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14th Sunday after Trinity

01 September 2023

10 September, Proper 18: Ezekiel 33.7-11; Psalm 119.33-40; Romans 13.8-end; Matthew 18:15-20


THE Gospel gives us guidance for living — but we may be surprised to find Jesus outlining a grievance procedure. It is specific to Matthew. Only the first verse of the passage is paralleled elsewhere (Luke 17.3).

Justice is a fundamental characteristic of God. So, we expect scripture to guide us about what it means, and how it works in human society. Justice is not the same as the (human) law. Anyone involved in the law knows that it is a blunt instrument, unsuitable for managing everyday quarrels and disputes.

Whenever we hear of neighbours locked in a boundary dispute over half a yard of land, or children contesting a will in a struggle for an inheritance, we shake our heads at the folly of it, expecting that the operation of the law will consume the property and wealth that are being fought over.

Hard-wired in us is a thirst for the kind of justice which we call “fairness”. That is not abstract debate, but everyday routine, depending on factors much less tangible than law. The “greatest good of the greatest number”, for example, becomes not a utilitarian principle obliterating the rights of the individual, but a shorthand for what works, because most people will accept it. It is enforceable less through the courts than by common consent.

When the application of a common understanding of fairness brings no resolution of a dispute, there comes an intermediate stage before resorting to the law for justice. That is what Jesus outlines here.

Grievance procedures are part of modern employment culture, but they also work in other sectors of our common life. Safeguarding is a form of grievance procedure. It is a tried and tested method (“method” is crucial to a fair outcome) for making judgements about events where no independent witnesses may have been present, or where the wrong done may be of a subtle kind of oppression: a misuse of influence, or a perversion of proper boundaries.

Jesus gives us a preparatory stage to his grievance procedure: a conversation between the two parties to a dispute (this will not be possible where there is an imbalance of power between them). We find it difficult to speak of being hurt, or feeling belittled. Making such an admission is tantamount to putting ourselves in a position of weakness, making us feel even more vulnerable, not less. But some grievances can be overcome by such honest and well-intentioned conversations (Romans 13.10).

For the next stage, Jesus recommends what workplace procedures also do: not to continue the conversation alone. This protects both parties from misrepresentation. Like the initial option of talking one to one, it requires courage: one reason that people are reluctant to let others in on a dispute is their fear of losing control of a situation that they are already experiencing in terms of helpless defensiveness.

Although giving other people insight into our secret difficulties can feel like weakness, it is really a form of self-safeguarding; for it prevents the damage done by the pain of suffering in isolation. Until we ourselves openly admit to a problem, we render relations, friends, and colleagues powerless to support us through the sensitive business of finding a way forward.

Jesus uses the language of family when sketching his grievance procedure. NRSV’s wishful translation of the key word “brother” as “member of the church” obscures the fact that the gathering of faithful Christians is a gathering of family. Families in legal disputes attract the most opprobrium because it is within the family (whether of blood or faith) that we are supposed to learn good management of disagreements. If flexibility, together with enough self-knowledge and humility to admit from time to time that “I was wrong,” are not learned and reinforced there, it makes it much harder and more painful to acquire such skills later in life.

Even in this law-free grievance procedure, there is an ultimate sanction, and Jesus spells it out: expulsion from the community of faith. An insoluble dispute leads to a parting of the ways. Human paths to fairness sometimes require sticking plasters on a wound, but at least plasters can prevent further pathogens’ gaining access and festering.

The healing that is divine justice may take centuries to effect (Ezekiel 33): Christians have still not dissolved all the divisions caused by the Arian controversy, or the Reformation. But at least we no longer kill one other over them.

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