Drawing Big Circles
& Coloring Outside the Lines
“…let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
The gospel reading for this coming Sunday (Matthew 18:15-20) is excerpted from Jesus’ fourth teaching discourse, containing instructions for how to live the “way of the cross” and how to be the countercultural alternative community that was the early church. I have to admit that for most of my life I’ve most associated these verses with church discipline, and I’m probably not the only one who’s read this pericope through an insider/outsider lens. Don’t make waves and the ship will sail smoothly.
Discipline is necessary in any system if good order is to be maintained, yet all too often what we call discipline is tinged with righteous tones of reproof and reproach. The root meaning of the word—to train or instruct—is lost somehow in translation. Judgments are made, feelings are hurt, people leave, accusations fly, and the whole human propensity to define folks by insider/outsider status rules the day. In the unfortunate end, what it means to be church is skewed by the limits of narrow minds, shortsightedness, and fear.
Doesn’t really sound a whole lot like how Jesus works, does it? Part of the problem, I think, is that we tend to forget about the forgiveness, reconciliation, and inclusion part of the equation. Those demoted to “outsider” status are lumped into the category of Gentile and tax collector—the others, the ones who aren’t like us. If we keep the outsiders out, then the inside will be neat and tidy, clean and fresh, right? Our programs will be models of perfection without dissenters spoiling the plans, and our coffers will be fat with safe and tidy CDs and mutual funds that secure our turf for future years. If everyone agrees and plays nice, we’ll have a safe, risk-free community that espouses a watered-down, white-washed gospel about which we can feel good without a whole lot of effort.
Before we even entertain those last few sentences seriously (beyond the semi-cynical ramblings of this commentator, of course), we should take a long hard look at the company Jesus kept. Tax collectors, Samaritans, Gentiles, sinners of every stripe and ilk—need I say more? Instead of aiming for exclusion, Jesus constantly drew the circle larger and went to the margins to bring in the least of society’s members. Life with Jesus is messy.
To be the body of Christ here on earth, to be good stewards of all that God has so graciously given us, we must constantly draw bigger circles, learn to ride the waves of difference and change, love more and judge less. If we keep our eyes focused on Jesus and deny all that would separate us from him, then the next couple of verses make a whole lot more sense:
Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.
Even if we only agree to disagree, when we gather in Jesus’ name, we are promised he will be with us: tax collectors, Gentiles, sinners, the whole ragtag bunch of beloved humans that comprise the church. Yes, part of good stewardship is caring for the community that is the body of Christ, and that means all of God’s children and some pretty hard work.
How big is your circle? Are you willing to color outside the lines?
2008, The Rev. Sharron Lucas, all rights reserved. Used by permission.