The debt of love
Almost 25 years ago, a young couple joined a vibrant, enthusiastic church elsewhere in this city. Sadly, the husband died in his 30s and his widow became a very lonely woman looking after her children all by herself.
In time, she found love again with another man. He moved into her home and they started living together. Her church’s response was to discipline her; she was told that it was impossible to be a member of the church while living with this man. They said she had to choose. She chose to leave the church.
Was this church within its rights to act like this? Well yes, it was. It can order its life as it pleases. Was this church following the way of Jesus? That’s quite another question.
On the face of it, they may well have been following the instructions in Matthew 18. I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt, and accept they probably went to this woman and spoke to her as laid out there, with the two or three witnesses and all.
But did they follow the way of Jesus in telling her to leave? It sounds like they did. After all, Jesus says,
if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector.
Treat them as a Gentile or as a tax collector! On the surface, that sounds like turf them out, ostracise them, keep the church community pure. But hang on—how does Jesus treat Gentiles and tax collectors?
We read a story recently of how Jesus encountered a Canaanite woman. Remember her? She wanted Jesus to heal her daughter; he ignored her at first but then gave in and said to her, ‘Great is your faith!’
And we remembered that Jesus had also met a centurion who had greater faith than any Israelite. There was a challenge here to treat Gentiles—who were outside God’s promises—with respect and care. So, shouldn’t we treat people who are on the ‘outside’ with respect and care?
What about tax collectors? Jesus called a tax collector—Matthew—into his group of twelve apostles. He was right there when Jesus gave this teaching! Jesus told the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, in which the tax collector was right with God. He went to the home of Zacchaeus, the notorious tax collector of Jericho.
Jesus seems to include tax collectors rather than exclude them.
So should we rethink what it means when Matthew’s Gospel says we are to treat someone who won’t listen to the church as a Gentile or a tax collector? Might it be that we are meant to keep the lines of communication open?
And if we look at what comes before and after this passage in Matthew’s Gospel, we begin to see that this is just what Jesus does mean.
Just before this story, Jesus tells the Parable of the Lost Sheep. He tells of a shepherd who leaves the 99 who are safe, and goes up hill and down dale to seek the one who is lost. And, he says,
it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.
If that’s not enough, immediately after Peter comes to him to check out what the limits of forgiveness are.
Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?
A good question. If someone does the wrong thing seven times, they’ve got a bad habit. If someone does the wrong thing seven times, they may never change. So how does Jesus respond?
Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
Seventy seven times?
This is ‘love your neighbour’ gone mad. And the apostle Paul is no better. He says,
Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.
What debts do you have? You might be paying off a mortgage or a car or something. One day, hopefully you’ll pay that debt off. But Paul says there’s one debt you can never repay. That is the debt of love.
When we baptise anyone, we quote this verse from 1 John (4.19):
We love because [God] first loved us.
If you and I can love at all, it’s because we were first shown love. Our parents loved us into life. God has shown us what love is, in that the only Son of God gave himself for us. Our capacity to love didn’t start with us, and we owe an eternal debt for the gift of love. ‘Owe no one anything, except to love one another.’
We aren’t called to get even. We’re not even called to treat people as they deserve. Our path is much harder than that. We are called to love our neighbour as we love ourselves. And the New Testament puts no limits on who our neighbours are. We certainly can’t ask someone to leave the church and treat them as though they aren’t our neighbour.
Jesus told the Parable of the Good Samaritan in answer to a question: ‘Who is my neighbour?’ He told the story of an outcast who made a Jew his neighbour. Today, we could speak of the Good Moslem or the Good Mormon. We can’t limit who our neighbours are. God doesn’t.
Paul says that when we love others, we ‘fulfil the law’. Have you ever been pulled over for a random breath test? Despite the fact that you’re stone-cold sober, your heart skips a beat as that blue uniform approaches your car. You breathe into the little tube, and it registers that you’re ok to drive. You knew it would, but still you breathe a sigh of relief.
What’s the police officer’s interest in you? She wants to know if you’re breaking the law by driving over the limit. She won’t ask you for any more than that. She’s merely checking whether you are breaking the law.
We are called to do more than that. We are called to fulfil the law, by loving others in the light of the new day that God is bringing into being. That’s what following Jesus means. And that’s why we need the Lord, because we fail to fulfil the law of love time after time after time. We keep on living in the darkness, rather than in the light.
That’s why we have this holy meal, the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. We are included among those Jesus enlists to follow his way—and among those Jesus rescues from their sin—and among those Jesus equips and strengthens for service.
We’re disciples, flawed, broken, yet beautiful in God’s eyes. God has shown us infinite care and compassion. We’re called to treat those who feel on the outside of the church as Jesus treated people who were lost: with care and compassion.
Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law… Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.