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Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Readings: Exodus 12:1–4, Romans 13: 1–10 & Matthew 18:10–20

One of the biggest bugbears throughout my life has been people who don’t obey stop signs when driving. Still to this day, I get frustrated and annoyed when I see someone slow down as they come to an intersection marked by a stop sign, but then accelerate again and go through the intersection (without stopping). 

These people might argue that it was safe to go through, because there weren’t any other cars coming at the time, but I still think to myself you should have just stopped, because that is the law. I feel the same way when people walk across pedestrian crossings when the signal clearly says don’t walk. I say to myself, “Why can’t you just obey the rules?” After all, the rules are there for a reason.

The Apostle Paul talks about this in today’s passage from the Letter to the Romans. Writing to the members of the church in Rome, Paul tells them to “be subject to the governing authorities”. I wonder what ‘Karen of Brighton’, and other people like her, who have been opposed to the compulsory wearing of masks, and adherence to other stage 4 restrictions, would make of this? There has been growing criticism of the Andrews’ government, both in the mainstream media and social media, regarding what some in our society see as an abuse of power by the state government, and an infringement on our civil liberties. I wonder what each of us think about that ourselves?

If we were to follow Paul’s instruction, then we would just do what we were being asked to do, or directed to do by the state government. But why should we do that? My own personal response would be, “because that’s the law and we should do what is lawful” – in the same way that we should stop at a stop sign, regardless of whether there is another car coming or not. Paul’s rationale for us to obey the laws and directions of the state government is because their authority comes from God; it has been instituted by God. 

We live in a structured and ordered society, as did the people of Paul’s time within the Roman Empire, which is derived from God’s own ordinance or decree for humankind. As theologian and scholar Frank J. Matera argues, “Paul affirms that God employs those who rule as his servants to assure the social order necessary for people to attain the good that God wills for them.” In other words, God uses governments and leaders as tools to bring about His will and purpose. 

Now I’m sure we can all think of world leaders such as Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Idi Amin and Robert Mugabe, among others, who have committed genocide and many other atrocities against innocent people, and we would say that surely it wasn’t God’s will or purpose that any of those acts should have occurred. We then find ourselves faced with the age old question: “If there is a God, then why does He allow suffering to exist in the world?” And of course the various answers that might be given to that question create further questions and debate for which a satisfactory answer may never be found.

Sufficed to say, we human beings were created to live in structured and ordered communities. We can say that all mammals were created to live in this way. We see that in so many different species of mammals: gorillas, chimpanzees, lions, elephants are just a few examples of mammals that live in an ordered society with clear structures of hierarchy. It would seem that this was God’s intention for His creation.

Perhaps the key difference between human beings and other mammals is our innate moral code and ability to reason. Of course human beings have also been blessed with ‘free will’, and how we exercise that free will determines what type of person we are and what deeds or actions we perform. Paul sums up his instruction in today’s passage from the Letter to the Romans with the following statement, which perhaps exemplifies the best use of free will: “Love you neighbour as yourself. Love does no wrong to a neighbour; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”

Implicit within any structure of hierarchy is the presence of power and authority. In today’s gospel passage, Jesus warns his disciples of the danger that exists with such power and authority, and he uses a child to demonstrate. Children in the time of Jesus, were no doubt loved and valued within their own families, but they had no social status or value whatsoever.  By warning his disciples not to mistreat ‘one of these little ones’, he is actually encouraging them to make sure that vying for power and authority within the church community does not result in the neglect of the lowest members of the community.

Jesus even goes as far as to set down a process that is to be used to deal with misconduct in the church. As with any ordered and structured society, the church community cannot turn a blind eye to members who consistently behave in a way that is contrary to the values that are central to the life of the community. It must have structures in place to deal with both the conflicts that arise within the community, and also the need for reconciliation between members of the community resulting from those conflicts. The clear message that Jesus gives is that everything should be done to resolve any conflict among members of the church community so that all members remain part of the community. Jesus further suggests that where agreement is reached between two or more members of the church who have gathered in his name, then that agreement has the sanction of God, because Jesus himself will be present in that gathering.

We are encouraged to respect and adhere to the rules and laws that govern our own society, and the simplest and easiest way to do that is to ‘love our neighbour as ourself’. 

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