Inspired by Matthew 18:15-35
As I mentioned at our Ash Wednesday service, Lent is all about asking ourselves, “How are we doing as representatives of Christ, as ambassadors of Christ, as symbols of Christ here on earth?” Which is why these parables that we will be reading during Lent are so hard-hitting, so rough around the edges, even brutal at times. Jesus took his work seriously, and expects us to as well.
And that’s what Lent is all about, Jesus reminding us what being a disciple, what being a follower of his, is supposed to look like, and then asking us to judge ourselves on how we match up to Jesus’ expectations. That sounds like a blast doesn’t it?! That’s why Lent is so serious, that’s where the silence comes from, the fasting, the giving up of chocolate or beer, the giving up saying the word that shall not be mentioned, those are all outward signs and reminders of the serious work that is going on within all of us during this season.
Today, we are challenged with the work of reconciliation. How do we reconcile with one another when we have wronged each other? How do we make things right again? That’s what Jesus is urging us to consider with this reading from Matthew. He goes on to share a parable about the consequences of not forgiving, which sounds a bit harsh but I think it’s supposed to because, again, Jesus ain’t playing here, he takes this very seriously! Because he knows better than anyone, how badly this world needs reconciliation. However, I’m more interested at the beginning of our reading than how it ends—because if we can figure that out, we don’t have to worry about the consequences of not forgiving! So, that’s what I’d like to potentially help you with today.
Jesus starts out by sharing this often used lesson about what to do when someone sins against you. It’s very simple really, Jesus gives us a three-step process, go to them directly, and if that doesn’t work bring a neutral party along to mediate, and if that doesn’t work, report them to the church and then you can basically wash your hands of them because you had done all you could do to reconcile with them.
Now, I thought this was going to be an easy sermon to write because this is a passage that I refer to constantly in my work as a pastor. But wouldn’t you know, every time I think a sermon is going to be easy, God says, “Mmmmmmm, not so fast mister!” Here I was thinking I was going to be able to talk about how terrible we are at following these simple three steps to reconciliation that Jesus has laid out for us! Only to have something else catch my eye that hadn’t before and so I was very intrigued by that.
And what caught my eye is a word that appears four times in just the first three verses of this passage: listen! It seems, for Jesus, the ability to reconcile with one another, is dependent on our ability to listen to one another. Now, we have a tendency when we read these simple steps to reconciliation, to automatically put ourselves in the shoes of the one who is wronged. I’d actually like us to do the opposite today.
I want you to put yourselves in the shoes of the one who has wronged someone else, the one who has sinned, as Jesus put it. And so, as the perpetrators of said sin, whatever it may be, your job is simple, you only have one step, and that one step is to listen. Jesus starts by saying, “If someone sins against you, go and correct them when you are alone together. If they listen to you, then you’ve won them over.” It’s when we don’t listen that things begin to get hairy.
And that’s not easy to do which is why we have not only so many communication problems but also so many reconciliation problems as well. And why is it so difficult to listen with our hearts? Because we know that’s where Jesus resides. And if we start listening from that place, well, we all know how Jesus is! When we feel attacked we’d just as soon not get Jesus involved right, because he’s gonna bring up things like compassion and forgiveness and empathy and all that garbage! No, when we go into defensive mode, we dig our heels in deep don’t we!
So, what do we do? What do we do when someone comes to us and says that we’ve hurt them, especially when we don’t think we have or we were just unaware? Well, step one is, and this is according to Jesus not me, step one is shut up. Why? Because Jesus knows you can’t listen and talk at the same time! You can’t listen and defend yourself at the same time. You can’t listen and make your case at the same time. No, your job is simply to listen. Because when someone tells you that you have hurt them, there is nothing you can say anyway that can erase that feeling from the past. It has already happened. The only question for you now is, what to do about it. And Jesus’ answer, is to listen. As hard as that may be, as choking as your pride is to swallow, Jesus says, listen, and listen from your heart.
So what does listening from your heart look like? Here’s a few things to keep in mind as you practice this divine art:
Listening costs you very little but the rewards are extraordinary. That alone may be all you need to remember in order to shut up and listen. But maybe not, so I’ll continue.
Practice listening from their frame of reference. Put yourself in their shoes and listen from their perspective. A helpful question here is, “If they did this to me, how would I respond?”
Listening to what is not being said is just as important to what is being said. Listen to what is behind their words. And this may mean recognizing that this may not be the first time you’ve hurt them, it’s just the first time they’ve mentioned it. So before you accuse them of overreacting, keep that one in mind. But that won’t be a problem because you can’t accuse and listen at the same time can you?
Listen to their feelings and not just their words. Often times we listen as if we’re robots that are consuming factual information that will then be stored for future processing. But the reality is they are communicating feelings as well, that are just as important as the facts they are sharing, maybe even more so.
Learning how to listen to yourself better will help you listen to others better. If you’re not in touch with your own feelings, with your own needs, with your own hurts, how could you possibly be able to listen to someone else’s?
Here’s the last one but I think it may be the most important. The best listeners don’t need to be right—which also makes this the toughest one! Because who doesn’t like to be right?! I love to be right! Ask my family! But to be a good listener, not only is it not necessary to be right, it actually hurts the process. And so, good listening requires that we suspend judgment, and just listen.
Now! With Jesus’ urging to listen, he then tells that parable of the unforgiving servant, who we should probably start calling, the un-listening servant. And he tells that parable to basically say, don’t be like this guy! And in order to do that, you’re going to have to be a listening servant. According to Jesus, if you want reconciliation, you’re gonna have to brush up on your listening skills, and learn how to listen with your heart. Thankfully, we have a God who always listens to us, without condemnation, without pride getting in the way, without the need to be right. For God always listens from the heart. Thanks be to God. Amen.