Proper XXIII, Year A,
To the Reader
Now that my summer stint of covering parishes on Sundays is ended, and I don't have to prepare a sermon every week, I may not always comment on all the readings as fully every week, but note what strikes me the most as I read through them in devotional preparation for Sunday. I hope that they will continue to be of interest.
The Sentencefor this Sunday, which we use as the Gospel Acclamation is from the Second Epistle to the Corinthians, 5.19: God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, and he has entrusted us with the message of reconciliation. This is also the Alleluia in the Roman Missal for this Sunday, the 23rd in Ordinary time. It is useful to keep this verse in mind as we read and hear the Gospel for today, which speaks of correction of individual behaviour in the Christian community.
This is the Collect for the Sunday Next Before Advent in the Prayer Book. That Sunday has been replaced in the new lectionary by the feast of the Reign of Christ. There are only slight changes in the new version. Here the words “we beseech thee” have been omitted, which makes “stir up” sound as if we were commanding God rather than praying. The alteration of “plenteously” to “richly” seems to make little difference, so that one might wonder why the change was made. “Plenteous” may be less commonly used nowadays, but its meaning is perfectly clear.
It is interesting to note that the compilers of the Prayer Book altered the original, which said “they more readily following the fruit of the Divine work,” to “plenteously might bringing forth the fruit of good works”. There is also another old Collect which seems to be a variant of this more fitting for just before Advent: “Stir up, we pray, thy power and come, and what thou hast promised to thy Church work mercifully even to the end of the age.” From this we may conclude that altering traditional forms did not begin with the BAS!
The First Reading : Exodus 12.1-14. This is the first reading for Maundy Thursday, and some notes on it may be found in the post for Holy Week. It was chosen for today because the first readings in this part of Year A give highlights of the story of the Exodus. The reading used in the Roman Church today is Ezekiel 33.7-9.
The Psalm, 149, is one of the “Hallelujah Psalms”. “Hallelujah” (alleluia is simply a form of the word more euphonious in Latin and Greek) is a Hebrew word meaning “Praise the Lord”. This is a liturgical song, inviting the congregation of the faithful to praise. The New Oxford Annotated Bible suggests that it was a hymn meant to accompany a festival dance [verse 3], of an apparently war-like character [verses 6-9]. The psalms chosen for the lectionary usually seem to reflect on the first reading: here the judgement on the nations reflects the final plague sent by the Lord against Egypt. One might also note, however, a link between the “binding of the kings in chains” and the promise of the Lord Jesus to his disciples that what they “bind” on earth will be bound in heaven. See also the notes on this Psalm at the RCL site
The Epistle: Romans 13.8-14. It is unfortunate that the first seven verses of this chapter do not appear in the Sunday lectionary. This is a very important passage on the relation of Christians to the civil government of the country in which they live. There are many ideas about government in the air today, about obedience and disobedience, and while Christians in good faith come to different opinions on these matters (and almost always have), it seems unwise simply to adopt a current opinion without taking into account this teaching of St Paul. For example, there are some Christians who claim that taxes are inherently unjust and illegitimate, an opinion which seems to fly in the face of clear Scriptural teaching, especially when we consider that the power St Paul writes about here is that of the Roman Empire under Nero! The comments on this passage in the RCL commentary are well worth reading. However, since these verses are not read in Church, it would be beneficial to provide them here. In this translation I have used some old fashioned forms in order to make it clear where St Paul is writing in the singular and where in the plural.
Let every soul [psyche: AV gives “man”; RSV gives ‘person’] be subject to the higher powers. For there is no power except from God; those that exist have been established by God. Therefore, whoever resists the powers, resists an establishment of God; and they that resist them, receive judgement for themselves. For rulers are not a terror to good works but to bad. Wilt thou not fear the power? Do good, and thou shalt have praise from them; for he is a servant of God to thee for good. But if thou do evil, fear; for he does not bear the sword without a cause; for he is a servant of God, an avenger in wrath on him who does evil. Therefore it is necessary to be subject, not only on account of wrath but also for conscience’ sake. Therefore too you pay taxes; for they are God’s servants, attending to this very thing. Render to all what is due them: taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, honour to whom honour is due.
After making it clear that we are to pay everything that we owe, St Paul begins the next section by reminding the Christians of Rome of the one debt that is never paid: “Owe no one anything, except to love one another: for he who loves his neighbour, has fulfilled the law”. We are to see love of neighbour not as a favour we grant, but as a debt we owe. This might be a surprise to some; in fact it is another element of the Christian life which involves being “transformed by the renewal of our minds”. On the words that love fulfills the law, see Mark 12.31; James. 2.8 John 13.34; 1 John 4.11; Col 3.14;1 Tim 1.5; 1 Corinthians 13. St Paul is here commenting on the words of Jesus, who in turn quoted Leviticus 19.18.
If love is the fulfilling of the law it is the foundation of all Christian conduct. The urgency for Christians to conduct themselves is all the greater because of the imminence of Christ’s coming. Though the time seems to have stretched, the urgency of our calling is no less. We may not know the time [kairos] of Christ’s coming, but we know very well that it is high time to act in love, and follow all these words of St Paul.
The Holy Gospel: St Matthew 18.15-20. This teaching on correction of a fellow Christian is found only in St Matthew, except for an echo in one verse of St Luke: Take heed to yourselves; if you brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him” (Luke 17.3). A sizeable body of opinion holds that this passage reflects the later experience and condition of the Christian community rather than the original words of Jesus. Indeed, the passage seems to assume a more established community even if we understand “church” as a local group of believers, as some do.
Some Christians, particularly at the time of the Reformation, have taken this passage as a prescriptive regulation for Church discipline. It is one of the scriptural foundations of the practice of excommunication.
The rule is obviously good, for first one is to try and settle the matter privately, and only when that has failed, to involve other Christians. The need for witnesses is founded on Deuteronomy 19:15, but the Lord Jesus seems to have reduced the minimum requirement to one witness in addition to the plaintiff. Moreover, the goal is clearly the reclamation of the sinner, rather than punishment: if he listens to you you have won him.
The passage concludes with a guarantee, so to speak, the assurance that the decisions of the church have the authority of heaven. Here the words that were spoken to Simon Peter are now addressed to all the disciples.
This passage needs to be read and understood in context, for its context is forgiveness and reconciliation, as the Gospel Acclamation reminds us. It immediately follows the parable of the Lost Sheep (18.10-14) and is itself followed immediately by Peter’s question of how many times he must forgive his brother, to which Jesus says “Seventy times seven” (18.21-22). This is in turn followed by the parable of the Unforgiving Servant (18.23-end). This context should make Christians cautious, thoughtful, and prayerful in applying the rules of `18.15-17.
A further consideration is the meaning of “let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector, which is generally taken to mean “an unworthy outsider”, to be expelled from the Church. This interpretation is hard to deny. But as we think about these words, let us simply consider how the Lord Jesus himself treated Gentiles and tax collectors.