Tuesday, February 08, 2011

How to Treat People Like Tax Collectors

It is probably more indicative of my interests than anything else, but I come back to two passages in the Bible more often than any others: Genesis 1-3 and Matthew 18. In the latter passage we have what I think is one of the most important pieces of practical and ideological ecclesiology going - straight from the mouth of Jesus.
Your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones [lost sheep] should be lost. If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that 'every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.' If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector. I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them (18:14-20).

Right in the middle of all that, but not to be separated from the rest of what Jesus was talking about, is this bit about what one does after attempts to make things right have failed. When every attempt has been made and a person "refuses to listen even to the church," at that point, Jesus says, you "treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector."

This raises a question, and I'm not convinced that the oft-assumed answer is the right one: How does a Christian treat a so-called "pagan" or "tax collector"?

In his Commentary on the Harmony of the Evangelists (vol. II, pp. 357-358), John Calvin figures that Jesus is here borrowing a Jewish "mode of expression" - meaning that "we ought to have no intercourse with the despisers of the Church till they repent."

This seems a bit off to me, but maybe it is because I am born in an age leaning back from a perceived over-emphasis on accountability and leaning into an emphasis on tolerance. But as much as I prefer it to legalism, tolerance has been searched and found empty. Surely there can be some other option between strictly asserted self-righteousness and a socially shallow live-and-let-live?

A sympathetic reading of Calvin hears him saying simply that one does not make an ally out of someone that does not share one's goals and concerns. Refusing those who refuse is, for him, like calling a spade a spade. If someone refuses the church, why pretend you are on the same page? Makes sense.

Problem is, we get it in our head that the scenario Jesus speaks of involves someone who is 100% right and someone who is 100% wrong on some obvious sin or doctrinal issue. Surely there are those. But more often it is quite simply not that cut and dry. Even where there is a clear victim and a clear offender, we know that a third party and a discerning church leadership will often be able to tackle the trickier interpersonal squabbles and not only (a) help the offender to see and repent of the wrongdoing but also (b) help both victim and offender face some of the complicating issues of their relationship or their past or what have you.

Jesus' instruction seems built for way more than just the drag-an-offender-into-admitting-his-guilt scenario. It seems built to handle a dynamic of both truth-seeking and reconciliation-seeking!

In fact, Jesus goes so far beyond either strict legalism or banal tolerance that, properly applied, these verses alone should make the Christian church stick out in our Western society like a sore (but uniquely healing) thumb.

But am I just twisting Jesus' words for a more nuanced piece of sociological psycho-babble? Am I usurping a black and white Jesus for a church community of my own design? What if that's not what He meant? And who am I to disagree with Calvin's interpretation? Let's deal with them one at at time, starting with Calvin:

(1) Elsewhere in Calvin's comments on this passage he is clear that this refusal of "intercourse" with pagans or tax collectors does not mean either the extreme of "hatred" or the more passive-aggressive "avoidance". This is not about shunning or resentment. Calvin is not asking Christians (who in some cases will have been deeply offended by the wrongdoer) to cease and desist from amicable conversation, public association, friendship or even debate with those in question. His concern really does seem to be for the integrity of the church's communion.

Now, notice that I said the integrity of its communion, not of its moral appearances. The offender is not shuffled quietly aside in Jesus' church, but is embraced in a confrontation that aims at stronger union. The goal is to abide properly with God's calls on human life, and to do so as a community. This does mean confronting particular sins. Those that want a shallow tolerance will have to look elsewhere (and will have no problems finding it). This is about moral integrity. But the road to moral integrity is communal integrity.

So if a communion can't speak truth in love to one another in the common goal of discerning the way of Christ then they might as well admit they are no longer in a Christian communion. It is one thing to have wronged somebody. It is another thing for the ministry of reconciliation and the community itself to be refused. At this point (and not before) the church is no longer the church! The one who refuses the church in this way should not be considered a part of it. The presence of sin does not compromise the church, but the absence of togetherness on the road to reconciliation does. Resisting this makes one a non-participant.

Now, it would be easy, I'm sure, to fill our heads with examples where it has not been the offender but the leadership of the church that has failed in this regard. No doubt that adds a complexity to the scenarios which Jesus' teaching addresses. But Jesus' teaching does still address them, I believe.

(2) So now we come back to the question of what we think Jesus was recommending as far as "treatment of pagans and tax collectors" goes. And here, even though I've given Calvin a pretty sympathetic reading, I wonder why on earth Calvin would insist on interpreting that expression in light of typical 1st century Jewish thinking rather than Jesus' own prevalent displays about how to treat pagans and tax collectors?

After all, what book are we reading this story from? The gospel according to Matthew! Matthew was a tax collector befriended and called forth by Jesus - much to the disgust of the religious teachers of his day (Matt. 9 & 11). Matthew's is the gospel in which we see Jesus tell Peter not to revolt or resist but to pay his tax even though he does not live merely as a citizen of an earthly empire (Matt 17 & 22). Matthew's is the gospel in which Jesus says to love one's enemies and turn the other cheek (Matt 5). Matthew's is the gospel in which Jesus tells the story of the workers in the vineyard - and clinches it as follows:

"What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, 'Son, go and work today in the vineyard.'
'I will not,' he answered, but later he changed his mind and went.
Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, 'I will, sir,' but he did not go. 'Which of the two did what his father wanted?'
'The first,' they answered.
Jesus said to them, 'I tell you the truth, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you.'
(Matt. 21: 28-31)

I think we need to hear what Calvin has to say about who we take as allies (i.e., intercourse with). This seems a proper interpretation of the passage's ramifications. But I think when it comes to how we treat the church's refusers, we have to be extra careful not to get this wrong.

Jesus did not pretend that the pagans and tax collectors were yet in full fellowship with him, but he did treat them as friends.

I mean, just look at the parable which follows the passage we started with in Matthew 18: The parable of the unmerciful servant. It ends with the king imprisoning the servant whom he had previously forgiven because the servant refused to forgive others! Jesus' conclusion was this:

This is how my [not our] heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.

I don't take this to mean that we can copy the Father in binding people up and tossing them away. We can't judge like that. (And when churches do make decisions about their integrity as a community they are not passing judgment but trying to call it as they see it when all roads have been explored and there can be only one route forward). I take it from here and other passages (Matt 6, John 20, Eph 4, Rom 7) that God is judge and we are showers of mercy.

Thus I am not sure how far we need to be concerned with Calvin "that our forbearance and meekness ... may not become the subject of ridicule" (p. 366). In asmuch as Calvin meant that the church should not allow itself to be a laughing-stock of waffling disregard for integrity or ethical discernment, I'm with him. But I do think that in Christ we should probably expect to be the subjects of ridicule. We should expect that vindication comes in the judgment of God and not in our own efforts to exact revenge or restitution or self-righteousness.

It is one thing to suggest that the church does not take refusers of Christian community as allies, but another thing altogether to suggest that one treats such refusers any other way than lovingly and mercifully - just as in Christ God has done so with us. There is no in/out here. It is all in. Let the refusers refuse. Ours is a posture of embrace.

Of course, what one does when it is one's particular local church which is refusing the ministry of reconciliation is a whole other story. But in that case one is better off confronting that church with their own gospels in hand than retreating to the safe confines of a meaninglessly tolerant society and firing potshots at the Church from a supposed place of moral superiority. That would be the way Pharisees treated pagans and tax collectors, not Jesus. And today I think there are as many Pharisees outside the church as in it.

We could all stand to hear Jesus' rallying cry to the communal ramifications of the gospel that saves. In the sculpture seen here we have three figures, and I imagine we all fancy ourselves the one hurt and kneeling and balk at the idea of being either of the other two. We are pretty happy to talk about the parable of the lost sheep (which precedes the passage I've focussed on here) and thinking of ourselves as the one sought out and brought into the fold, but how often we retreat into an individualistic concept of salvation when Matthew seemed to want to turn our attention to the new reality that this creates: The life to be lived by the 99+1.


Anonymous said...

"There is no in/out here. It is all in. Let the refusers refuse. Ours is a posture of embrace."

Very well put.

Exegesis is such a tricky thing though - it's a good reminder here that it's not just "How did the original hearers understand it?" or "How have Christian's often understood it?", but it's also "What's the trajectory that Christ sets us out on... and what is his Spirit calling us to?"

Because even if this isn't how the early church worked out Jesus' teaching on this - and even if people side with Calvin's interpretation - I think it's hard to deny that your way of seeing this rings truest with the character of Jesus.

A good reminder for me to keep prayerfully studying Scripture - not just books and commentaries.

Tony Tanti said...

A favorite passage of mine, I like how you interacted with it and made the point that the answer isn't as obvious as many think to the question of how to treat a person after reconciliation attempts have failed.

I'm curious to know about your take on the workers in the vineyard question, sort of relates to our conversation at Christmas about what we do defining us and not what we say. Why is Jesus so harsh on them for picking the first son, he is the one who went to the vineyard?

Jon Coutts said...

Jon: I'm interested that you raise the issue of hermeneutics (i.e. authorial intent and readers impact and trajectory of text). I wasn't thinking about any such methodology, but when I do I find it hard to even figure out which of them I'm focusing on. I feel like what I'm doing is taking Jesus' instructions which take for granted that the scenario is pretty cut and dry (i.e. "when/if someone sins against you") and then applying them to all the situations in which it is not that straightforward (i.e. when you confront that person and find the sins are embedded in whole bunch of other factors). I think when we do this we find that Jesus' instructions still hold; still enable us to do the main thing, which is to to get together, the two or three of us, in Jesus' name, and seek to win or be won over to the same side (recognizing that just by meeting in this way we already are united in Christ).

Tanti: I don't think Jesus' tag on the end of that parable is in response to their choice of the first son. I think he told the story knowing full well they'd choose the first son, and rightly so. But here as in many of his parables to the teachers of the law, he is trying to get them to realize that they are the second son.

(In other words it is a Jew/Gentile thing; a healthy/sick thing; a self-righteous/contrite-sinner thing. The healthy don't think they need a doctor; the one's giving lip service or even great law-service may actually not be serving God - that sort of thing.)

Tony Tanti said...

ahhh, that does make sense. I always just thought he was telling them they are idiots for choosing the first son who I also would choose.

Natalie Lingo said...

I can actually say that I thoroughly enjoyed reading your explanation. I've been re-reading the Bible using an app I love on my phone and tablet and decided not just to read because it's God's word & I've been taught since birth basically that's what we do but this time I'm taking a look between the line; Really noticing the subtext, and being a person who thirst for knowledge as well as a Christian who had strayed from the flock til about a yr ago who yearns for more & more of His spirit through any means, what better way than to study His words. Thank you for such an intelligent and well reasoned explanation of a question I actually googled!

Richard Love said...

1 Corinthians chapter 5 talks about this. Paul says it is not a Christian's business to judge a heathen, but if a Christian decides to live like a heathen and not repent after being admonished in these ways (as best possible) then that person is to be shunned and excommunicated. "With such a person do not even eat." Again - does not apply to nonChristians.

Anonymous said...

I currently am working in a church where I have a member who I suspect has a Compulsive Personality Disorder. She believes that she runs the church & it is her church, for two years she worked with her mother and sister to enforce her control of the church. (driving members out of the church in the process) Even when confronted by the pastor, and members of the congregation- Even when flat out told by the congregation at an annual meeting that this behavior must stop, she can't. Even though her mother and sister have now recognized this behavior and distanced themselves from it - she can't stop. In this case, I do think that both Matthew and Calvin understood that this behavior can become quite destructive to the church if allowed to persist. That's why I think in this one instance, where a person's behavior is so unchristian and destructive to the congregation, that Matthew meant for it to be interpreted from the Jewish point of view of gentiles and tax collectors of that time. I know this person is hurting tremendously, the church was the last social organization in town that she hasn't been tossed out of for her behavior, but I struggle to figure out how to minister to someone who is so disrespectful of both the pastor and the church leadership.