The Common Good
September/October 2008

A Harsh and Dreadful Love

by Laurel A. Dykstra | September/October 2008

Reflections on the Revised Common Lectionary for September.

Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, developed her ideas about Christ­ianity in conversation with literature and the work of radical hospitality. She often quoted the chapter from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov titled “A Lady of Little Faith,” in which the elder Father Zosima exhorts a wealthy woman to “active love” as a remedy for her doubts. “Strive to love your neighbor actively and indefatigably. In as far as you advance in love you will grow surer of the reality of God and of the immortality of your soul.”

When she confesses her sentimental dreams of a life of service to the poor and her fear of their ingratitude, Zosima—while re­maining kind—delivers a scathing critique of charity, which is chiefly about controlling and defining the one who is in need. “I am sorry I can say nothing more consoling to you,” he concludes, “for love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams.”

Love is central to the readings from Romans and Philippians this month. But the lections from Matthew, in which Jesus and his companions approach Jerusalem, lean more toward the harsh and dreadful. They ask what love means in practical terms. How do we resolve conflicts in community? How do we love one another in a world of complex economic and social relationships? How do we deal with authority and power? How do we honor our families?

Laurel A. Dykstra is a scripture and justice educator living in Vancouver, British Columbia. She lived for 10 years in a Catholic Worker house. www.laureldykstra.com

September 7

Love in Action

Exodus 12:1-14; Psalm 149; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20

Romans 13:9-10 says that all the commandments are “summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”

It is fitting that after a passage in which the law and commandments—Israel’s detailed code for living in right relationship—are so distilled, we hear the gospel reading from Matthew 18. Verses 15 to 17 give step-by-step instructions for dealing with conflict in community: First, meet one on one; next, invite a few witnesses; finally, call the whole community together. Yes, love is the spirit of the law and the heart of the gospel, but to actually do love requires complicated engagement.

Two aspects of the Matthew passage deserve comment. First, this is a good model for solving problems in community. Each member has the authority to call others in the community to accountability. In private, individuals have the opportunity to reconsider and to save face—the goal is to regain a brother or sister, not get rid of a problem. The damaged relationship is recognized as a loss to the individual and the community. Recourse to a court system biased in favor of those with power and wealth is avoided, and when all else fails there is a time to say “enough.”

The second thing that should be mentioned is the word “church.” Ekklesia—the word in Matthew 18:17 translated as “church”—is a political term borrowed from Greek democracy, which means the assembly of those “called out,” or representative decision-makers. It appears only twice in the gospels. The word was introduced two chapters earlier in a passage we read last month, Mathew 16:18, where Jesus promises to build his assembly on a somewhat rocky foundation—Peter the apostle. As biblical scholar Sarah Dylan points out, here in its final gospel mention the church is the site of conflict.

What are the lessons for those of us who are church today? Conflict in the church is not a scandal or a shame; rather, living that conflict, together in love, has been the work of the church from its beginning.

September 14

Pay Attention to Power

Exodus 14:19-31; Psalm 114; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35

In last week’s gospel reading, the response to a community member “who has sinned against you” is a detailed three-step process for correction, with expulsion as a last resort. This week, Peter poses the same question and receives the famous answer, “forgive 70 times seven,” or as some translations say, “seventy-seven times,” which means limitless forgiveness. So which is it—“three strikes,” 490 times, or forgiveness without limit? And if we do not forgive “from our hearts,” will God really hand us over to be tortured as it says in Matthew 18:35?

The gospel of Matthew is full of such apparent contradictions. At the end of the kingdom parables, which we read in July, is a verse I think describes how the gospel was authored: “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matthew 13:52). In Matthew, references to the exodus, the prophets, and other treasures of the Hebrew Bible appear beside the teachings of Jesus and the wisdom of the early church.

Matthew 18 is a collection of material on sin, conflict, forgiveness, and reconciliation. Lutheran pastoral theologian Elaine Ramshaw talks about the history and danger of churches and church leaders taking passages out of context. Matthew 18:15-17 has been used to get rid of troublemakers and Matthew 18:21-22 to silence those who are abused, and to demand reconciliation without repentance. The key to the chapter, writes Ramshaw in Word & World: Theology for Christian Ministry, is the opening exchange, where the disciples ask, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (Matthew 18:1), and Jesus answers by putting a child among them. Ramshaw suggests that power is the critical issue. “We can’t deal adequately with the nitty-gritty issues of sin and reconciliation in community without first concretely addressing the nature of power and relative ranking in the community.” In any conflict, addressing the issue of who has power and how they use it is essential for reconciliation.

September 21

Matthew, Disciple

Exodus 16:2-15; Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45; Philippians 1:21-30; Matthew 20:1-16

Like the other gospels, Matthew (Matthaios) describes the life of the disciples (mathetes), but it also makes use of the word matheteutheis, which means one who has learned, been taught, or lives out certain teachings. In Matthew, discipleship is doing the word.

There are between 16 and 20 parables in Matthew, depending on how you define a parable. Last week, today, and next week we read three parables found only in Matthew: the unforgiving servant, the vineyard workers, and the two sons. They are typical of Matthew in several ways. There is a strong emphasis on judgment for the failure to act with love and compassion; the discipleship community—like Israel in the Hebrew Bible—is imagined as a vineyard; God is described as father; and work, money, and authority are critical issues.

Also typical of Matthew is the fact that what are called parables are more accurately allegories. Unlike true parables, which are provoking stories that juxtapose realities and invite engagement, these are fixed moral tales where each character or object corresponds to an idea or person in the world. So, for example, the wealthy vineyard owner can only be God. At the heart of these stories, however, are justice issues that are relevant today.

The story of the unforgiving servant points us to the criminalization of poverty in North America and to the reality of millions of adults and children around the world living in some form of debt bondage. Today’s reading points to the vulnerability of people who are unemployed. Folks who work for the “decent” day-labor place in my neighborhood work all day for minimum wage. After they have paid for water, lunch, transportation, gloves, earplugs, and check-cashing, they have about two thirds of what they earned—enough for dinner, a bed at a hostel, breakfast, and maybe $10 left over. The guys who wait on the corner, where contractors and carpenters know to find them, earn less and are mistreated more.

September 28

Tax Collectors and Prostitutes

Exodus 17:1-7; Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16; Philippians 2:1-13; Matthew 21:23-32

‘Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you” (Matthew 21:31).

At one time tradition held that the tax collector called Matthew (Matthew 9:9), the tax collector called Levi (Mark 2:14, Luke 5:27-29), and the author of the gospel of Matthew were all the same person. In the gospel, tax collectors are moral outsiders and ritually unclean, as evidenced by the reading on conflict in community: “[I]f the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” (Matthew 18:17). However, tax collectors are also included among the least and the little ones welcomed at the open table at the center of God’s reign. The reference to tax collectors and prostitutes in today’s reading seems to be part name-calling and part “preferential option.”

I was surprised to know that today’s gospel reading is the only place where the expression “tax collectors and prostitutes” is used. Jesus is frequently accused of eating or associating with tax collectors and sinners (Matthew 11:19, Mark 2:15-16, Luke 5:30, Luke 7:34), but many of us assume that prostitutes appear more often, as though “prostitute” were a synonym for “sinner.” Tax collectors and prostitutes are stereotypical outsiders. Scholars have debated whether Jesus really associated with prostitutes or whether it was a way of discrediting Jesus or women leaders in the church.

I don’t know any tax collectors, but I know some prostitutes (and most of them don’t really like that word). Besides living lives of incredible risk and violence, they also experience the kind of stigma reflected in our reading: name-calling, stereotyping, judgment, and people who are much more willing to talk about them than to them. n

The October “Living the Word” reflections can be found at www.sojo.net.

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