A reflection on Matthew 19:16-20
Every fall we put a fence around our raspberry patch to keep the rabbits from feasting on too many thorny berry branches. If we want fruit next year, a keep-out is fence essential. Down the road is a keep-in fence. It keeps our neighbors sheep in and away from the crazy drivers on our road.
Fences serve different purposes. Some keep wanderers in, and some keep wanderers out. Some define spaces and identify boundaries. The church also has boundaries and fences, some helpful, others questionable.
When I was growing up, fences kept changing—not only in the fields to make way for new farming methods but in the church to make way for progressive thinking. In the first half of the 20th century, clear fences were important for Mennonites. My great aunt was kicked out of church for crossing the movie-theater fence. She was reinstated after she confessed to the error of her ways. When I was a teenager, the theater was no longer outside the line. My church youth group even went bowling—much to my parents’ surprise. In their eyes, bowling alleys were dark smoky places where no good Mennonite would tread. Had bowling alleys and theaters improved? Are fences time sensitive? How dependable are fences?
The first house my husband and I bought had a bathroom tacked on the back. The lot was fairly small. There was barely room to walk between the bathroom extension and the neighbor’s fence. When our neighbor went to sell her house, we discovered our bathroom was on her property. The fence had been put in the wrong place. Both picket fences and church fences can be misplaced.
As a teen I became suspicious of fences—especially fences that limited the role of women in church. Which fences are God-intended and which are posts pounded in by human choice or even human error?
When it comes to fences, Jesus seems to give mixed messages. On the one hand, he ignores some fences. He talks to the socially questionable Samaritan woman. He parties with tax collectors and sinners. He crosses religious lines. He heals on the Sabbath and forgives sins. On the other hand, Jesus also states that he came not to abolish the law but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17). He calls on his followers to deny themselves and take up their cross (Mark 8:34). We know from the story of the rich young man that Jesus didn’t create a fenceless group. This man knew enough about what following Jesus entailed that he chose not to join up (Matthew 19:16-20).
Let’s look at this fence story. This young man asks, “Good Teacher, what must I do to be sure I’m inside the fence?”
Jesus responds, “Don’t call me good.” There is no one good inside this group. Then Jesus reminds him that he already knows the fenceposts—Do not kill, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not bear false witness, do not defraud, and love your neighbor as yourself.
The young man claims to have stayed inside the fence since his youth but he still had this nagging feeling there was something more.
Jesus said just do one thing, “Sell all you own and give it to the poor and follow me.” Jesus seems to be testing loyalty—how serious are you about seeking the good God seeks?
Jesus didn’t soft pedal his message so that the rich young man could feel good about himself.
In fact, the man goes away sad. How does this fit with where we are today? Do we sometimes make following Jesus sound too easy, leaving people with a nagging feeling there is something more?
In today’s church, the rich young man’s loyalty would most likely be a private issue. Nobody would question his commitment, and surely nobody would ask to look in his checkbook.
Many churches seem to have pulled up their fences to become seeker-sensitive and welcoming. But are the fences really gone, or have they just changed? Gone are modest dress, TV viewing and moviegoing as fenceposts. In today’s church, we try to stay out of each other’s business. We just have differing opinions. These differences have a way of creating new fences, more subtle boundaries where dubious political views and an incompatible social smell can put you in the questionable borderlands.
As Mennonites, we are tired of fences. We blew it and put up wrong fences, and now we seem a little squeamish about any fences. But the church needs them. The church needs to have a clear identity. How can we welcome people if we don’t know what we are welcoming people to? A church without fences has a muddled identity. We need markers that let people know who we are—not to keep sinful people out, since none is good and sin is present on all sides, but so we understand who we are and in what field we are grazing.
Putting in fenceposts is messy business. Posts have a way of stepping on people’s toes. We all have places we think there should be a post, and if we are honest, too often it marks someone else’s sin, not ours. Fortunately for everyone, post placing is not the job of any one person. It is the job of the believing body together.
Matthew 16:13-19 provides some fencing guidelines. The passage begins with who Jesus is and moves on to the church’s identity and her role in binding and loosing. Binding and loosing are rabbinic terms. In his book Body Politics: Five Practices of the Christian Community before the Watching World (1992), John Howard Yoder explains: “To ‘bind’ in rabbinic usage is to respond to a question of ethical discernment: We still have the root in our word obligate. To ‘loose’ is to free from obligation.”
Binding and loosing are about deciding who we are as a body of believers. If we look closer at this passage, we see that binding and loosing is done in the context of Peter’s confession, “You are the Messiah.” Messiah carries with it connotations of an anointed ruler who rules with justice and brings peace. Binding and loosing are done under the umbrella of a people who declare Jesus as their ruler, their Messiah.
Another clue to the context of binding and loosing is found in realizing that Peter didn’t get Jesus’ identity right because he was so brilliant but because he had help from God’s Spirit.
Peter’s insight went beyond his personal agenda. Binding and loosing are done with the help of God’s Guiding Spirit. Seeking God’s guidance together becomes a corporate spiritual discipline.
John Howard Yoder explains another dimension of binding and loosing. Yoder reminds us that the rabbi was not so much a preacher as a keeper of the community’s moral memory. The ongoing process of binding and loosing creates a backlog of precedents whose meanings are fine-tuned and updated through the experiences of the day.
Anabaptist history is loaded with moral discernment. In 1527, the Swiss Anabaptists met to discuss fences and markers. They struggled to spell out who they were and how they differed from the then Catholic Church. They came up with the Schleitheim Confession.
More recently we recall the life-giving Civilian Public Service stories where Mennonites chose to serve in nonmilitary ways. These memories can help us put up new markers that remind us of our call to pray for our enemies, not wipe them out.
We can also recall times when church authority and Christ’s authority were confused, when posts were pounded in to mark the correct cut of the coat collar or the length of the sleeve.
They had good intentions, protecting people from worldly seductions, but God’s mission of reconciliation became blurred. Because we have sometimes misplaced posts doesn’t mean we should throw out when trying to discern guidelines. We can learn from our mistakes. We can learn to seek the moving of God’s Spirit before cementing in a fence. We can learn to be humble and realize our insights are limited.
As we face today’s issues, we are not left to individually and blindly plant posts, but we can build on our understanding of Jesus, on the guidance of the Holy Spirit and on our rich history.
Fences can be nourishing; they can save us from hazardous roads where cultural bulldozers blind us. A good fence is one that is discerned together among those who hold Jesus as their ruler. A good fence builds community and creates a space that tells the world who we are and whose pasture we graze in. A good fence understands there is no way to keep evil out and that forgiveness abounds on all sides. A good fence is a gift from God, where God’s love mysteriously thrives and ripples through the community with news of the good grazing land God is providing. Who isn’t ready for pasture fields beyond the chaotic dominions of our world?
Jane Yoder-Short is a member of East Union Mennonite Church in Kalona, Iowa. This article is adapted from a sermon she preached there.