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Readings: 12th Sunday after Trinity

29 August 2014

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12th Sunday after Trinity

Proper 18: Ezekiel 33.7-11; Romans 13.8-end; Matthew 18.15-20

Almighty and everlasting God, you are always more ready to hear than we to pray and to give more than either we desire or deserve: pour down upon us the abundance of your mercy, forgiving us those things of which our conscience is afraid and giving us those good things which we are not worthy to ask but through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ your Son our Lord. Amen.

GRACE, forgiveness, and opportunity pervade this week's readings, but, unless we read the whole chapter of Matthew, we miss the context, and inadvertently turn grace into law.

Jesus has described a crazy shepherd, probably caring for other people's sheep as well as his own, who risks everyone's livelihood - 99 sheep - for the sake of one sheep who messes things up for everyone by getting lost. His hearers would have laughed at the sheer irresponsibility of the shepherd. But, for Jesus, this is a good model for the Father's loving action to avoid losing even one little one.

Who are the little ones? Go back to the beginning of the chapter, and it is children who are models for the greatest in the Kingdom of heaven. In the thought of the time, children counted for little; Jesus was getting more and more absurd.

Against this background, Jesus outlines what his disciples should do when one sins against another. Matthew switches to language of the Church, and reads his contemporary situation back into the teaching that he had inherited through the tradition, but things are none the worse for that: we apply scripture to our situations today.

The readings are all concerned with how God's people live, together, in less than ideal worlds. Ezekiel, in exile, is reminded that those whom God calls have a responsibility for the welfare of others; he offers them every opportunity to reform and turn back to save their lives. God desires people to have life.

In Romans, Paul writes to persecuted Christians, and at the same time, looks ahead to the day of judgement. His message? Salvation is coming, and they owe each other nothing except love.

Matthew's process for dealing with someone who has sinned against another is carefully designed to reclaim the offender with as little fuss or publicity as possible. Not for him the tweeting of another person's failings. Deuteronomy (17.6, 19.15) specifically excluded reliance on just one witness, going straight for more, but Jesus slips in an earlier stage, in which the wronged person offers the chance to heal the relationship quietly.

Should that fail, others are called in, not to back up the offended person, or to reinforce the condemnation, but as independent witnesses of what is said. Only if that fails is the whole Church involved. Even then, there is a surprise in store, because a person who still refuses to listen is to be treated as a Gentile and tax-collector. How did Jesus do that? He was their friend (Matthew 11.19).

Matthew continues (18.21-22) by using Peter to clarify the limitlessness of the mercy expected of them. Put that alongside Paul's instructions to owe nothing except love, and to love our neighbours as ourselves (two phrases that trip off our tongue, but should trip us up). They lead him to urge action: put off, put on; leave behind dark, sleep, and night, with their revelling and drunkenness; awaken to the light and to the day, to honourable action, as we are clothed in Christ, and together await the day of the Lord. Transparency of life is called for.

This week, there is a particularly happy coincidence of the readings and the collect, which is a paean of God's excesses: more ready to hear than we to pray; giving more than we desire or deserve, abundance of mercy, good things that we are not worthy to ask.

In the middle is that phrase that echoes with the people whom Jesus may have had in mind: people whose consciences are afraid, and who dare not ask for forgiveness or mercy, perhaps because they fear they will not get it, or feel unworthy of it, or will not know how to receive it.

So if we find the benchmark is set very high in today's readings; if we do not know how we can bring ourselves to forgive someone who has sinned against us, or how we can love someone who is plain impossible, then the collect is the place to start. Jesus said: "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy." It is a symbiotic process, all berthed in the excess of God's grace. There is always another chance to show and receive mercy.

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