Tax Reform


Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 88; 148, Nehemiah 9:26-38, Revelation 22:6-13, Matthew 18:10-20

Today’s passage from Matthew has been embraced by Christians as a model for discipline within the community. Jesus offers the disciples a model for addressing when a member of the church sins (or in some translations, more specifically “sins against you.”)

First, talk to the person one-on-one in a spirit of reconciliation. If that doesn’t resolve satisfactorily, have the conversation again but this time with the addition of one or two witnesses. If there’s still no repentance, take it before the church “and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” In Acts and Corinthians we can read about how this model plays out.

And yet…

Bible scholars are divided on the authenticity of this passage. It’s unusually prescriptive for a saying of Jesus. It refers to a church which, while Jesus may have foreseen it, did not yet exist. It takes a shot at tax collectors as worth shunning, yet Jesus and his disciples shared meals and went to the homes of tax collectors. And perhaps most tellingly, it is immediately followed by Peter asking Jesus if forgiving someone seven times (which seemed generous compared to the rabbinical standard of three times) was sufficient, and Jesus answering we should forgive seventy times seven times.

The reality is, if someone threatens the well-being of a community from within, we may need a loving yet firm way of dealing with it. Forgiveness is not a blank check for endless tolerance of the unjust. The process described in Matthew gives multiple opportunities for repentance and reconciliation – and also allows for the chance the accused might actually be the wronged party. It discourages overreaction and public shaming. Like an employer’s performance improvement plan, it’s not primarily intended to be the way of driving someone out, but of finding a way to keep them in the fold. But like an improvement plan, it can be misunderstood, misapplied, and abused – especially when expulsion is the predetermined outcome.

What about more personal disputes? We like having an option to take people to task; Jesus is more about curbing that than endorsing it. We are less fond of forgiving them more times than we can count (OK yes, one could theoretically count to four hundred and ninety, but it’s a symbolic number). Just because a disciplinary process is available to use doesn’t mean we are required to use it. Shy of physical danger, it is entirely conceivable for two people who don’t get along, even if one has been wronged, to peacefully coexist in the same congregation. That’s pretty much the definition of forgiveness. And it seems most of Jesus’s teaching put the responsibility on us to make the sacrifice of peace rather than demanding it of someone else.

When someone owes you a sin tax, you are within your rights to follow the collection process to the bitter end. The whats, whys, and hows of it are between you, your debtor, and God. Just keep in mind that Jesus taught us to pray to be forgiven our debts as we forgive our debtors. There will be an audit.

Comfort: Forgiveness has more reward than cost.

Challenge: Being within your rights is no guarantee you are right.

Prayer: Merciful and loving God, teach me to focus more on what I owe than what is owed me. Amen.

Discussion: Have you ever experienced someone being ostracized from a community? How did it make you feel?

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