Here’s the Gospel reading from this past Sunday:
15 ‘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. 16But 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. 17If 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. 18Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.’
(Source – Matthew 18:15-20, NRSV)
First let me say, I’m not crazy about this translation. When you look at the Greek, you wouldn’t translated the world adelphos as member of the church like the NRSV does. Instead brother or sister is more accurate. The point is that this is someone close that Jesus talking about – someone with which the disciples would have had a long-term, on going interaction/relationship with.
Secondly, the term for sin needs some clarification. The term here is translated as sin, as in missing the mark, bad action, etc. However, it’s a bit off of what Jesus probably would have understood as sin – the same could be said for Paul and other Jewish Christians of the time. In Hebrew, there are nine words for sin – six of which are nouns and three are verbs. And the vast majority of the usage is with a noun. The focus of sin is the broken relationship, the turning away from another/God, revolt, wandering, etc. It’s about a state of being.
That’s all the foundation of what’s going on in this passage.
So what does it mean when it comes to dealing with difficult people? First, Jesus isn’t saying put on rose-colored glasses and walk into something that is going to go bad all on your own. Jesus is emphasizing the importance of community – close-knit community.
Secondly, taken out of context, this passage of Scripture looks like Jesus just made a check list of actions to take followed by the endorsement of casting someone out at the end if they just won’t listen. The problem with that is this is not what Jesus is saying because that would contradict everything we know about Jesus.
How many times did Jesus eat with tax collectors? Tough to say exactly. We all know the story of Zacchaeus – Jesus invites himself to Zacchaeus’ house. Jesus called Matthew, a tax collector to be one of the 12. Jesus wasn’t taking the typical approach towards tax collectors. Instead what Jesus is saying is that love knows no bounds. If a person who is in a long-term tight-knit community has a broken relationship with others within that community and they won’t listen to correction, Jesus is saying continue to offer love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness, just as you would a Gentile or tax collector.
In other words, the point is not to let the other person dictate how we respond to them. Because we had a broken relationship with God, yet Jesus radically reorients us towards God again, we are called on to offer grace, mercy, love, and forgiveness to others who are close to us – even those that are close and have hurt us. Jesus invited many into his close-knit community. The response varied. We invite people to be closer, but we can’t control how they respond.
In the next section of Matthew 18, we’ll hear Peter ask how many times we are to forgive someone who breaks a relationship with us – seven times Peter asks. No Jesus says – 77 times. In other words, we keep offering. Always moving towards others. That’s what love does – it brings people together and moves them in the direction of one another.