice sounding more animal growl than human grumble, I knew where to point my finger: at those â€œother things.â€
â€œGet out of this house,â€ he roared. â€œDonâ€™t come back.â€
Dadâ€™s fury, launched at me with the unnerving abruptness of a lightning strike when the storm is miles away, happened several times before my family recognized he had dementia.
I recall how I felt when my father, the lion in winter, verbally assaulted me. What a cranky old fool! Such a stubborn jerk!
And this too: how dare he sin against me? His son! His guest!
I did not retreat from his fury. Remember, I didnâ€™t know of his dementia. I had those other excuses. I tried to engage him in conversation, to comprehend his leave-my-house demand. I did not return his anger with my anger, or his hurt with my hurt. Like the Gospel of Matthew encouraged, â€œif your brother or sister [or father] sins against you, go and correct them when you are alone together.â€
Of course, in the New Testamentâ€™s Greek, there wasnâ€™t a reference to â€œsisterâ€ in the scripture. But we moderns, desiring to be modern, readily and rightly add â€œsisterâ€ in the interpretation. Women are equal opportunity sinners too, right?
And so are fathers. So was Dad.
At least, before dementia had a name, thatâ€™s what I rationalized when Dad hurled hatred onto me: we all sin. Mom, by the way, rescued me. Between the two of usâ€”ah, hear echoes of Matthewâ€™s â€œtake one or two othersâ€ to correct the wrongdoer, the sinnerâ€”we calmed Dadâ€™s anger. Later, and well past the point where he didnâ€™t recognize Mom as his precious wife of nearly seven decades, she was the only one who could salve Dadâ€™s anguished outbursts.
I now know Dadâ€™s hurtful words werenâ€™t him â€œsinningâ€ against me. It was the illness.
And yet I remember my reaction: how could he be so wrong?
Which, truthfully, is often my reaction when others â€œwrongâ€ me. Or disagree with me. Or have an opinion different from mine. How can anyone not see that I am right?
I understand Matthew 18:15-20 as an admonition to seek understanding and agreement. The one sinned-against should go to and talk with the sinner. Challenge the sinner to see where she or he was wrong and make efforts to renew the broken relationship. I believe these verses depicted the early Christian fellowshipâ€™s goals to keep the community together (the quality of mercy) and to increase the numbers of the faithful (the quantity of members). The presence of Christ will be with two or three who gather, Matthew reassured, but it will advantageous for Jesusâ€™s followers with far more than two or three disciples!
Do you agree with my brief, and brilliant, interpretation of Matthew?
Of course you do! You must! How can anyone disagree with me?
I used the example of my father because (for me) itâ€™s safe, since hindsight revealed that Dad never sought to banish me from his house. His dementia contorted his personality. He was not â€œsinningâ€ against his own son. He was a sick man with a cruel disease.
My challenge, not only as someone who might wish for a community of people to â€œget along,â€ or for the followers of Christ to increase in numbers, is the ongoing struggle to admit Iâ€™m not always â€œright.â€
But hereâ€™s the unadorned truth: when reading Matthewâ€™s words, I alwaysâ€”ALWAYSâ€”picture myself as the one going to correct the sinner.
Hereâ€™s another example, less â€œsafe,â€ and one with many opinions . . .
Some of the most troubling news from the summer of 2014 happened in Ferguson, Missouri. Six bullets were fired by a police officer into the vulnerable flesh of sixteen-year old Michael Brown. I believe Michael Brownâ€™s death was more evidence confirming the significant and insidious divide between races in America. We are a nation that sinned for centuries with slavery. We still pay that price; racial intolerance continuously picks at the scabs on our societyâ€™s festering wounds. As a white male in 21st Century America, I am privileged. I never face, and canâ€™t comprehend, the obstacles that exist for my sisters and brothers of color*. I believe that many white Americans donâ€™t understand this. I believe my viewsâ€”which seem objective and reasonableâ€”are correct.
But are my views so â€œcorrectâ€ that I canâ€™t or wonâ€™t listen to others? How intolerant is my tolerant faith?
I wish, with my father, that Iâ€™d paid more attention to his invisible anguish and inevitable decline than in my agenda to be right. I wish that Iâ€”and othersâ€”would abandon our bullets and bullying and self-righteousness to openly talk with each other about race.
How can I, for Christâ€™s sake, witness the world not as ignorant and intolerant sinners on one side versus the sinned-against on my tolerant and enlightened side, but as Godâ€™s creation needing to find common ground?
*An opinion piece about white/black perceptions from the Huffington Post intrigued me. The author, Jeza Belle, is a drag queen and comedian; heâ€™s also gay and white, with an African-American boyfriend. He reflects on how heâ€™s perceived compared to how his partner is perceived. First, I appreciated the perspective he brought about judging others by their skin color. In a sense, how we â€œsin,â€ often without acknowledging it. Secondly, several of the negative reader comments about Belleâ€™s opinions revealed the dismissive ways we belittle others. If Belleâ€™s experiences were unlike a particular reader, that doesnâ€™t mean Belle was â€œwrong.â€ How often do we quickly label a person, never taking time to learn about them?