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A Community of Mercy

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Twenty-Third Sunday of the Year. Fr Peter Harries preaches on forgiveness, the principal rule of the Christian Church.

Today's passage from Matthew's Gospel is part of a long discourse of Jesus about the Church, particularly about forgiveness. What does it mean to be a member of the Church? Are there rules of behaviour? Can wrong-doers remain members of the Church?

Matthew was writing his Gospel at least forty years after Jesus's death and Resurrection, and almost certainly after the destruction of Jerusalem by Roman armies. He wrote the Gospel, inspired by God, for the local Churches in Syria, Palestine and neighbouring regions. These congregations spoke both Greek and Aramaic --- the two languages that were usually spoken in Jerusalem and Galilee in Jesus's time. Some of the congregation were Jews who had become Christians, others were Gentiles. All were now Christians, but what were the boundaries of the community?

In the local synagogues --- just across the road or down the street, in the very same towns and villages -- a strikingly similar debate was taking place. Who were Jews? Could Jews do this or that? Christianity and Judaism were establishing their boundaries as separate communities.

Many diverse groups within Judaism, including the Sadducees, were disappearing. Paul's letters to Greek speaking churches in Greece and what is now Turkey, give another glimpse of the intense debate in early Christianity about our Jewish inheritance, and what aspects of the Jewish law were obligatory for Christians. Kosher meals? Marriage rules?

Today's passage is about forgiveness. A Christian community is a community of people whose sins have been forgiven by God and who bear witness to this.

There is a textual variation at the beginning: some manuscripts of Matthew's gospel read "sin against you", while others just read "sin". So the beginning of this passage may be about a fellow Christian --- a 'brother' in the Greek text --- offending me personally, or it may be more generally about someone who sins.

Whichever is the case, the Christian believer has a responsibility for his fellow Christian's salvation. He or she must try to bring someone back to the way of salvation. If the personal touch or the discrete approaches do not bear fruit, then Matthew here envisages a system of excommunication --- of casting someone out of the Christian fellowship.

Some Christian denominations have tried systems where the whole community are responsible for public discipline and who publicly cast people out of the community. The result is usually a rather narrow group of like-minded individuals where forgiveness is much talked about but little exercised, especially towards those people who are different and who do not fit the usual patterns. The outsider perceives this as hypocritical --- often correctly.

Within Catholicism how might this work? What are the limits today? Long ago the Church decided that the bishops, and their co-workers the priests, were to exercise discipline within the Church. It was not usually for the lay faithful. It is part of the exercise of the ministerial priesthood, alongside the hearing of confessions. Not listening to malicious gossip is vital. Confidentiality is an important issue.

We expect our pastors to be charitable and our priests to be ministers of forgiveness. Yet as a priest and hospital chaplain I hear tales of babies refused baptism. I hear of gay people being unwelcome. I hear tales -- often thankfully from the past -- about priests being reluctant to bury people who had committed suicide, or who treated badly a couple who wished to marry because one of them was not a Catholic.

The truth of such tales is sometimes complex, sometimes straightforward, but often difficult to ascertain years later. Sometimes the priest was racist, uncharitable or simply badly-informed. Other times, a priest may have hesitated to baptise a child when admission to Catholic school seems to be the be-all and end-all in requesting the baptism. Such hesitation has been interpreted as rejection, especially if the parents are not married. Any experienced pastor will have faced many such issues, and will have been misunderstood --- sometimes deliberately.

In a short sermon like this I do not want to list sins for which some type of excommunication may be appropriate. Weightier matters of violence, abuse of power, neglect of justice, and destruction of the environment may need to be given attention as well as consensual though inappropriate sexual behaviour --- even if the latter sells more tabloid newspapers.

The final verse in our passage shows us that the intention of any excommunication is not punishment, but rather to bring the person so cast out to ask for forgiveness. We must pray gently and persistently for sinners that they may repent.



Ezek 33:7-9
Rom 13:8-10
Matt 18:15-20


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