Just how are we to treat "Tax-Collectors"?

Rev'd Daniel Irvine

Matthew 18:15-20

Today’s text from the Gospel of St Matthew has often been used to support the notion of the institution of the Church being invested with certain powers and authority, not least of which being the power of excommunication, whereby an individual is declared to be outside the fellowship the Church and, to some thereby, outside of the saving grace of God.

Now while this passage holds some good advice about how to deal with disagreements between members of the Church, especially in that it is always better to talk openly about grievances instead of letting them fester and eat away at us, the specific instructions, which follow quite closely the Jewish tradition inherited from the book of Leviticus (6:2-7), are more likely Matthew’s attempt at providing a framework for the fledgling churches in the communities to which he was writing his Gospel than anything that might have been said by Jesus of Nazareth.

The sayings attributed to Jesus in today’s gospel are rather unique to Matthew, in fact the closest that any other evangelist comes to this is in Luke (17:3) where it is written that “If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive.”

And forgiveness is, I believe, the key to understanding what this text might mean for us today, and perhaps what it should have meant for the generations of Christians who have preceded us, and all too often mistreated others in the name of faith and religion.

Forgiveness; and a pertinent reminder that as Christians we are not followers of the Bible but of Jesus Christ.

We centre our lives and our beliefs and our actions on what we have learnt about God through the revelation of the life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth.

We are followers and disciples of the Living God, not followers of the dry and dusty pages of an ancient text that some think can be turned into a rule book for our lives so that we are spared the effort of having to think and reason and discern, with the help of the Spirit, the right course of action for ourselves.

No, we do not believe that the Bible contains the words of God, but rather that it points us to the true Word of God, made flesh in the life of Jesus, and that it is through him that we are led into the arms of the loving God who made heaven and earth.

And with that in mind let us take another look at this passage, with fresh eyes, to see how Jesus might reveal something more than most of us have ever seen there before.

It all starts off seemingly straight forward.

If someone sins against you, don’t dwell on it, go and speak with them.

More often than not, what we have perceived as a sin against us, or an action designed to slight or hurt us, was not meant with malice, but is rather the result of a misunderstanding and as soon as the other realises how we have been hurt or aggrieved then they apologise and try to make up for the wrong, or at least try not to do it again.

But if we cannot resolve our differences ourselves we are recommended to take a few people with us to talk it over.

In modern language, at least through my experience in the education system, this sounds a lot like a restorative justice meeting, or a guided reconciliation that brings parties, seemingly at loggerheads, to a greater appreciation of the other’s point of view and hopefully to the finding of some middle ground where both parties can leave with a sense of satisfaction and that justice has been done and so move on peaceably with their lives.

Sometimes though, even these meetings fail to produce a reconciliation and then the systems of government, courts and tribunals, set up by communities, must make as balanced a decision as they can about who is in the right and who stands to bear correction, and for many these institutions have the last word.

Agree or not, once appeals are exhausted, we have little choice but to accept the decisions of our courts, but what if the sentence was unbearable?

What if a court tried to enforce its will by claiming that those who disagreed with it were not only subject to imprisonment or even death, but to eternal damnation because they were outside God’s graces?

Is such an idea even conscionable?

More to the point, is theologically defensible when we are looking to Jesus, rather than a few isolated words?

I would like to suggest that we take those words from verse seventeen, that such a one be to you “as a Gentile and a tax collector” and think about them carefully in the light of how Jesus treated Gentiles and specifically, tax collectors.

We are told by Matthew that the Pharisees criticised Jesus because he shared table fellowship with tax collectors and with sinners. (9:10-11)

Matthew also lists a tax collector among the twelve disciples (10:3).

Jesus was well aware that his friendship with tax collectors was spurned by those who considered themselves respectable in society (11:19).

Jesus even says to the chief priests and the elders of the people that the tax collectors and the prostitutes were going to enter the kingdom of heaven before them (21:31).

And these examples come from just one of the evangelists, if we were to delve into the other gospels I probably could keep you here until past lunch!

But what might it mean?

Well, being overly literal and slightly caricatured, it might mean that those whom the “institution” of the Church finds fault with, instead of excommunicating them, we should be their friends and invite them to dinner, even make them bishops (for such is what the apostles evolved into), because they are all going to be first into heaven!

But a more moderated response might be to act with mercy and love towards those who we disagree with, even when we think we are right, or perhaps especially so.

And more importantly perhaps, would be to guard ourselves against any notion of the idea that there might exist such a person that could be described as “outside the grace of God”.

One thing that I have become convinced of in my thirty six years is there is no one who is outside or beyond the saving the reach of God’s love and grace and mercy.

That is what we have learnt from the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

That is the maxim by which we are to live our faith in the world.

To do justice, to love kindness and mercy, and to walk humbly with our God. (Mic 6.8)

Not trying to lord it over our brothers and sisters, and becoming their judge and jury ourselves.

Let us pray that we may always keep our eyes fixed on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who has revealed through his life, death and resurrection, the infinite love and mercy of God for all creation, and may we be inspired by the Holy Spirit to be beacons of God’s love and mercy to all whom we meet.

In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen

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