A pleasant diversion from the cares of life is tracking down silly or obsolete ordinances appearing in law books, especially finding statutes protecting us from the unruly or criminal behavior of animals. If St. Francis inspires you to insist that their owners, not the dumb beasts themselves, should be held accountable, be forewarned. Joseph P. MacNamara, Notre Dame alumnus and one time Assistant Attorney General of Indiana, published an article in the Notre Dame Law Review, III(1927)1, page 31, “Animal Prisoner at the Bar.” Apparently, the chimp in question did not have a good day in court: “…The chimpanzee that was the subject of the “monkey business” on the part of the local justice, was a part and parcel of a show that exhibited near South Bend. During the course of its act the monkey puffed of the noxious weed, then under ban in accordance with Indiana’s sumptuary statute regarding fags. The animal was promptly arrested, tried and fined five dollars. The plea that the animal knew not whereof it did and that it was not one whit capable of harboring malicious or criminal intent fell upon deaf ears.” Other cases of miscreant livestock appearing summoned to a court of law go back many centuries, pigs and chickens among the most unrepentant hooligans. Chickens in particular have been particularly prone to trespassing over the years.
This coming Sunday’s gospel is a painful passage because it addresses the possibility of brothers and sisters in faith finding it necessary to haul one another into court. While tragic and uncomfortable, Matthew 18 does not shirk in raising the topic of human skullduggery and deceit, even by members of the church. Duplicitous actions of Christians cause scandal and disgust because their actions erode the very foundations of faith. Over the summer we have been hearing parables of Jesus regarding the nature of God’s love, and we, who in creation and through Holy Baptism have been formed and clothed in that holy image and likeness. Paul spent last week even providing a handy synopsis [Romans 12:9-21] of what it means to live as a loving community of caring, holy people, advice which helps to avoid conflict, contention, and litigation.
We need to pay close attention to the gospel’s methodical “telling the truth in love” [Ephesians 4]. The juridical process Matthew outlines does not wreak havoc on the perpetrators [begining with “unfriending” on Facebook and progressing to malicious gossip (also a no-no in St. Paul’s list of sins), tire slashing, and worse]. Rather, the operative goal for Paul and holy Church is cited: If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. Baptismal logic insists that the offending party IS and REMAINS a brother or sister in Christ Jesus. Our only desire should be to see that person restored to life within a loving community of which we ALSO are expected to reflect by our own actions and words. Virtuous living is never demonstrated by denigrating or excoriating others. If the offending party makes it known that they don’t give a rip, then …let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Even at this point Christian smugness has no place, for both Matthew, one of the tax collectors and riff-raff with whom Jesus ate, and Cornelius the Gentile amply demonstrated that …God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us, and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us [Romans 15:8-9]. In other words, despite our biases and grudges, no one is beyond the loving embrace of God. The reality is that we might well need to keep some distance for a while as the holy, converting work of God is underway. The wrong doers among us certainly need conversion, but our own miserly inclinations probably need a bit of conversion, too. Gossiping, rumormongering, and dumping fuel on the fires of dispute and misunderstanding are NOT the ways of holy living. So, be patient and step back.
Learning to keep appropriate distance, interestingly, is actually a most gracious act of love. The so-called vice lists Paul and others invoke in the New Testament are all examples of failing to observe appropriate boundaries with associates, family members, and those we meet or are in contact with. The vices named are assaults on the integrity of others, a lack of respect for the dignity God bestowed on each person in Creation: Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness… [Genesis 1:26a]. Self-gratifying behavior often does violence to another out of selfish greed, pure and simple. To counter this, God extends the divine trait for loving care of all creation to each one of us as we are able: and let them have dominion… “Dominion” does not mean “to dominate” but to have the same loving regard as the Dominus, the Lord of life, i.e., the Creator who breathed the breath of life into all living things.
Interestingly, the English words used to translate the portion of the Lord’s Prayer echoed in Sunday’s gospel are central for understanding the necessity for observing boundaries: Forgive us our trespasses / debts / sins. Matthew’s passage addresses members of the church who …sin against you. The Sermon on the Mount speaks of the same tragedy but in a more comprehensive manner. Luke’s version [11:4] petitions: And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. Matthew’s version prays: And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors[Matthew 6:9]. The church’s liturgy has merely conflated the various wordings over the centuries, sometimes using an alternate translation: forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us [ELW p. 112].
Trespasses, debts, and sins are all the result of ignoring appropriate boundaries, whether personal and social distance, coveting, taking more than we are entitled to, or any other type of behavior marked by self-indulgence and self-gratification. We may inhabit positions of power and respect but sometimes have very little power or recourse. Thus, educational institutions, the public arena, not to mention congregations and their various social and educational ministries all are places where boundaries can be inappropriately overstepped. Sometimes this occurs inadvertently, but sadly, such trespasses can be the result of an individual’s or group’s intentional acts. Alas, these are NOT rare occurrences. That is why congregations and schools [happily, Mt. Horeb among them] have child protection policies in place and revise them frequently. Boundary workshops can be offered to certify workers. Background checks are required for those who work with children and the elderly. Police are happy to offer training sessions for public safety as well. In case we are tempted to write this off as political correctness, we need to think again. Ann Landers and Dear Abby (and daughter) have enjoyed long careers offering advice on such issues in newsprint; problematic behavior has no boundaries. News releases relate that numerous church bodies, synods, and dioceses are facing bankruptcy because of clergy and church worker abuse of minors or people who have little or no power or understanding of another’s harmful and abusive actions. Schools have the same story to tell, and police blotters constitute a tale of woe.
Sunday’s readings may not be obvious messages of good news, but the Gospel can be found in many places. Paul’s message to us is: Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law [Romans 13:8]. The psalmist prays that God will teach us the way of life. The prophet Ezekiel announces: As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways. All the more reason, perhaps, to go back to St. Paul’s reading from last week [Romans 12:9-21] and review it, again…, and yet again!