The Holy Gospel according to Matthew.
Glory to you, O Lord.
[Jesus said to the disciples:] “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. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, 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. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
The Gospel of the Lord.
Praise to you, O Christ.
Now let the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to you O Lord, our strength and Redeemer.
You don’t have to go to church long before you experience problems, sin, in the church. This should not surprise us because the people in the world are the ones who gather in our churches. When we walk through the doors of a church we don’t instantly become sin-less people, we carry the same worries and concerns; joys and happiness that we do outside these doors. Hopefully we leave church in a better frame of mind than when we arrived, but that’s a hope and not a guarantee.
The context in which Matthew places this story is about church leaders’ care for every member of the church.
But notice a very strange thing! Jesus is telling the disciples that within the church—even within the very early church—sin was and is still a thing. The church is not a community of the redeemed who no longer sin or who are no longer in the grip of sin. But, the church is a community that must strive not to let sin separate us from one another.
Sin is a thing in the church. It’s a thing for pastors. It’s a thing for church musicians. It’s a thing for youth directors and volunteers. It’s a thing for the entire body of Christ—male and female, old and young, rich and poor. And Jesus knows this. So what are supposed to do about sin?
Other than acknowledging the reality of sin, we should start by doing everything we can to retain a sinning brother or sister. The thing that Jesus values here is one brother or sister’s relationship with another brother or sister.
I mentioned that this is nothing new. In the book of Ezekiel we hear firsthand the repercussions when we withhold forgiveness and let anger fester. Today’s reading from Ezekiel begins in the middle of a passage in which God has condemned those who stray from God. It is easy to let arguments consume and divide us but harder to rise above them, to acknowledge when we fall short. That’s when God uses a firm hand in Ezekiel to correct us.
Tough love is what we see in this prophetic text. It is challenging to some and jarring to others because it shows God using a heavy hand to rebuke and discipline us.
To understand the fullness of what God is saying, we must understand that God is speaking to Ezekiel, who was appointed prophet to the exiles yet is failing his people. He is not upholding his duties and proclaiming the word, nor is he teaching his people the totality of God’s will, so God reprimands him.
When we stray and choose to go against God, God offers repentance and love. In the readings we find the comparison of failed leadership in Ezekiel alongside the love and hope announced by Paul in the letter to the Romans. Paul could have easily used guilt, shame and fear to get his point across, but he chooses to address the community with hope. Paul highlights love and law as the main principles of being in a Christian community. When we lead by love, we fulfill the law and act in accordance with Scripture. When we learn how to love, our anger subsides, the walls of division dissipate and we see as Christ does in the Gospel reading from Matthew.
In the gospel reading Jesus offers to mend our broken relationships. He understands that splintered relationships are inevitable, part of our broken humanity. He looks at his own disciples and how they too share this struggle. Jesus normalizes it and then offers ways to resolve conflict. Anger, malice and disagreement should not be stewed upon but instead confronted privately with the one who has angered you. Jesus urges us to go to one another, seek resolution and, if that is not feasible, ask someone else to assist in this, because sometimes we can’t do it by ourselves.
Again, we live in a world that is broken, fractured and divided, yet in living in such a space, we are called to embrace the harsh world and to care for one another. Love prevails and Christ lives in us. Christ looks at every one of us, calls us by name and loves us when we can’t love ourselves or one another.
Christ lays out a blueprint for the church, a church that is accessible to all, built on unyielding and immovable love.
This week’s lectionary readings make me more nervous than most. In many of my circles, Christians have a reputation for being judgmental and for condemning others. In my experience, we tend to be especially rough with other Christians who don’t think, believe, worship or vote in the same way we do.
The goal of the body of Christ isn’t uniformity—it’s unity in performing lovingkindness and justice, with grace and humility. Part of that movement toward living as redeemed people, simultaneously sinners and saints, is correcting siblings in Christ when we all, inevitably, go the wrong way. The readings appointed for this week first explain why we would want to help each other and then describe best practices for pursuing that correction.
How can anyone choose the right thing all the time? In the prophet’s words, the people express despair. But then God gives a beautiful self-revelation of internal emotions. Contrary to the teaching of some Christian groups, God doesn’t take pleasure in the destruction of the wicked. God loves humans and wants to save everyone. God takes pleasure when people turn and choose a loving, holy path (33:11). God doesn’t give up on folks but continually desires that we would embrace God’s grace and live accordingly.
Jesus told his disciples how to embrace grace and live accordingly by offering a path toward repentance. We need the body of Christ (our siblings in Christ) and the Spirit to correct us and help us grow in maturity.
Not confronting people when they sin is not loving or gracious but an avoidance of loving responsibility. Yet we must always be grounded in the loving character of God, who never wishes to condemn but takes great pains to reconcile and save. As we say in AA, the first step is admitting a problem. God, in God’s grace, stands ever ready to redeem us when we admit that we need to turn back.
It is interesting to note that Matthew 18:15-17 is the only bit of Scripture cited explicitly in the Model Constitution for Congregations of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. It is in Chapter 15, THE DISCIPLINE OF MEMBERS. The wording of the constitution is important here. It says, “Prior to disciplinary action, reconciliation will be attempted following Matthew 18.” Did you hear that? “Prior to disciplinary action, reconciliation will be attempted.” This text is not about “How to throw someone out so the church will be pure.” It is about “How to love somebody back in so that they might be saved.”
Conflict is part of our humanity, causing ripples of separation and division. We live in a world of fractured communities and broken bonds. We find fault and fail to forgive. But this is nothing new because this type of sin has always been with us.
These verses are from a forgiveness and reconciliation teaching section of Matthew’s gospel. This episode occurs between two other important sayings of Jesus about forgiveness and the reclaiming of the lost. It comes after the shepherd leaving the 99 to go search for the one lost sheep (18:12-14), and before Jesus telling Peter that we should forgive sinners not seven times but seventy times seven (18:21-22). Within the text itself, in verse 15, Jesus says, “If the member listens to you, you have regained that one;” indicating that the whole point of these efforts is to bring people back into the family of faith.
Other translations saying, “If your brother or sister listens to you, you have regained that one.” So I believe this just isn’t a recommendation about church relationships, but outside relationships. We should seek reconciliation in our relationships in the communities we are a part of because they are all important to God.
The most important point is the one most misunderstood, verse 17, “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 is usually taken to mean that we should exclude, ignore, shun, excommunicate, avoid—but let me ask you an important question. “How did Jesus himself treat gentiles and tax collectors?”
Matthew, who wrote this gospel was a tax collector. (10:3)
And there is Zacchaeus, the “wee little man” in a sycamore tree, he was the chief tax collector. (Luke 19:2)
The Pharisees were always fussing about Jesus eating and drinking and socializing with “Tax collectors and sinners.”
Then there are the Gentiles.
There’s the Samaritan woman at the well.
The Canaanite woman whose daughter had a demon.
The Roman Centurion who sought to have his daughter healed, whom Jesus said had more faith than anyone in Israel.
None of this sounds like shunning, avoiding, and excommunicating to me.
Jesus had a reason for telling us that we should treat sinners like gentiles and tax collectors, but it isn’t the reason we have traditionally assumed. We thought it meant that we should wash our hands of them; have nothing more to do with them. And, because middle-class Americans just don’t act like that, we have ignored the whole thing.
We have not attempted reconciliation under biblical standards because it is too messy, too confrontational, and much too emotional. We simply do not want to get to the end of the process and end up having to kick somebody out.
But kicking them out is not the point.
What Jesus really meant was that we should treat people with whom it is hard to reconcile as people in need of serious love.
This text is about learning to love people, even when they don’t particularly want to be loved.
It is about reaching out to people, even as they push us away.
It is about loving others enough to talk to them about their behavior and to offer them help in changing it.
And it is about refusing to give up on anybody, anybody at all. It is about the willingness to go that extra mile to find a lost sheep.
It is about a willingness to forgive. . . and forgive. . . and forgive, until the sinner is redeemed.
Simply put, it is about treating each other the way Jesus treated gentiles and tax collectors, as people to be loved, forgiven, and restored to the Kingdom of God.