Not Winning the Game (Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost)

Sermons on YouTube…

Once a long time ago, I was playing a board game with some friends.  It was a somewhat confusing game, with lots of pieces and lots of complicated rules about what you could do and how you could move.

It was confusing enough that at some point, somebody (it might even have been me) asked the question, “What’s the goal of this game anyway?”  What’s the goal, because maybe if I understood the goal, I’d be better at understanding how to play.

And at that moment, somebody even more of a wise guy than me answered, “the goal is to win the game!”

The goal is to win the game.  At some basic level, that’s the goal of so many of the “games” we play – not just the board games.  Winning, we say, isn’t everything.   And often, we try to rise above it with things like our kids’ sports.  We tell ourselves and we tell others that it’s about learning sportsmanship and teamwork and having fun.  But still, deep down, we want to win!

So often, our goal deep down is to win the game.  And even if it’s subconscious, the need to win the game colors so much of the way we approach our issues, problems and conflicts.

And whenever I read these words of Jesus about what I should do if another member of the church sins against me, even though I know better, I instinctively read these words as though they were a strategy to win the fight.

So, here’s how I “win the game”: I go the person who wronged me and tell them off good. If they apologize and grovel at my feet, then I’ve won!  But if not, I triangulate witnesses into the process, so that they can tell the other person how wrong he or she is.  If that works, I still win!  But if not, I call a congregational meeting and publicly humiliate the person who wronged me.  And then I’m exonerated in the eyes of everybody else.  And I win!

Except, that’s not what Jesus says.  And it’s especially not what he means.  In fact, Jesus starts out by telling me that the goal is not “to win”, but to “regain” the person I’m in conflict with.

And if “regaining” a relationship with a person who I feel has wronged me is the goal, that’s a completely different thing than trying to win. Moreover, it’s a completely unexpected goal from what we might expect.

Indeed, Jesus could have said that the “goal” should be measured by a lot of different things.  He could have said, “if the member repents.”  Or, “if the member confesses his sin.”  Or even, “if the member at least says he’s sorry.” 

But instead, Jesus says, “if the member listens to you, you have regained that one.”  If someone listens.  And the rest of the process is designed not to win, but to get the person to listen.

Now actually, this is one of the few pieces of the Bible that’s quoted in our congregation’s Constitution and By-Laws in regard to how we should handle conflicts.  And that’s good if we’re ever having a fight. But I think Jesus means more than that.  I suspect that what Jesus was doing when he said these words to his disciples was that he was lifting up the idea that being a community of his followers wasn’t about winning and losing, but about listening.

And if one of the goals of being a community of Jesus’ followers is listening, it implies that being community is about:

  • listening to somebody else, even if in the end, we don’t all agree … (people can “agree to disagree” and still be friends; but you can’t do that unless you’re really willing to listen to each other …)
  • hearing one another… even if you think you’re the offended party, you can’t expect to be listened to unless you’re also willing to hear what others have to say; and that means more than simply hearing the words, it means appreciating where the other person is coming from … (one of the goals of “active listening” is to repeat back to the other person what you think you just heard, because sometimes what you “hear” and what the other person was trying to say aren’t the same thing…)
  • learning to listen and hear one another so that we can model that behavior to those “outside” the community … (Jesus never tells us to love each other so that we just feel good; instead, he calls us to love one another so that we can learn to love people who maybe don’t want to listen or hear – which is more important to God than trying to “win” by convincing others that their theology is wrong …)

And sometimes, this whole listening and hearing thing does work! It can help heal wounds and regain relationships.

But Jesus realized that sometimes it doesn’t.  People won’t hear or won’t listen, no matter what you do, at least not now.  And so Jesus’ final words on this were, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

But here’s the thing about Gentiles and tax collectors – in Matthew’s Gospel, the Gentiles and the tax collectors are the very people the disciples are sent to share good news with.  They’re often the people who Jesus says end up entering the kingdom of heaven ahead of the “righteous.”   And after all, this Gospel is named after Matthew – the tax collector who unexpectedly became a disciple of Jesus.

So those words aren’t a brush off.  Instead, they’re a final reminder of Jesus that the goal is not to win the game, but to regain and restore relationships with one another.  Because after all, that’s what God is about doing in Jesus.  God is always reaching out to us, even when we refuse to hear or to listen. God is always seeking to regain us, even when we wander away. And God is always looking for opportunities to create deeper and more meaningful relationships with us, even when we’re hung up on trying to win the game.