We’re going to reflect on a fascinating passage from Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 18, verses 15-20. It’s fascinating because it’s filled with problems.
Its opening statement is direct and simple. “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone.” If someone does something to you that’s offensive or hurtful, the best thing to do is to bring it up to him. Try to talk it out. “If he listens to you, you have won over your brother.” This is a wise, practical approach to a not uncommon situation. Friendships can actually grow when difficult situations that may arise between friends are confronted and talked out. It’s not good to let hurts fester because they tend to be fed by silence and grow. If tensions are not spoken about, the offended party often slips into deeper anger and resentment. The opening statement of the passage is good, simple advice.
Now, suppose my brother won’t talk out the problem, what can I do? Here’s where the problem in the passage begins to surface. “If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you so that every fact may be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses.” This can be interpreted as a kind of intervention, similar to the interventions used when a friend or family member has an alcohol or drug problem. We gather close friends and family members to confront the person with the problem he has. We gather to confront him because we love him, and we are concerned for his well-being. In the case of the alcoholic or drug addict this is a caring and often successful approach to the problem. Yes, the drugs and alcohol are physically harmful for the person using them, but because the drugs or alcohol rule his life they become more important than his family and friends. His actions have most probably caused deep hurts and resentments. But love can conquer all. The intervention is meant to look beyond the hurts and to focus on the person we care for, not the person who has hurt us.
But take a look at the statement again. “If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you so that every fact may be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses.” It seems to me that this isn’t really a loving intervention. The terminology is legal. Facts have to be established. There are “witnesses.” The statement implies that there will be a winner and a loser in the case. When that type of situation develops there’s never a reconciliation. There’s one brother who has been proven right, and one brother who has been proven wrong. There’s no kiss and make up here. Would Jesus have taught this? I wonder. The situation goes further. “If he refuses to listen to them tell the church.” Now we’re moving into a court-like setting. It’s no secret that court cases never bring parties together. The court decides who’s right and who’s wrong, and awards a settlement to one and a penalty to the other. There’s definitely no reconciliation here. Would Jesus have taught this? Again, I wonder.
But there’s another big problem with this statement. There is no “church.” It didn’t exist when Jesus was teaching. It was the post resurrection communities that began to call themselves “the church.” We read Saint Paul’s letters to the church in Corinthor the church in Rome. The word Paul chose to describe the various communities of Christians was “ecclesia,” a Greek word meaning convocation or political assembly. No such Christian structure existed at the time of Jesus. In fact Christians didn’t exist yet. The disciples of Jesus were Jews who followed the teachings of the rabbi/healer/miracle worker, Jesus. They didn’t join his “church.” My conclusion is that Jesus would not have said this.
The passage moves into even more problematic territory. “If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.” I can’t imagine this statement coming out of the mouth of Jesus. He healed the daughter of the Canaanite woman, and the salve of the Roman centurion. He invited himself to the house of Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector in Jericho. The Scribes and Pharisees attacked Jesus for eating in the homes of tax collectors. Jesus even invited the tax collector Matthew into his inner circle of disciples. I don’t wonder about this statement. Jesus didn’t say it. The passage immediately following this one reports that Peter asked Jesus, “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus’ answer is quick and very clear. “I say to you not seven times but seventy-seven times.” There’s no treating someone like a Gentile or tax collector. No one is ostracized here! Jesus is teaching that on our side, the Christian side, no one can ever stop trying to reconcile. Forgiveness has to be my middle name. One of the last things Jesus ever said was, “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing. (Luke
The passage continues with what seems to reflect an authentic image of Jesus and what he might teach. “Amen, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” This is so true of relationships. A broken and unsettled relationship will follow us to the grave as will a reconciled and healed relationship. One will continue to torment us. The other will be part of our joy.
Finally, Jesus reinforces his teaching on reconciliation. “Amen, I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything for which they are to pray, it shall be granted to them by my heavenly Father. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” When we struggle to reconcile with a brother and bring it to prayer, God will heal the relationship because Jesus has entered the process acting as a mediator.
Now where do we go with all this information? We have portions of a passage in Matthew’s Gospel that doesn’t correctly reflect the person of Jesus and his teachings. There are elements of the passage that I feel comfortable ascribing to Jesus. But I’m sure that Jesus wouldn’t have taught everything that this passage contains. They are either later additions to the Gospel, or the church at the time of the Gospel’s writing already had a process in place to deal with dissonance within the community. Either way, the ecclesia, the church, was already, so shortly after Jesus life, straying from his teachings by introducing a legal approach to deal with problems within the community. This approach is exactly what Jesus fought against during his life.
Where can we go with this information? We need to turn to Jesus for a resolution. He gave Peter answer to the problem of reconciliation. “He turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.’ (Matthew 16:23)” We can’t think as the world thinks. We have to think in a new way if we’re going to be able to reconcile with our brother.
The passage we’re reading shows us the path to the new way. It contains Jesus’ spirituality of forgiveness. “If two of you agree on earth about anything for which they are to pray, it shall be granted them by my heavenly Father. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in their midst. (Matthew 18:19-20)” If all parties pray for reconciliation Jesus is promising that he’ll be there to heal the dissonance, and bring harmony back into our relationship.
This is the Christian way. The legal way is the way of the world. Is there any wonder why there are so many antagonistic relationships in the world? Brother struggling with brother. Country struggling with country. Forgiveness is the divine energy that heals relationships. Take a good look at our world. Look at the pain and suffering caused by disharmony. Look at the pain that exists between friends and within families. The communal pain caused when one nation can’t reconcile with another. We can’t live without forgiveness. Authentic forgiveness comes only when we invite God into the hurt we are experiencing. Only then can Jesus can bring healing and resolution to me and you, and our world.