Permission to podcast/stream the music in this service obtained from ONE LICENSE with license #A-730437.
St. Matthew was a pastor. He is writing his gospel to a community in which he himself is a leader. I have found him a great support and inspiration since I became a pastor myself but never more than now. His whole gospel has great relevance for parish leadership especially the 18th chapter which we proclaim today. Reading it urges me to act differently for the near future and I hope that you will feel the same.
Matthew knows the great temptation of the pastor: Peace. Not the peace that Jesus gives which is the gift of the Kingdom but the peace we can try to create ourselves and is based on the delusion we can make all things right by our own intelligence and hard work. It requires that we try to keep people happy and quiet but ultimately it will not last. Our own efforts can at best bring a momentary cease fire
Matthew could easily have tried this and might have spared himself some anguish for some time. He was a leader in a community that was divided at least into two: some born Jews and others gentiles. This community was in a large city; Antioch the second city of the empire is the most likely candidate. These groups did not always get alone and there were frequent conflicts. Matthew and the other leaders could have simply divided them into independent house churches and not mixed them. This would have provided earthly peace and quiet. It would not have been what Jesus wanted. He wants us to live and worship together. Jesus loves diversity however difficult and inconvenient. Matthew as any good pastor mixed people together even though he knew he consequences. This is not only Matthew. This week’s passage from St. Paul reveals some of the same tensions in the Roman Church and I examine this more closely in this week’s parish online commentary. Matthew and Paul knew for the Christians of their cities to become true communities they would need to know each other, and this would cause discord and distress.
Unlike the other gospel writers and indeed Paul, Matthew is a resident pastor, he is not going anywhere and will have to live with the results of his decisions. He is thus more practical. He refers to himself “as a scribe who has been instructed in the kingdom of heaven is like the head of a household who brings from his storeroom both the new and the old.” (Mt 13:52)
This will cause trouble, and he knows that he cannot escape it.
He also knows that the key to its success is forgiveness. Forgiveness appears in many places in his gospel. To look at only one: In Luke’s version of the Lord’s prayer we ask for forgiveness and promise to forgive others, Mathew says the same but then adds, 15 But if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions. (Mt 6:15)
This is less speculative theology than practical necessity. He will be asking people with different views, histories, and sensibilities to work together. There will be much misunderstanding, friction and “trespassing” on other’s feelings. A church that seeks to accept the grace for the unity that Jesus wants will need to learn forgiveness.
The section which we read today is unique to Matthew. It begins with Peter asking how much he must forgive. Contemporary rabbis suggested that a good Jew should forgive someone 3 times for the same sin. Peter has doubled it and added one and no doubt felt very good about himself. Jesus dashes this to the ground and tells him you must forgive unlimited times. This may seem incredible, but I think that Mathew may be speaking from experience. He has perhaps lost track of the number of bruised egos and hurt feelings he needed to soothe.
This can be seen, not incorrectly, as unreasonable, indeed impossible. The Parable agrees that it is not reasonable and indeed is impossible if we are trying to create earthly peace but is not only possible but necessary if we accept God’s.
The absurdity of the comparison may be lost on us, so let us just say that the first servant owed Jeff Bezos net worth and the other a few car payments. That is the way it will always be with Jesus. He offered his life for us and this is a debt we cannot repay. In this light complaining about what others may owe us is embarrassing.
There is more to it however than this. It is too easy to look at the moral calls of the bible as directed to individuals. Jesus is usually calling for the community to repent and act. After condemning the first servant he ends the parable with” So will my heavenly Father do to you, unless each of you forgives his brother from his heart.” (Mt 18:35).
This is an important lesson for all times but especially for now. And I mean now as today. After Mass we will be holding a brief exploratory meeting to see where we are and what we will need to do to reopen We should see this as a re-founding. We remind those who have joined us by zoom that you can continue to tune in and participate.
I certainly experienced the blessing of peace and quiet before COVID. Life could not have been better but there is no return. We will need to come together to create a vision for the future and strategies to put it into effect. If this is alive and real, it will cause conflict and not every idea will work. Each of us will need to forgive each other from our hearts. The fruit of forgiveness is freedom and we will need to be free.
Particularly concerning for me is that the political and cultural divide in our county will compromise our rebuilding. We bring our biases wherever we go, and it would be unrealistic to say to leave them at the door of the church. We will however need to recognize that in the course of seeking God’ s Will they will be challenged, and we might have to leave some of them at the altar.
Let us follow Matthew and not seek a cheap and easy peace. Let us not desire a peace which we construct by ourselves but the peace of the kingdom that we accept from God.