At first blush, the reading from Matthew’s gospel and the epistle from St. Paul might seem to have very little to do with one another. Paul’s text is uplifting and inspiring: a grand exhortation of the power of love to overcome all things! He does manage to sneak in reference to a bunch of the nasty stuff that love is supposed to prevent—things like adultery, killing, stealing—not to mention quarreling, jealousy, carousing , drunkenness and sexual excess—all the behaviors which have had a rather enduring quality among human beings in spite of pretty universal knowledge of the ten commandments and over two millennia of Christianity. As a supervisor of mine said early in my training when I was describing a frustrating case where I felt frustrated by my client’s continuing tendency to “mess up,” Well, people just don’t behave! Indeed, many times we don’t behave, and it’s not because we don’t know better. Still, there is an earnestness in Paul’s preaching about love, and the reverence for the power of love of neighbor which “never wrongs anyone” and “is the fulfillment of the Law.” Or, as the Beatles put it years ago: All you need is love!
When we get to Matthew’s text, we move from something inspirational to something which is much more procedural and even tedious in its detail. The message seems to be that love has its limits. It is a bit odd to think of Jesus getting mired in the details of how one confronts a sinner in the community. In fact, many scholars believe this may reflect something of Matthew’s instruction to his community which is framed with a kind of divine endorsement. Matthew’s community existed a good number of years after Paul wrote to the Romans, by which time it was clear that Christian communities were going to be around for awhile and needed plenty of instruction about how to get along and what to do about those who strayed from the fold and were resistant to repentance. Simply continuing to preach at people about loving one another wasn’t sufficient. We might call to mind another popular song here: Tina Turner’s What’s Love Got to do With It?
The truth is, as Christians, our track record on keeping the simplest of commandments: Love your neighbor as yourself is rather dismal. We often act as if Jesus’ core teaching was merely a polite suggestion. Like many of the most confrontational sayings of Jesus, it gets treated as a kind of aspirational but utterly impractical goal. I remember a while back hearing an evangelical Christian quoted as saying: Well, the Beatitudes are nice, but God doesn’t expect us to live by them. I suspect that this would come as a surprise to God. I don’t mean to through stones. There are all kinds of ways the best of us minimize, rationalize and simply deny the importance of loving our neighbor and our enemies.
Matthew’s text turns out to be about love after all. It reflects the reality that people do not behave and that alienation happens in communities. What is outlined as a procedural way of loving—of caring for the lost sheep—but also accepting the reality that we can do only so much. The rest is in God’s hands. Ruptures between human beings occur, even among the most well-meaning of folk. The important thing is to be committed to the repair of the break, to the grace of reconciliation. In loving, both in its immediate manifestation and as displayed through a commitment to reconciliation, we are taking up the action of divine mercy. That’s what makes the final lines in the gospel so interesting. This fusion between bounding and loosing on earth as in heaven has often been interpreted as Jesus delegating a certain power to the church to act in Jesus’ absence. Like people sent off to far away places in the days when easy communication was not possible. Unfortunately, this “power” which was ratified for the church as a whole became more and more restricted to a hierarchical class, who became the overseers of the less endowed. Perhaps we might understand this not as a delegation but as an identification between the living membership of Christ’s body and Christ as God’s full present. All of our acts of love and reconciliation are nothing less than the manifestation of the holiness of God in our midst. So it only makes sense that we should strive to live honorably in this truth. When we love, nothing more can be added. Nothing greater can be perfected. Even when love is refused, God is made flesh. True, people just don’t behave. Human beings are remarkable stubborn and prone to doing dumb things. But God is always coming toward us, pursuing us, reminding us that sometimes the most simple idea is the most profound: All you need is love.