Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity
Matthew 18: 15-20
In the late 1920s a Hungarian author, believing that technology was shrinking the world, wrote a story based on the idea that any given two people on the planet would be connected by no more than six jumps of acquaintance. I know Sarah, Sarah knows Phil, Phil knows Manuel and so on, until I am connected to someone on the other side of the world I’ve never met or heard of. This idea was carried forward by network theorists, mathematicians and sociologists in the 1960s, and taken up by writers in the 1990s. Eventually the phrase “six degrees of separation” was coined to describe this phenomenon, which is also known as “small-world theory”. With today’s internet technology, some believe that we now coexist with only four “degrees of separation”.
A worldwide web, a social network, exists not just because of technology, but simply because of human relationships – people know people who know people. It is perhaps mind-boggling to reflect that you, as individual and unique as you are, may be connected to each and every one of the 7.5 billion people on the planet.
It is this sort of connectedness that lies at the heart of the Gospel today. On the surface, Jesus suggests what appears to be a rather dull legalistic process for dealing with disputes. If we look at it carefully, though, it is a reminder that the church community is just that – a community connected. Relationships matter not only to the individuals concerned, but to the whole, and it is the business of the Church to seek to build bridges and restore relationships wherever possible. A personal dispute that remains unresolved is talked through by a smaller group and then a larger group, not simply to remind the offender that he or she is accountable, but to remind the complainant that he or she is also is part of a wider group. Both parties stand before the Church because the body of believers cares for both of them.
Jesus tells his hearers that one who refuses to listen to the Church is to be, to the complainant, “as a Gentile and a tax collector”. At first sight, this seems harsh. The one who offends is to be like a social outcast because Gentiles and tax collectors were outside the Law and so avoided. But then we must remember that Jesus made a point of eating with tax collectors and “sinners”, and healed the Gentile centurion’s servant – which puts a different complexion on things. Even those who offend us, whom we complain about, even those who do not share the prevailing opinion of the community, are not beyond the love of Christ. And, as those who matter to Christ, they are worthy of our attention, respect and love.
Few of us can imagine being connected to all 7.5 billion people on the planet, but we pass in and out of the lives of many people all the time. We have family, friends, colleagues and neighbours, but we interact with shop assistants, the person who delivers the post, fellow drivers on the road, people on the train, even telephone sales callers. We have circles of acquaintances and networks of connection.
We have to engage with people – but how we interact with others is a choice we make every day and in every encounter. St Paul reminds us to “Owe no one anything, except to love one another.” The commandments of God are summed up in “love your neighbour as yourself”. Even those who annoy us, frustrate us and contradict us are to be loved. Even those who are beyond our friendship circles, beyond the boundaries of what we consider to be acceptable in society, are to be loved – just as Jesus loved tax collectors and Gentiles.
Perhaps remembering that we are all connected means, at the very least, speaking gently and acting kindly to strangers as well as friends. We might never know what people are dealing with and how our words and actions affect them. Perhaps striving to live out the command to love our neighbour means recognising that every single person we encounter in the day is a fellow child of God. We have the opportunity to treat them accordingly.