I hate Ezekiel. He’s a prophet to give prophets a bad name: While Jeremiah is driven near mad with having doom to speak and Amos is overwhelmed by his passion for the poor and even Isaiah seems at least genuinely hurt by the word of exile he bears, the voice of Ezekiel always seems a little too happy to be heard, always a little too happy to intimidate and to threaten disaster. And our readings open today with Ezekiel’s excuse, a veritable busy-body’s charter, — if I don’t echo the voice of Adonai then I’ll pay for it. Your Honor, I had to do it — it was me or him. I was only following orders.
But, like ‘em or loathe ‘em, we will always have self-righteous Ezekiels. And that’s because there’s always injustice and division and hurt in the world, in the church, and in our communities. Always … and all too real. And that’s what the readings today force us to remember. For every Ezekiel there is a Cain — that first of many murderers — with his question: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” Somehow we have to handle hurt in our midst and division in the church and injustice in the world and handle it with neither the relish of Ezekiel nor the cynicism of Cain.
But how? Paul tries an answer in terms of love — “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” But how do you love your neighbour if they seem to hate you? Or where does tough love end and persecution begin? Oh, and there’s always that awkward gospel question: “who is my neighbour?”
Matthew seems to have something nicely worked out — a protocol, a scheme to follow, a foolproof method of handling trouble. Maybe he does, but I have a suspicion that the calm words Matthew speaks in Jesus’ voice betray instead just what a burning issue this was for Matthew’s own church community — an awkward issue that wouldn’t go away and needed this decisive word from Jesus. But it’s an issue that hasn’t gone away from then to now, whether the wrongs that trouble us are political or social, theological or cultural, or just plain personal.
And I guess by now you want my own solution in a few pithy sentences. Sorry! What I want to point out though is how Matthew ups the ante. Ezekiel’s in the business of speaking out, out of self-interest, and Paul probably so as to keep his churches out of the notice of the civil authorities, but Matthew has two startling reasons for careful and nuanced handling of differences. First, because what we bind on earth is bound in heaven and what we loose on earth is loosed in heaven. And these terms, binding and loosing, are primarily about keeping and expelling: those we keep, God keeps, those we drive away, God drives away. Astonishing! So we’d better get it right! For some reason, beyond me, God has chosen to adopt our human voice — the very opposite of what Ezekiel is saying. Ezekiel’s God threatens him: our God trusts us, … perhaps too much.
Matthew’s second reason is even deeper. “if you join your voices on earth, what you pray for will be given you; when you gather in my name I am there.” How do we gather in Jesus’ name? Only, he says, by joining our voices together. When our voices are joined Jesus is present. But if we cannot speak with one voice we remain alone. That’s why we have to face injustice and division and hurt — here among us, between our worshipping communities, at large in Oakland, and in the greater political process. We have to find the one voice which we can all speak because only that will let Jesus come among us — to heal, to hold, to make new.