The river flows

“Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” the disciples asked, and Jesus responded by talking about children, humility and lost sheep. Then there is a noticeable change in the text. It is still Jesus talking and teaching, but he “is so concrete and practical in this passage that you could swear he was Paul, writing to a feuding congregation,” Anna Carter Florence observed. “He tells the disciples what to do if [one sins against another,] and then offers step by step instructions for how to proceed.”[1]

“If a brother or sister sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” He does sound a little bit like Paul, doesn’t he? Paul wrote passionate letters to the churches in Corinth, Galatia, and Rome to remind them and the whole church that we need each other in order to be whole. When sin creates a rift between us, we must pursue one another, because we belong to each other; one member of the body of Christ cannot say to another, “I have no need of you.”[2]

Jesus in today’s reading may sound like he’s writing the article on excommunication for the bylaws, but he’s still responding to the disciples who are with him on the road to Jerusalem, wondering who will get the best seats in the kingdom.[3] They have their eyes and minds set on greatness and triumph, and he teaches them, teaches us the hard and humble work of reconciliation between one sinner and another. Through his instructions he unfolds for us how we are to be each other’s shepherds when sin has caused alienation. Rather than dreams of greatness, we are to cultivate gentleness and mercy by humbly seeking and restoring one another.

“If a brother or sister sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” It doesn’t often happen that way, does it? If a brother or sister sins against me, I want to tell somebody about it. I want to tell my story and make sure I get plenty of sympathy. I have been wronged. I have been offended. I have been hurt. I may end up telling several people about it, but not the one person who, according to Jesus, needs to hear about it first and foremost. That’s how it goes, quite often. I know it’s not right, but my proud heart doesn’t relent easily; not even to the Spirit’s prodding.

Every time we say the Lord’s prayer, we speak about forgiveness. Whether we learned to say trespasses, debts, or sins, we put into words our need to be forgiven and to be forgiving. We ask God to ‘give us this day our daily bread’ and in the same breath we remember the one thing we need just as much as bread – forgiveness, given and received, daily.

Breaking bread with a stranger, of course, is much easier than seeking forgiveness with a brother or sister. Vengeance and retribution require little effort; all I have to do is let the waves of my pain and anger carry me. You hurt me and I’ll hurt you back; it’s easy. You hurt me and I hold a righteous grudge, and I even feel good about it in a weird way. We all know how it feels when a relationship is stuck in unspoken hurt. And we know how it feels to wait for the other to make the first move. “Not only do you owe me an apology, sister, you also have to be all-knowing; you must realize without my telling you that that half-sentence you so thoughtlessly dropped on me last Friday in the parking lot outside the restaurant was incredibly insensitive and hurtful.”

Jesus knows what kind of games we play. “Go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone,” he says plainly. You can add a cup of coffee, but beyond that it’s as basic as it gets: One-to-one. Face-to-face. Take a breath. Speak the truth. Beverly Gaventa wrote a few years back, “Jesus’ counsel … demands a costly forthrightness that I normally reserve for the few and the greatly trusted.”[4] Yes indeed, Jesus’ counsel demands that I expand my small circle of the few and the greatly trusted to include all who are members of his church. I may think that sin is a matter between me and God and between me and the other person, but Jesus has placed me and the other into his community of reconciliation. Consequently the rift sin has created between me and another is not merely a private matter, but the place where the whole fabric is torn. What we do or fail to do to each other has an impact not just on individual relationships, but on the community as a whole.

Jesus teaches in the tradition of Israel’s covenant law, where we read in Leviticus, “You shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”[5] Jesus, as always, has love in mind when he says, “go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” If the two of you can work it out, no one else needs to know.

“If you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you.” He has love in mind, and so he’s certainly not suggesting that I come back with some muscle to intimidate my brother or sister. I ask somebody to help us hear each other out and come to a shared understanding of what happened. I ask one or two others to hold us in prayer and help us remember that the wholeness of the community is at stake, not just a private relationship. If we can work it out, no one else needs to know.

“If the brother or sister refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church.” It is easy to see how this can go terribly wrong. First one sister, then several people, then an entire congregation confront one brother with his sin, but instead of a humble confession, they only encounter a growing wall of silence. One could of course describe such a coordinated effort as loving persistence, but the person at the center of all that attention may call it harassment. Scenes from The Scarlet Letter come to mind where a community is all too eager to mark and exclude the “offender.” Jesus himself comes to mind, alone on the cross, outside the city gates, the excluded offender, violently excommunicated. Keep that image in mind, we’ll come back to it.

“If the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a gentile and a tax collector.” Shut the door on such a one; a hard word of exclusion. But the one who said it is the one who died for gentiles, tax collectors and every species of sinner on the face of the earth. The excluded are the very people Jesus seeks out to save and restore to community in his ministry.[6] So in one sense, treating someone “as a gentile and a tax collector” means rejection and exclusion. But in another sense, and quite ironically, it means the radical, offensive inclusion demanded by the gospel itself.[7] Ultimately, then, there is no outside of God’s love.

Paul comes to mind again.[8] Love is patient. Love is kind. Love is demanding. Love is persistent. It doesn’t write off anyone. It keeps going back repeatedly to work toward reconciliation. “Owe no one anything, except to love one another,” Paul writes in Romans; “for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”[9]

The road to the brother or sister who has sinned against me is demanding and difficult, but it is the road Jesus travels. I must learn to be truthful without being hurtful. You must learn to say hard things gently. We must learn to trust the bond of love Christ has created between us.

“Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” To me, this is the verse that holds the entire passage together. “If a brother or sister sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” When we gather in his name, we are never just the two or three of us. We are only together because of him and what he has done for us. At first glance, we may only see a brother struggling to find the right words to tell a sister how she has sinned against him. But with our eyes illumined by God’s reconciling love, we see Jesus, one arm on her shoulder, the other on the brother’s. We find the courage to bring each other back into reconciled community by trusting in the work and presence of Christ between us.

Forgiveness is a call to a future better than vengeance, a future not bound by the past. It is a call to move out of stuckness.

You can’t make yourself forgive anyone, but you can prepare your heart for it by remembering God’s mercy.

Forgiveness is not so much our doing as it is our standing in a healing river whose source is not in us. Forgiveness begins with God’s love for the world. In Jesus, God became vulnerable to the world of human beings, vulnerable to our capacity to touch, caress, comfort, and hold, but also to the many ways in which we abuse, betray, mock, and abandon one another. In Jesus, God entered the space between us where sin destroys trust and friendship and all that is sacred, and God ended up being the one judged, condemned, and crucified. Everything ends there, in the darkness of Friday. Everything comes to an end there, everything but God’s mercy and forgiveness. Love’s final move is not retribution, but resurrection, and the river flows. The river flows. May it flow through us.


[1] Anna Carter Florence, Preaching the Lesson, Lectionary Homiletics Vol. 19, No. 5, p. 54

[2] 1 Corinthians 12:21

[3] See Thomas G. Long, Matthew (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 202

[4] Beverly Gaventa, “Costly Confrontation,” The Christian Century, August 11-18, 1993, p. 773

[5] Leviticus 19:17-18

[6] See, e.g. Matthew 9:10-13

[7] See Beverly Gaventa, “Costly Confrontation,” The Christian Century, August 11-18, 1993, p. 773

[8] See 1 Corinthians 13

[9] Romans 13:8