The church does not always do a good job talking about sin. I am, of course, part of the church. Sin is a complex thing, and if we are going to do a good job discussing it, it’s going to take a while. It is as complex as human relationships themselves, and rarely can it be laid out like a line in the sand. But there are lots of complex topics in the world and there is only so much time, and people often just want to be told how to behave, so they can be good. Give us some rules!
The church has historically happily obliged. Long lists of forbidden practices emerged, often with precious little theology to back up some of the rules. And that sufficed for a conversation about sin. “Here are the things you shouldn’t do, so that you don’t piss off God. Because you know what happens to people who piss off God.” This is religious adherence motivated by self-interested fear. Fear of getting in trouble. And it very quickly turns into self-loathing once you’ve broken one of the rules. And everyone breaks the rules. Even—often especially—the people who write them.
Our rush to make rules serves us poorly. Leave aside for today the fact that the rules aren’t always good rules. Leave it aside not because it doesn’t matter, but because sin is complex and today’s Gospel leads us to another aspect of it. We will revisit those unjust rules. I promise.
Once a sin has been committed, then what?
That, it turns out, is our blind spot. Sin hurts people. We have long known, for example, that racism is a sin, but we are just beginning to fathom the depths of the suffering it creates. That’s the difference between the Civil Rights act of 1964, which is a rule, and the protests of 2020, which give voice to the ongoing pain caused by sin that the aformentioned rule did not stop. A sin which had caused wounds before 1964 that our polite society is still squeamish to acknowledge.
Once a sin has been committed, then what? The Bible talks about forgiveness, but a counsel toward forgiveness, if you aren’t careful, really just aids and abets the one committing the sin. Forgiveness without complexity leads to advice to to stay in abusive relationships, and the to expectation that the sins of our racist history could be erased with a simple act of forgiveness, even while they are still being committed.
The expectation is that good Christians forgive. And we turn the rest over to the justice system. But the wounds have not been treated. The trauma has not been honored. God’s love for those who have been hurt has not been fiercely proclaimed. Their dignity and right to safety and freedom and opportunity has not been righteously named. God does not do those things for us. God does them through us.
So today’s Gospel is about reconciliation in three easy steps! Sort of! “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.” You don’t need me to explain how this works. We won’t spend much time on the protocol. Talk to the person. If that doesn’t work, talk to them in a group setting. If that doesn’t work, bring it before the whole community. If that doesn’t work, it is not your responsibility to make it work.
The process is pretty simple. But the word “listen” is doing sacred work. “If the member listens to you” is the standard for authentic participation in the process. “If you are not listened to” is the standard for not participating. So then the real operative action, the one that allows space for some healing to take place, is the hearing of the one who has been sinned against.
Sin damages the integrity of our relationships. If I do not take your interests into consideration, and act toward you in a way that disregards both God’s love for you and the love I am called to have for you, then our relationship is surely harmed. And damaged relationships harm us.
The first step in reconciliation, then, is to actually hear the one who has been harmed, to become aware of their pain, and to let their voice interrupt our self-concern. This is how we tend to a relationship.
Jesus is not being glib. He knows it is not that simple. Many wounds are viciously deep, and many people are unwilling to look clearly at the harm caused by their own actions. If even the witness of the whole community does not compel them to listen, Jesus says to let them “be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
But Gentiles and tax collectors are peculiar categories to choose, no? It’s important to notice that those are people Jesus ministered to. So while he gives us permission to let ourselves off the hook for reconciling with those who are not actually repentant, it’s also clear that those people are not beyond God’s grace and God’s love. We still hold out hope for them. And we learn to recognize when we cannot be the ones to bring them back.
But the radical thing about this passage is that it is not centered on the one who has sinned. The rules actually fade into the background. This is centered on the one who suffers, who has been hurt by someone. This passage is centered on the one who is denied love. Who is disregarded. The kid who is bullied. The worker who is not paid fairly. The woman who is abused. The person who has to work twice as hard for the same opportunities some of us walk right into because we were born in the right place. This passage is centered on the one whose ability to tell their own story was denied or compromised. God speaks to those whose relationships have let them down.
And God says, “I hear you. I see you.” The Gospel says to anyone who has been knocked down that their voice not only matters, but it is the most important voice in the movement toward the Kingdom of God. It is not enough to stop the sin. The pain that the sin has caused must be seen and tended to.
Abuse and oppression cause spirals of shame in those they impact. Cycles of sin unfold as a default within sinful structures. It is easy to believe you are not worth very much when the people who should be looking out for you are constantly telling you aren’t worth very much. To the ones who bear the pain of other people’s sin, God says, “you deserve to be heard.”
The theologian Nelle Morton talked about the radical value of being listened to within the experience of women whose difficult stories were often repressed and covered over with shame. Gathering to tell their stories, stories they had not told before because the telling was too difficult, too tender, too raw, these women found that the gathered listeners empowered the telling of the story. One woman said to the group, “I have a strange feeling you heard me before I started. You heard me to my own story.” Morton’s story helps us see how hearing becomes active, carving out a space for speech we had previously foreclosed with our own actions.
God hears us before we speak, and hears each and every person to their own story. Too often, we talk about rules broken, commandments given, as though life is simply a matter of obeying God’s plain and simple speech. As though God only speaks. Nelle Morton argued that the power of listening, and God’s insistence on hearing each voice, makes God not only the one who speaks, but “the hearing one” as well. When truth is spoken, it is because we have been heard into speech. This is the basis for our community, and it is the basis for our healing.