Fellow Passengers: This week’s Primary Passage* (Matthew 18:15-35) transports me to a land of broken records. Not the Guinness Book variety, but the old LP variety, where the needle, aka stylus, gets stuck on a scratched place in the vinyl, and a short snatch of a song is repeated over and over again. That’s what I naively thought Neil Young was talking about when I was a kid and heard him singing: I’ve seen the needle and the damage done. Now, though, our passage has the stylus stuck on the broken record of human conflict, (a little part of it in everyone), the groove of one flawed soul doing something to offend another flawed soul. Jesus gives some pretty clear and fairly simple instructions on what to do when this happens, how to nudge the needle along to keep the song going. As clear and simple as these instructions are, they are some of the least followed words of Jesus. What did he say? If your brother has offended you, go to him and explain the fault. If he listens, great, you’ve won him over. If not, take a couple of the church folks along to have some witnesses to the conversation. If he still doesn’t listen, take the matter before the church. If he still doesn’t listen, treat him as a pagan and tax collector.
Usually we skip over those first couple of instructions and move right on to the end, treating people who have offended us as pagans and tax collectors. But even so, does this mean we should treat them with contempt and disdain, as it might seem on first glance? Of course not. We’re to treat the ne’er-do-well as a pagan the way Jesus treated pagans. We’re to treat the miscreant as a tax collector the way Jesus treated tax collectors. Which means, eating and drinking with them, offering forgiveness and an invitation to join or re-join the journey of grace. The Message Bible says it this way: you have to start over from scratch, confront him with the need for repentance, and offer again God’s forgiving love. Start over from scratch. There’s that word again. So, Jesus is telling us, or singing to us in a Neil Young voice: keep the stylus on that scratch of grace, and don’t find another groove until reconciliation is in place.
Impetuous Peter wondered how long that could go on. After all, people can be tiresome to deal with. This is beginning to sound like a broken record, we can almost hear him saying. And after all, don’t broken records get on your nerves? Can we give up after seven times and skip on to the next song? Uh, no. There is no give up in grace. Peter’s question and Jesus’ response reminds me of a funny my Granny used to say: “Pete and Repeat were sittin’ on a log, Pete fell off, who was left on?” Repeat. “Pete and Repeat were sittin’ on a log, Pete fell off, who was left on?” Repeat. “Pete and Repeat were sitting on a log. . .” This could theoretically go on forever. Which is what Jesus told Pete. Repeat. Offense. Grace-ful pardon. Repeat. Offense. Grace-ful pardon. Repeat. . . Repeat offenders and repeat pardoners. Hard to say why this dynamic is so hard to learn. I sure haven’t learned it fully yet. Until I do, I’ll keep the vinyl on the turntable and keep listening for Jesus’ voice in the scratch: I sing the song because I love the man, I know that some of you won’t understand. . .
How about you? Where does this Primary Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment.