Have you noticed how when you tell a child not to do something, they seem to become more determined than ever to do that one thing? When you tell a child not to play with matches, you seem to put the idea into their head that matches are extremely exciting to play with!
And it’s not just children, there is something fascinating about anything forbidden that seems to entice us to do things we know we shouldn’t; Just to be awkward, or to find out what will happen, to satisfy our curiosity. The classic Biblical example is the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. God says “Don’t eat the fruit on that tree,” so what do they do? They eat it and only then do they find that the consequences were just as bad as was promised. They’d have been better off obeying God.
Schools are now advised that negative rules are not helpful – it’s been discovered that children continually told not to do things don’t flourish well. So rules in schools are now positive. Instead of, “Don’t treat other people badly,” it’s, “Treat other people well.” Instead of “Don’t run in the corridor,” it’s “Walk in the corridor.”
It’s actually much easier to learn to do things sensibly than remember a list of things that you mustn’t do! But this idea of replacing negative rules with positive ones isn’t new. It’s something Jesus did.
The Old Testament tells us that Moses received Ten Commandments, ten rules that God gave for life – and Paul reminds us of some our reading from Romans: AYou shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet@. Can you remember all ten? Where would you find them now if asked?
The rules Paul quotes are negative rules – as most of the ten commandments are. If we can’t remember them and if we don’t react well to being told not to do something, then maybe these rules are no longer the best way of governing our lives.
Paul reminds us that Jesus told people to rethink the way they lived their lives – and instead of giving a list of “don’t” rules, he said, “There’s only one rule to remember – love your neighbour, love other people as you love yourself.” Perhaps Jesus knew that people don’t remember lists of rules, perhaps he knew that we’re often curious to find out what happens when we do the things we’re told not to.
Whatever his reason, Jesus said that life is simple really – love other people, treat them the way you would want to treat yourself. And of course, by living like this, we naturally won’t steal, be unfaithful in our relationships or harm other people.
Christianity and the church are often seen to be unattractive – only interested in telling people what they shouldn’t do. But this is so wrong – being a Christian, coming to church is about enjoying life to the full – but in a way that shows love and respect to those around us.
And this, I think, is what Jesus is talking about in Matthew 18. He is asking us to think about how we deal with disputes. What we should do when we feel that someone else in church has wronged us, or done something with which we disagree.
We might be straight-talking, here in Ashton-under-Lyne, but most of us are still not very receptive to that straight-talking, and more often than not straight-talking in public leads to offence being taken by someone. So Jesus says, give respect to the one with whom who disagree – speak with them in private about your disagreement, or the offence that they have caused.
At work, the boss who balls someone out in public gains not respect but fear. The boss who talks quietly with someone when things have gone wrong garners respect.
Go to someone who has upset you in private to work things out, says Jesus, often this will be enough, but if not, then take witnesses with you and try again. And only then, if the person cannot see sense, bring the problem out into the open. It seems to me that this is all about respect – giving the respect to someone who has offended me, that I wish they had given to me in the first place.
Jesus and Paul agree – Our love is the first, the primary, measure of our commitment to God and to our faith, not our ability to follow the rules!