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13th Sunday after Trinity

27 August 2020

Proper 18: Ezekiel 33.7-11; Psalm 119.33-40; Romans 13.8-end; Matthew 18.15-20

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THE work of the prophet is always an expression of God’s love. This is true, however confrontational and unpopular their message. In our Old Testament reading, the Lord reminds a reluctant Ezekiel that his vocation is one which ultimately serves and builds up his people. As a “sentinel”, Ezekiel is to warn the people when they err, precisely because the Lord has “no pleasure in the death of the wicked” but longs that they should “turn from their ways and live”.

In her study of prophecy, Cathleen Kaveny writes that the practice is a form of “moral chemotherapy”, which roots out “aggressive forms of moral malignancy”. It must, therefore, be motivated by genuine concern for others, rather than contempt. Like chemotherapy, the health of the Body requires prophecy to be applied “accurately and sparingly” (Prophecy Without Contempt: Religious discourse in the public square).

Sentinels keep watch before they speak. Words of authentic prophecy must arise from a process of both interior and exterior vigilance, so that warnings correspond to the real spiritual dangers rather than reinforcing the comforting delusions in which we are all tempted to take refuge. In a reflection on priesthood, the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams says that, as “sentinels”, priests must go “beyond cliché”, instead “challenging the obvious and consoling stories people may tell”, and identifying the real spiritual “faultlines”.

In our epistle, Paul acts as a “sentinel” — warning his readers that it is time to give up “revelling and drunkenness . . . debauchery and licentiousness . . . quarrelling and jealousy”. Despite their superficial attractiveness, these habits are, ultimately, destructive, and prevent those who are caught up in them from living life to the full. This is a general truth about sin: it is always a privation; for it estranges us from our true home in God.

The behaviours that Paul is criticising were commonplace in Rome, where excessive feasting was part of a culture of conspicuous consumption and disregard for the poor. His command to “make no provision for the flesh” is not an attack on appropriate care and reverence for the body. The practices that Paul commends are ones that flow from care, both for our own bodies and the bodies of those who need the goods that others so conspicuously and wastefully consume.

The pervasive invitation of the gospel is to wake up, to “take hold of the life that really is life” (1 Timothy 6.19). Christians are not only to be wakeful for their own sake, but as an act of love towards the world. “God’s world needs disciples to be awake to him, to be lookouts for the world pointing out the signs of the Kingdom and being signs of the Kingdom.” Like a sentinel, the Church is called to “wake the world up” (Andrew Bishop, Theosomnia: A Christian theology of sleep).

Our Gospel reading also concerns the process of naming and confronting sin. Jesus urges his disciples to begin with a private conversation, and then, if necessary, one with “one or two” witnesses. The aim is conversion of heart and reconciliation: “If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.” Like the practice of the sentinel, the process that Jesus is commanding is one that requires both patience and courage. There should not be a rush to public condemnation, but neither can the reality of sin be evaded.

If the offender refuses to listen to the witnesses, and, ultimately, the wider Church, Jesus’s command is uncompromising: “Let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector.” In several other places in Matthew’s Gospel, these terms are “code words for nonbelievers and outsiders”. As Anna Case-Winters observes, these are not groups whom Jesus ignores (Belief — A Theological Commentary on the Bible: Matthew). Every stage in the process that Jesus outlines — even the exclusion of the unrepentant offender — is aimed at persuading them to “turn from their ways and live”.

The reconciliation wrought by Christ is always founded on truth and justice. To “preach peace where there is no peace” allows the violent and destructive power of sin to flourish (cf. Jeremiah 6.13). But such confrontation must never be fuelled by contempt: its context should always be one of faith, hope, and love. The true prophet recognises that all sin estranges human beings from God, and speaks in the prayerful hope that hearers will repent and find their true home in God.

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