Monday, April 21, 2014

Those who have fallen are not enemies

In his epistle to the Philippians, Polycarp makes reference to a certain Valens. At one point he was a presbyter, but Polycarp notes that he so fails to understand the office that was entrusted to him (11.1). Evidently his downfall was an inordinate love of money, one which has affected his family as well (v. 4).

Impressively Polycarp calls his audience to a certain benevolent attitude towards the fallen brother: You, therefore, for your part must be reasonable in this matter, and do not regard such people as enemies but, as sick and straying members, restore them, in order that you may save your body in its entirety (ibid.).

It is all too easy to be resentful and angry when a person within the church is morally compromised. (Typically, however, we do not take the same hard stance against ourselves when we fall!) We may even grow to consider such persons enemies, as if they've betrayed us in their fall. Polycarp has the wisdom from the Holy Spirit, however, to know that this is not the right attitude to take. Rather Christians ought to perceive such persons as sick and straying members -- they are still a part of the body, even if they are sick, and therefore we ought to seek healing and restoration.

I take it that this echoes Jesus' advice in Mt 18.15-7, when he says:

If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

It's too easy to read Jesus here as calling us to an attitude of resentment, even hatred, avoidance, and shunning to the fallen members of the church. In spite of the initially intuitive plausibility or even obviousness of this reading, however, I believe Jesus' words ought to be understood otherwise.

Some of his audience for this very teaching would themselves have been tax collectors, maybe even Gentiles, who would have been impressed and moved to follow Jesus precisely because of his gentleness to them. At Luke 17.3 we read that Jesus was called a friend of tax-collectors and sinners because he dined with the scum and dregs of society, public enemies and traitors to the nation of Israel. When Jesus Christ shows such mercy to the fallen and the sick and the lost, it would be unreasonable and inappropriate to understand him as calling for the kind of exclusivist, shunning behavior he had previously condemned through his own mercy.

Jesus calls us instead to imitate his mercy and disregard for social disrepute. The lost are to be found, the sinful are to be saved, and Christ has shown us that this is accomplished through a way of mercy, kindness, and forgiveness, not shunning and hate and resentment.

Polycarp, then, is continuing this tradition when he recommends to the Philippians that they be merciful with this Valens and his wife, who have both fallen into the trap of love of money.