Proper 18, A
A number of Christian denominations have taken a stance against the use of tobacco, along with any number of other dubious pursuits: alcohol, dancing, gambling, going to the theater and so on. When those denominations thrive, as they often do, in parts of the country dominated economically by tobacco, they tend, despite their official stance, to overlook the fact that a large percentage of their congregation make their living from the noxious weed. One preacher tells the story of a Pentecostal Church that suffered no such selective blindness.
Each spring, the tobacco farmers at Pentecostal Holiness could expect a visit from the preacher once they planted their crops. In accordance with the scripture we heard today, the Preacher would go to the farmers and read them both that scripture and the section in the Pentecostal Holiness Discipline forbidding involvement in “the tobacco trade”. Assuming the farmer persisted in earning his living in the same way, the preacher would repeat his visit a few weeks later accompanied by a few of the elders of the church. Later in the spring, the preacher, the elders, and the women and children of the congregation would gather together to perform the solemn duty of excommunicating their fathers and husbands and brothers, after which everyone went home for Sunday dinner. After the harvest, the preacher, the elders, the women and the children would all gather together again to joyfully restore their fathers, husbands and brothers to the bosom of the church, hopefully in time for the church to collect a tithe on the proceeds of the sale…. (Thanks to Rev. Delmer Chilton for the story).
The struggle between those who would take the words of scripture at face value and those who allow interpretation is not new. In the last century BCE two Torah scholars, Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Shammai founded differing schools of rabbinical thought. It is said that the Rabbi Shammai binds and Rabbi Hillel loosens.
According to one scholar “… the terms “to bind” and “to loose” are best understood with reference to a practice of determining the application of scriptural commandments for contemporary situations. … Jewish rabbis “bound” the law when they determined that a commandment was applicable to a particular situation, and they “loosed” the law when they determined that a word of scripture (while eternally valid) was not applicable under certain specific circumstances.”
“In (Matthew) 5:21-23, Jesus binds the law prohibiting murder as applicable to anger and insults”. “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.” [But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, “You fool”, you will be liable to the hell of fire.]
“In (Matthew) 12:9-14, Jesus looses the prohibition against performing work on the sabbath with regard to works of healing and then declares, “It is lawful to do good on the sabbath.” The latter pronouncement would potentially allow sabbath prohibitions to be loosed in a great many other instances as well.” -Mark Allen Powell, December 2003, Currents in Theology and Mission (Vol. 30 Issue 6)
Jesus was talking to his disciples in today’s foreshadowing of conflict in community. So, now, today, what do we as those would follow Christ do with all this? How do we deal with all this binding and loosing? How do we avoid the trap of 2 or 3 on this side of the aisle agreeing to ask for one thing and 2 or 3 on that side agreeing to ask for the opposite and each 2 or 3 together considering themselves justified by God in the asking and guaranteed by God in the getting?
Back to our Rabbis: The Talmud tells the story of a gentile who approached Rabbi Shammai. He desired conversion, but only if Shammai could teach him the Torah as he stood on one foot. Shammai took offense at the ridiculous demand, and drove the potential convert away with his measuring stick. Hillel, notoriously slow to anger, honored the gentile’s request and converted him saying, “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary. Go and study it.”
Jesus clearly anticipated conflict because, well because Jesus wasn’t stupid, and people are people. Where 2 or 3 of them are gathered together, Christ may be among them, but so are at least 2 or 3 or maybe 4 sets of opinions, and sets of priorities, notions of justice, senses of right and wrong.
In his book The Great Divorce, the British writer C.S. Lewis paints this picture of hell. “Hell is like a vast gray city, Lewis says, a city inhabited only at its outer edges, with rows and rows of empty houses in the middle—empty because everyone once lived in them has quarreled with the neighbors and moved, and quarreled with the new neighbors and moved again, leaving empty streets full of empty houses behind them. That, Lewis says, is how hell got so large—empty at the center and inhabited only at the fringes—because everyone in it chose distance instead of confrontation as the solution to a fight.” (Quoted from Barbara Brown Taylors, The Seeds of Heaven)
Jesus delivers us in this script from the hell that is grey isolation within our own walls of internal righteousness, not just in his instructions (1st, to to them, 2nd go with others and so on), but most especially in his delineation of consequences: Let such a one be to you as a gentile and a tax collector”. It sounds so harsh, so just for one recalcitrant to all the normal behavioral remedies. Until we remember Jesus. Remember Jesus? Jesus who consorted with tax collectors. Matthew himself was a tax collector. Jesus, perpetually in hot water for his behavior with Gentiles – the woman at the well? The canaanite woman whose daughter had a demon? The roman centurion whose daughter was sick? Jesus did not shun them, punish them, excommunicate them. He loved them, healed them, blessed them.
We have choices: “we can bind ourselves into our separate camps and polarized positions. We can loose each other out into a world without the benefit of Christian fellowship, driving each other from the church with wounds that bleed for years to come.
Or we can loose ourselves from our pride and our ever-present need to be right. We can loose one another from assumptions and stereotypes and bitterness. We can loose our church communities from the fear of church conflict. And then we can bind ourselves together with the unbreakable love of Christ, a body tested, refined, healed and flourishing with new life.” (The Rev. Whitney Rice, Sermons that Work, 2014)
Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “That’s what we are called to do: to confront and make up, to forgive and seek forgiveness, to heal and be healed—to throw a block party smack in the middle of the deserted center of hell and fill the place with such music and laughter, such merriment and mutual affection that all the far-flung residents come creeping in from all their distant outposts to see what the fuss, the light, the joy is all about.”
Amen and amen