Will Simpson turned us in, as I remember it. Maybe it wasn’t Will, which is why I’ve changed his name.
All the boys in Mrs. Farmer’s second grade class at Louisville Academy had engaged in an epic dirt clod battle before school. The sandy soil on the edge of school property formed itself into small, soft projectiles that burst on contact (or in your hand if you didn’t hold them gently). Well, all the boys except Will.
Will stood at a spectator’s distance, telling us to stop. We were going to get in trouble. “I’m going to tell!” he said.
School authorities had sternly warned us about the dangers of throwing dirt clods. We might lose an eye, shatter a limb, or even damage our brains. Severe punishments awaited anyone caught throwing nature’s little hand grenades.
|Karol Ferenczy’s “Boys Throwing Pebbles into the River”|
We were undeterred. And that’s why every single boy in the Mrs. Farmer’s second grade class—with the exception of Will—found himself standing in line outside the vice principal’s door. One by one each of us entered his office and bent over to receive what I remember as three largely symbolic whacks from his paddle.
Setting aside a conversation about the appropriateness of corporal punishment in schools, I have to admit that we were caught redhanded breaking a clear rule. As harmless as our play may have been, we had no defense. Not a single one of us thought to justify our behavior.
And yet, every one of us resented Will for turning us in. Now resentment is not a good thing, and I’m not defending this emotional response anymore than I’m defending that dirt clod fight long ago. But the resentment we all felt toward Will tells us something. Before I explain what our resentment tells us, you need to know a little more about Will.
Will was a habitual tattletale. His pattern was to put himself in the good graces of teachers by feeding them information about the misdeeds of his classmates.
Johnny said a bad word on the playground.
Bobby looked on Eric’s paper during the spelling test.
Karen and Lisa were sneaking chocolate in class.
Will scrupulously followed the rules and never missed a chance to point out when somebody else stepped out of line. Being the good boy gave him permission—at least in his own mind—to be the morality police for the rest of us. And pointing out our shortcomings to the teachers reinforced his own sense of moral superiority over his classmates.
|The Red Queen|
Now, back to what our resentment toward Will indicates. Moral condescension fractures relationships. Assuming an air of moral superiority pushes others away. That’s probably not a news flash. But what I’m going to say next might come as a surprise to some: looking down our moral noses at anybody else also damages our relationship with God.
When we assume that we are better than others, we indulge in what Timothy Keller has called the Moral Performance Narrative. In other words, we assume that our status in God’s eyes derives from our adherence to the moral law. We win God’s approval with our moral achievements. We deserve God’s affection because of our moral excellence, and we can justifiably judge others who are less righteous than we are.
But that’s not the Gospel. The Good News is that God gives us his love on his own initiative. God loves us as he finds us, and he finds all of us in a heap of messy imperfection. All of us equally need and receive God’s mercy. There is no room in the Jesus-following life for moral condescension. Instead, as recipients of mercy, we can only humbly greet and embrace other recipients of mercy.
Jesus is not interested in forming a community of tattletales and moral nags. That is why we need to be discerning when we read Matthew’s account of Jesus’ teaching to faith communities about responding to sin among our membership. (Matthew 18:15-20)
Jesus opens the teaching with this phrase: “If another member of the church sins against you.” Before we go any further, we need to do some grownup bible reading. The text we read today is a translation. It comes from more than one much older manuscript, and there is an important disagreement in those Greek sources. Some of them lack “against you.”
In other words, some sources start this way: “If another member of the church sins.” Some commentators argue that later manuscript copiers added the phrase “against you.” These two small words make a big difference.
|Roy Lichtenstein’s “Imperfect Painting”|
Reading the text the first way suggests that Jesus is talking about how to deal with somebody who has injured you personally. That’s why you’ll often find this passage in Matthew used to teach conflict resolution.
By contrast, removing “against you” suggests that Jesus is not talking about how to reconcile with someone who has hurt you personally. Instead, he is talking about how a community of his followers holds each other accountable for living the kind of life that Jesus has patterned for us.
And I think that this is just what Jesus is doing. Jesus is teaching us how to be a formational community, how to be a community of people devoted to each other’s growth in the ways of grace.
Jesus does not envision a community in which the perfect people get the moral slouches in line. Instead, he builds a community in which we serve as imperfect mentors and friends to one another.
Some of us have a knack for forgiving and moving on. Those with a strong pattern of forgiveness can help those who cling to old grievances.
Generous givers can encourage those who cling to their money from fear to invest their treasure in God’s mission.
Some people are quick to see others’ faults or annoying idiosyncrasies. Those who habitually see the good in everybody can share that virtue with those who seem to lack it.
Sometimes we will have to speak a hard truth to each other. In some cases, more than one voice is needed to help us see an unflattering truth about ourselves. But at no point does Jesus encourage us to condescend to one another.
In even the most difficult conflict, the aim is reconciliation. In Jesus, God has made it clear that he simply never gives up on relationship. That can be painful and frustrating and heartbreaking before it becomes joyful and fulfilling. But that is the way of following Jesus. No wonder we need each other to walk it.
This sermon was preached at Trinity Episcopal Church in Crowley, Louisiana.