December 3, 2012
Dear brothers and sisters,
I’m back from an out-of-town business trip last week. I’m taking the good news today from Matthew 18:15-17.
“If your brother sins [against you], go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have won over your brother. 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.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church. If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.”
The word for “church” here is used only twice in the entire gospels. The New American Bible notes that in the first instance in Matthew 16 it is used to mean the community that Jesus will gather. Here it refers to the local community of believers. This became the basis for excommunication first demanded by Paul in his first letter to the Corinthian community.
The New Jerome Bible Commentary states that the reference to confronting a fellow believer is to Leviticus 19:17-18, “You shall not bear hatred for your brother in your heart. Though you may have to reprove your fellow man, do not incur sin because of him. Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against your fellow countrymen. You shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am the LORD.” The reference to two or three witnesses comes from Deuteronomy 19:15, “One witness alone shall not take the stand against a man in regard to any crime or any offense of which he may be guilty; a judicial fact shall be established only on the testimony of two or three witnesses.”
I have trouble with this teaching. So, I was gratified to read that Barclay considers it one of the most difficult passages in Matthew to understand. “Its difficulty lies in the undoubted fact that it does not ring true; it does not sound like Jesus; it sounds more like the regulations of an ecclesiastical committee.” That’s exactly why this troubles me. The church as such did not exist when Jesus would have spoken this and he implies the rejection of Gentiles and tax collectors, which is contrary to the sentiments he expressed in many other statements.
But Barclay believes that there must be something in here based on what Jesus really did say. This passage in his mind in about the reconciliation of broken relationships. That makes sense to me because Jesus was all about relationships. So, Jesus tells us to talk to one another when we feel we have been wronged or slighted. Don’t brood over it; don’t hold a grudge. Talk to one another and mend the rift. If necessary, take someone with you who can act as a mediator, not an accuser or judge. As far as the Gentiles and tax collectors, Barclay thinks that Jesus is telling us to treat them with sympathy, love, and forgiveness in the hope that they can be won over.
In these days particularly of e-mails, texts, and even memos, it is easy to depersonalize our communications. That often leads to more trouble. I shrink from confrontation and sometimes find it easier to put my grievances in written form. Jesus is telling me that that’s not the best way to deal with others. It often just escalates the differences or drives a deeper wedge between us. For me, it takes courage to confront another person. I feel like I’m putting myself in a weak position to tell another that he or she has hurt or wronged me in some way. It makes me feel vulnerable and open to greater injury. So, I usually keep the walls up and maybe build them even higher and thicker. Jesus knows me as he knows all of our human nature. He knows that the path to reconciliation is vulnerability. It’s only when we open our hearts to one another that we can see God in one another, that we can accept and forgive our human missteps, that we can begin to trust and love one another again.
So, while this passage may be legalistic in a way that doesn’t reflect Jesus as we know him in the rest of the gospels, the basic message is true to his words. Reach out to one another even when we have been wronged or injured; don’t give up on the relationship; talk to one another; become vulnerable to one another; love one another. That’s what he wants me to bear in mind when my natural impulse is just the opposite. I can be pretty stubborn, but he doesn’t give up on me. He just keeps talking to me, trying to persuade me to do my part to bring about the kingdom of God. If I won’t, there is no hope that I will enter in.