Broken Beings

This is my second year doing a summer series that involves reading some children’s books as supplemental readings to the scripture. Each sermon will contain a link to the book in question.

There’s a Bear on My Chair, by Ross Collins

Matthew 18:15-20

Offense

Jesus did not get along with everybody.
Jesus did not get along with everybody……and neither will you.

Contrary to popular belief, contrary to what you may have been taught, and contrary to what you may feel deep down inside, you will not be able to get along with everyone. While choices and sin can exacerbate this reality, it is independent of your faith, your religion, and your relationship with God. You will not be able to get along with everybody. Jesus wasn’t able to do it, and (pardon my saying so, but) you’re no Jesus.

There will be people that we come across in life with whom you just don’t get along. Maybe it has to do with personality. Maybe there is some deep offense for which you have not been able to find resolution. Maybe there is history that predates you each by generations. Whatever the cause, there will be brokenness in your relationship and in your beings.

One of the most common pastoral care scenarios I find myself in goes something like this:

“Pastor, so-and-so has wronged me in this way. I know I’m supposed to forgive them, but I just can’t. What do I do?

“Well,” I end up responding after we have a bit of conversation about the specific circumstances, “What do you do? You do what Jesus says you’re supposed to do. There’s a process for this.” And then we turn in a Bible to Matt 18, here at our scripture lesson. We look at this process that Jesus lays out—a process that is oh-so-important for us to see. For in it, Jesus recognizes that humans cannot exist in relationship with one another unless boundaries are maintained.

Matthew 18: Step One

What Jesus sketches out here is a three-step process aimed at reconciling broken relationships. If someone has done harm to you—sinned against you—Jesus tells you to first talk to that person in private. This first step—believe it or not—is all it takes sometimes. Most fractured relationships begin with a perceived—yet unintended—slight of some sort; the other person may not even realize they have done something wrong. Approaching them directly and right away allows us to “nip it in the bud,” as Barney Fife would say. It alerts them to the fact that they did cross a boundary with us—something that is important enough to us that it risks our relationship.

This step, sadly, is never even considered by so many. We assume the worst of one other, believing that “they know what they did” and then punishing them for it. We react to them; they react to us; and the violence we do to one other quickly escalates far beyond the initial offense.

I was talking recently with a police officer about the ways our increasingly polarized society was affecting his job. One thing he noted was how quickly everything escalates because people simply aren’t neighborly anymore. If someone’s music is too loud, they call the cops rather than talk to their neighbor. When the police show up, the music-playing neighbor is furious at the one who turned them in, and their anger and frustration at their neighbor is often vented at the officer. This sometimes escalates into feuds that last for years and sometimes turn violent. “I don’t get it,” he said to me. “Why won’t people just talk to their neighbors?”

I don’t have an answer for him, other than to say that Jesus also wants them to talk to their neighbor before calling the police. Jesus, too, suggests that working through conflict is the neighborly—and relationship building—thing to do.

Matthew 18: Step Two

But what if they don’t listen? What if they deny any wrongdoing or fail to take responsibility for the offense?

Jesus then instructs the matter be sorted out by bringing in a couple neutral parties. Contrary to the way we might read v.16 in spite, Jesus is not instructing us to gang up on the offender by bringing people who are on our side, attempting to strong-arm them into saying sorry. Quite the opposite: “establishing every matter by the testimony of two or three witnesses” indicates that these folk are brought in as a jury of sorts. Their responsibilities are three:

First, they sort out whether there has been an actual offense.

Second, they decide who is at fault.

And third, they will testify (if necessary) to the broader community about their conclusions and everyone’s behavior.

This is consistent with the OT rules aimed at preventing false accusations that we see in Deuteronomy 19:15 and other places.

Matt 18: Step Three

But what if these jurors believe the other person is at fault and he still won’t accept responsibility? You take it to the next level. What is often translated the “church” in v.17 is actually a word meaning “assembly.” At this point in history, of course, there is no Christian “church”—not yet. And in Palestine in the first century, justice among Jews was primarily mediated by the synagogues; they were (for all intents and purposes) the small claims court of the day.

What if you still can’t find justice? Jesus says you have to cut that person off. If you’ve followed this process and they still won’t respect the boundary you need maintained for a relationship, then there is no relationship—not any more—the other person has seen to that. Why must you cut them off? Because human beings cannot exist in relationships without boundaries being maintained.

The Heart of the Process

Please take note, however—Every step of this process is aimed not at catalyzing the brokenness of relationship, but at reconciling it. You cannot look at this process as a series of boxes to check off before Jesus lets you “unfriend” someone from real life.

Moreover, some level of interpretation and application will have to be made for changes in our world. I doubt (for instance) you will find a Jewish synagogue willing to mediate your conflicts. And Paul in 1Corinthians 6:7 suggests that airing our dirty laundry before the world only besmirches the cause of Christ. It is “better to be ripped off or defrauded” by one another, he claims in that verse (VOICE).

But the truth of the teaching remains the same: Human beings cannot exist in relationships unless boundaries are maintained. Jesus knows that—he was one of us, after all.

No Boundaries?

I have known many people in my admittedly short lifetime who believed that Christians were supposed to be the world’s doormats. As unending founts of forgiveness and completely passive in the face of oppression and adversity, they believe that we are to be people without boundaries, without feelings, and without rights. I’m not so sure that I see that anywhere in scripture.

Even Jesus expressed feelings—and intense ones at that. Even Jesus maintained boundaries evident in the pattern of work, prayer, and rest throughout his adult life. Even Jesus attended to and respected the rights and dignity of all those he encountered. His willingness to sacrifice his own rights by dying on the cross was made that much more powerful by his advocacy for the rights of others during his life. Jesus was no doormat.

Unforgiving Servant

But……and there’s always a “but”……Jesus does not allow us to close the door on anyone forever. Just as God is always willing to receive us when we repent (that means “turn our choices around”), so Jesus instructs us to be ready to receive those who previously transgressed our boundaries.

After Jesus presents this model of reconciliation, Peter steps up and speaks—standing in for our own hardened and legalistic hearts. Verse 21 (of Matthew 18) reads: “Lord, when someone has sinned against me, how many times ought I forgive him? Once? Twice? As many as seven times?” (VOICE).

Jesus responds “You must forgive not seven times, but seventy times seven” (Matthew 18:22 VOICE). Jesus is not simply raising the bar, suggesting that we roll over and play dead 490 times—but that four-hundred-ninety-first time……well, you better be ready for the thunder [KISS BICEP] and the lightening [KISS OTHER BICEP]. …No…

I think Jesus knows that is exactly what his disciples are likely to think. So he tells a story:

Once upon a time in a land far, far away there was a mortgage lender. I don’t know why (I’m not a mortgage lender) but she decides to double check everyone’s accounts.

Her assistant brought to her attention one particular account. The account holder was deep in debt—his house had been purchased before the recession of 2008—the interest rate was sky-high, and the property value nil. He had been missing payments, and there appeared no way he would ever be able to pay back the loan.

So she calls his loan and puts the fear of God into him, intimidating him with fines and jail time and threatening to evict his family onto the street.

The man begged and pleaded, and somehow softened that lender’s heart (parables are fiction, after all). Motivated now by compassion, she signs him up for a loan forgiveness program that will erase the bulk of the debt.

The man leaves elated—a new lease on life! He goes out to celebrate and runs across one of his poker buddies. Last week a full house allowed him to clean up, and the man still owes him a hundred bucks. The argument escalates to violence, and the recently-forgiven man threatens to sue him.

“Have mercy,” that man now pleads, using almost the exact same words as his accuser did moments ago. But there is no mercy to be found……not this time……not for him.

Word gets back to the mortgage lender of all this—the paperwork hadn’t even been filed! So the lender shreds the paperwork and throws the book at the guy. “Surely,” she says, “you should have shown the same charity to a friend who was in your debt” (Matthew 18:33 VOICE).

Now I’d like to think that in telling this story Jesus had made his point and made it well. But he is leaving nothing to chance about this—he will not be misunderstood—so he lays it out plainly for the disciples, and for us: “That is what my Father in heaven will do to you unless you forgive each of your brothers and sisters from your heart” (Matthew 18:35 VOICE).

Bears on Chairs!

While their specifics may vary with each individual, there are boundaries that are important to us, boundaries that need maintained. But sometimes—no matter what we say or do—there are people who insist on sitting on our chair. Sometimes we, too, may have to say “That’s it! I’m done!…I’m going now.” And that… is… OK.

But even to those who offend us the most, we have a responsibility to live by the Royal Law of Jesus—to love our neighbor as ourself. The mouse in the book—in the midst of his anger and frustration, in the midst of the violence of transgressed boundaries—he ends up committing the exact same offense against the bear.

Followers of Jesus, we are called to live in the light and not the darkness. Our Savior told us “as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them” (Luke 6:31). No matter the boundaries being transgressed, no matter the offense against us, we are still called to live a different way. We can enforce boundaries and still follow Jesus’ teachings. We can tell others what they are doing is not ok without repaying them “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” Jesus calls us to a different ethic—the way of the Kingdom of God.

Romans 12

I’ve spoken on this in the last year, but another passage that often comes up in these conversations is Romans 12. Paul, as is the case in every NT letter, is trying to address and resolve conflict from afar. These Romans are experiencing hardship—persecution, really—and much of it is at the hands of their larger culture and society.

And yet in addressing how to live among these difficult external pressures, Paul emphasizes the importance of being transformed and renewed from the inside out (12:2), the interdependence of the Body of Christ (12:4-8), the necessity to “love authentically” and “rejoice” (12:9, 12), and these instructions in vv.14-19 (I will be reading from the VOICE translation):

If people mistreat or malign you, bless them. Always speak blessings, not curses. If some have cause to celebrate, join in the celebration. And if others are weeping, join in that as well. Work toward unity, and live in harmony with one another. Avoid thinking you are better than others or wiser than the rest; instead, embrace common people and ordinary tasks. Do not retaliate with evil, regardless of the evil brought against you. Try to do what is good and right and honorable as agreed upon by all people. If it is within your power, make peace with all people. Again, my loved ones, do not seek revenge; instead, allow God’s wrath to make sure justice is served. Turn it over to Him. For the Scriptures say, “Revenge is Mine. I will settle all scores.”

If it is within your power, make peace with all people.” That’s a pretty darn good challenge to leave us with this morning.

We are broken beings. Broken relationships are part and parcel to the human experience. But by following Jesus’ instructions and example, we may find ourselves both peaceable and peacemakers—living Christ’s kingdom into the world one relationship at a time.

Amen.

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