If you have spent time reading the Bible, you might be familiar with the story in Matthew 18:15-17. Jesus is talking to his disciples and this is what he says,
If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.
This passage is often cited in discussions about church order and discipline. Most of the time we use it to justify turning someone out of the church. But we are wrong when we do that. Here’s why.
Order and organization matters in the gospels. Take a look at what comes before and after this story in Matthew’s gospel. Here is Matthew 18:1-14 and here is Matthew 18:18-34. The writers didn’t merely record events in chronological order. A simple comparison of the four gospels shows us that. The gospel writers organized events and grouped incidents together to make important theological points. They want to help their readers understand who Jesus is and what he means for us and the world. We do the gospel writers a disservice when we ignore their careful and intentional organization and structure.
Right before this passage (Matt 18:15-17) are Jesus’ warnings about the necessity to avoid being a stumbling block for anyone. Next is the parable of the shepherd who leaves 99 sheep to search to one lost sheep. Right after this passage, Jesus tells Peter we are to forgive members of the church seventy seven times. And then Jesus tells the parable of the slave who is forgiven by his master but refuses to forgive his debtors. Lots of stories about the importance of forgiveness. Verses 15- 17 are surrounded by teachings about forgiveness. Those teachings on forgiveness need to inform our understanding of verses 15-17.
Sometimes we think the story we are looking at today lets us stop forgiving after three tries. However that interpretation doesn’t really fit well with the stories and parables that come before and after.
Here’s my other interpretive question. Verse 17 tells us to treat an “offender” as a Gentile and a tax collector. So, exactly how did Jesus treat Gentiles and tax collectors? Jesus heals the daughter of the Canaanite woman. He eats with sinners and tax collectors. He heals the Centurion’s servant. He calls a tax collector to be his disciple.
Jesus repeatedly invited tax collectors and Gentiles into the kingdom of God.
To “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” doesn’t mean wash our hands of them. It means we need to continue to reach out to those with whom we have a conflict. We must continue inviting them into the fellowship of the kingdom of God.
This is really difficult work. I’m sure you know that. To remain in relationship with someone with whom we have a disagreement is hard. To remain in relationship with someone who has sinned against us is even more difficult.
It seems to me, one of the things the church is supposed to do is to be a community that never gives up on each other. We’re not to push people out because they are difficult or annoying or wrong or sinners. The church is to continually seek reconciliation. We are to be the visible witness of the steadfast love of God.
The church is called to be a community of faith, of love and of care for each other. This doesn’t mean that no one ever sins against another person. This doesn’t mean that we don’t have disagreements. This doesn’t mean that any behavior or action is fine. It certainly doesn’t mean this is easy.
What it does mean is that we don’t give up on each other. Just as God doesn’t give up on us.
I’d like to know, what do you think?