23rd Sunday of the Year
We are constantly reminded that we are interconnected with all living things and creation. We keep this in mind as we reflect on the readings and celebrate 2020 Season of Creation. The emphasis is on reconciliation, communion, not punishment.
For many, our lives have consisted of talk and action related to punishment rather than reconciliation and mercy. Pope Francis brought about a gush of wind by promoting mercy and patience over punishment and condemnation. It is crucial that we are gathered together rather than dispersed or in confrontation where we fall into the trap of disparaging one another in personal relationships, in communities or between nations. Recently a petition has been organised to have a bishop, who has preached, taught and acted with the same merciful heart as Pope Francis, to be removed from his diocese allegedly for disturbing the faith of people. These people seem to be sure as to who belongs and does not belong. It is crucial that as we gather in Jesus’ name, we listen to Jesus’ voice <‘If today you his voice, harden not your heart’> if we are to identify his vision of God’s reign and be drawn to make a more humane world.
Matthew’s text today seems so full of certainty about community and who belongs in it. We might ask where we find forgiveness, doubt and humility. Is it necessary for every unresolved conflict to result in separation? Do our inevitable conflicts always need to lead to separation? The heart of the gospel is closer to love and reconciliation than statements, hate messages and narrow dogma. And, there are many loud Christians who issue more statements, hate, push for isolation and exclusion, and seek the safety of idolatrous monuments rather than face the truth of history. We continue to witness distressing examples of what people are capable of doing to others. It is happening within our church when some leaders proclaim God’s love and mercy for all people and for creation are viewed as highly suspect because they do not issue dogmatic statements. Brutality and violence exists against Muslims and Christians, against Palestinians, neglect of asylum seekers coming from brutal regimes or impoverished situations-and the world is largely silent.
Though most people would rather live in peace and yearn for a united humanity, their governments prepare for war and corporate media, governments and weapons manufacturers foster enmity and hatred. How many more people need to be killed? How many more generations must bear weapons so that people can feel safe? Every killing creates new hatred, new fears and more revenge? To be safe or be free people must begin be building mutual relationships of trust and respect. As we look at the Holy Land, how can it ever be holy whilst blood flows over it? A powerful book by Palestinian gynaecologist Dr Izzeldin Abuelaish - I shall not hate – tells of three of his daughters and niece deliberately killed by Israeli shells fired directly into their bedroom. Yet, he publicly refused to let these killings provoke hatred or revenge from him. It is a story of triumph over adversity and hope in the midst of misfortune. For him, a Muslim, understanding and co-existence would be more powerful weapons than counter-violence and bloodshed though many would not share his conclusion that friendly dialogue with the enemy is the best course.
As Christians we belong to a community of brothers and sisters but many behave as if Christianity is a purely personal or private affair. This is how it loses its credibility. We are constantly called to be on the lookout for one another. It begins with God’s call to Cain, ‘Where is your brother(sister)?’ and repeated to us. Our relationship with Jesus depends on our relationship with others: family, neighbours and strangers. ‘As often as you did/did not do it to the very least of my brothers and sisters, you did/did not do it to me’ (Mt 25:40, 45). Clearly, our attitudes and behaviour towards those who are most at risk, most defenceless and most vulnerable must be of utmost concern.
Our credibility as Christians is diminished when we live exclusive lives. The Gospel is never exclusive. Today’s gospel tries to deal with divisions, conflicts, and unacceptable behaviour in the community – yet its primary concern is the wellbeing of the whole community through reconciliation, not punishment, revenge or vindictiveness. Hard-heartedness can protect us from hearing, feeling, seeing another’s story or point of view. A hard heart or closed heart isolates us from others and keeps them at a distance. This hardheartedness can cause us to maintain an invulnerability to prevent feeling and hurt. ‘If today you hear his voice, harden not your heart’. Can we hear the voices of people who are marginalised seeking to be treating with respect? Can we hear voices of women seeking to be treated with equality? Can we hear the voices of Afghan families who need to have their losses recognised as would any Australian family? Can we hear the pleas of people living with mental illness to be accepted rather than feared? Can we hear the groans of Mother Earth and her people as she is being destroyed? Most importantly, can we hear God speaking through our rage and anger at injustice and calling us to respond. ‘If today you hear his voice, harden not your heart’.
Troublesome people in churches and communities are a reality. Love requires that we address the inevitable conflicts that arise. Matthew addresses the issue of conflict resolution and emphasises dialogue over revenge and violence. He has Jesus say that if step one doesn’t work, move on to the subsequent strategies which include healing conversation with one’s adversary, arbitration with a mediator or two, consultation with the entire community, and shunning the offending party <’…treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector’.>
It is important to remember that the church did not exist in Jesus’ time. These words are NOT his. Writing more than 50 years after Jesus’ crucifixion, Matthew used Jesus to deal with questions of community order in the mainly Jewish Christian community that became prominent. Treating a recalcitrant person like a Gentile or a tax collector reflects the way Gentiles and Roman collaborators were traditionally treated. This is counter to Jesus’ practice of eating with the very people Matthew considered outsiders and who should be shunned. So Jesus may have resolved conflict by using the first three steps that Matthew indicated, rather than shunning the person, Jesus would more likely have joined the offending party at a meal or move in with him/her. His emphasis was on communion, not cutting them off. He never took the view that we should refuse meet with an offender until s/he stops offending. Here is a lesson for world leaders when in their dealings with other countries, e.g., USA and North Korea, USA and China, USA and Iran. It certainly does not include killing the offending world leader and his/her people. There are lessons here how to relate to women, LGBTIQ people, people with disabilities, people who have been divorced. Jesus’ actions were highly political and not just about private conflict. Sharing meals with tax collectors, street walkers, lepers, Pharisees, Gentiles (including members of the Roman army) represented doing the unthinkable, the unexpected, the forbidden. It meant crossing boundaries, breaking taboos, acting counter-culturally, and offending people on all sides of sizzling debates.
The Jewish philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas, enables to see how radical Jesus’ teaching on love of neighbour really was. For Levinas, loving your neighbour as oneself, does not mean ‘Love your neighbour because s/he is like you,’ but means, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself, because s/he is you.’ It means that there is no meaningful distinction between oneself and any other person whoever s/he is. If you shared the same history as your ‘enemy,’ you would be doing exactly the same thing that currently enrages you. As a result, no killing can be justified. It is suicide. That’s the thrust of Jesus’ words: to kill the other is to kill yourself. Killing of any kind is suicide. We are all interconnected. Our calling to love one another is a calling to touch and be touched, and even to touch the sore spots, in the hope of healing. We will hurt each other from time to time. We may do it quite a lot. Jesus calls us to testify to God’s unending mercy who touches our wounds so that they can be healed and find that our God ‘makes all things new.’
As celebrate the Season of Creation (Sept. 1-Oct. 4) we are reminded that we are all interconnectedness. This year, unlike ever before, whilst we confront the interrelated challenges of the environmental crisis, institutionalised racism, threats against other countries and the COVID-19 pandemic this sense of interconnectedness is ever important. The crises of Earth and relationships prove that we are intimately connected. It's time to open our eyes and ears so that we can assume our responsibility and speak in the name of God on behalf of creation and the people of the Earth. Ezekiel reminds us of our responsibility, and Jesus has promised to be with us in the process. The moment has come to remember that we are Christians, people baptized to be prophets not blind, deaf and silent sculpted monkeys.