Matthew 18:15-20 CEB
“If your brother or sister sins against you, go and correct them when you are alone together. If they listen to you, then you’ve won over your brother or sister. But if they won’t listen, take with you one or two others so that every word may be established by the mouth of two or three witnesses. But if they still won’t pay attention, report it to the church. If they won’t pay attention even to the church, treat them as you would a Gentile and tax collector. I assure you that whatever you fasten on earth will be fastened in heaven. And whatever you loosen on earth will be loosened in heaven. Again I assure you that if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, then my Father who is in heaven will do it for you. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I’m there with them.”
Full transparency: This scripture saddens me, and this is why. I use the Revised Common Lectionary to work through the bible. Mainly, starting with scripture and what it means, keeps God the center of my study. I'm not taking what I want to say and finding the scripture that fits it. Because the Revised Common Lectionary comes up every three years, I see three years as a milestone. Three years ago, I was very pregnant. I had used my days off for about six months to meditate and write sermons leading up to and after the baby was due. The church I was working for was not offering maternity and I didn't feel it was my place to ask for it. Having two months of sermons pre-written was preparing for having a baby with no maternity. Little did I know, the Elders were also preparing to ask for my resignation two weeks after my daughter was born. The worst part of it all was this scripture. I gave this sermon just two months before it all went down. To this day I feel this sermon was God inspired, meant for the congregation already determined to act. Too many people were hurt because the outcome was never approached in a Christian manner. In fact, as a side note, in the end the two months of sermons were used against me as my lack of acting extemporaneously. Please read this meditation with all this in mind. When Christian Community fails, it can fail tremendously.
If you think you have discovered an easy way in Christianity than you better re-chart your course because you are headed in the wrong direction. Yes, the Christian path is rewarding, and yes it is fulfilling, but it is most definitely not easy. Many times I think it is like walking a tight rope. On one side you have to worry about your own care and wellbeing while one the other side you need to concern yourself with the care and wellbeing of others. On one side you have your sights set heavenward and your focus on God while on the other you have a mortgage, a full time job, kids to take to baseball practice, a checkbook to keep balanced… you fill in the blank. And no, you can’t choose one over the other. That would be easy.
So of course today’s scripture will not be an easy one to embrace. It answers the question we most want to avoid- what do we do when those close to us cause pain and suffering upon ourselves? What does Jesus want us to do? Let me start from another direction: this is what we shouldn’t do.
First of all, we shouldn't fight. There is no battle that is going to make the situation any better. I dare you to name a biblical fight that ended well in the long run. Even if the “good guys” win, animosity and anger still exists between both parties. That can be the cost of someone "winning." Fighting also inevitably causes more damage to reach a conclusion. In fights feelings are hurt, long held ties are broken and bridges are burned.
We also shouldn't ignore. I have never seen an issue in the bible Jesus ignored or ran away from. It was the Pharisees and Sadducees who ignored. They ignored those who were not like them, those who could not keep up with the hefty temple tax, and those who were considered sinners. Not Jesus. Jesus never ignored anyone, even the Pharisees and Sadducees. He talked and taught to anyone who would have an ear to listen. He ate with anyone who had a table to share. No, ignorance is not bliss. Ignoring, whether intentional or not, is like an ostrich sticking its head in the dirt. You are not hiding anything, only allowing the problem to persist.
Let’s add choosing sides to the list. I said this before and I will say it again. Jesus did not come to draw lines in the sand but to obliterate lines made by others. Once we get into an ‘us versus them’ mentality we have already lost the battle before we ever engaged in the war. Even today, we throw stones to solve our problems. True, unless it is an extreme case, those stones are more verbal than physical. When we talk about others behind their back or engage in bullying on an adolescent or adult level, well, we are throwing stones. Those stones create barriers and cut us off from healing and reconciliation. Jesus was a radical in many respects. Jesus did not throw stones. Instead he erased the barrier by saying, “Let those who is without sin cast the first stone.”
Oh, and there is one more I can easily add. We shouldn’t act out in a passive aggressive way. Want to know just how serious passive aggressive behavior is? Judas acted passive aggressively. I truly believe he betrayed Jesus for a few coins not because he was selfish but because he was trying to force Jesus’ hand. He acted behind Jesus’ back to make him rise up and rule with an iron fist. As all passive aggressive behavior does, it backfired terribly for Judas. I am most concerned by this kind of behavior because this behavior has the biggest chance to destroy a congregation from the inside out. As Christians we know we shouldn't fight, ignore or choose sides, but goodness, sometimes we get angry. Angry and fearful. It is that fear and anger that pushes us to share our problems in unhealthy ways. We end up getting third parties involved in our disagreements instead of dealing with the issue head on. We turn individual disagreements into group disputes. Passive aggression can destroy someone before they even have a fair chance.
In many ways all the examples I just mentioned are the easy way out. They all kind of stem from the same feeling,"They hurt me now I am going to hurt them." It purposefully chooses to cut people off. None of the examples deals with the problem. Well, let me tell you something, Jesus knew we would be inclined to turn to these kinds of negative solutions. That is why this scripture exists.
From the time the forbidden fruit was taken from the tree, God knew we needed rules and fences to protect us… from ourselves. Come earth wind or fire nothing can cause more damage to the delicate equilibrium of humanity than humanity. Any time God asks us to put down our weapons and work together it always goes well at first, but eventually something goes wrong. It’s human nature. What are we to do?
When we have a disagreement with someone the first thing one should do is stop. Take a deep breath. Impulsiveness usually leads to negative outcomes. When we could fight, ignore, choose sides or act passive aggressively Jesus asks us to first talk to the offender privately. Now for those of you who think this is an easy first option you have something I do not. Jesus also asks us to do all things in humility which means talking to the offender with an open and honest heart. When a person is wounded the last thing they want to do is openly talk to the person they believed wounded them. I am sure some of you are thinking, “Why do I have to talk to them first? Why are they not coming up to me and apologizing?” I have two answers for you and both of them are not easy to take in. First, we give a lot of credit to others. We often assume they know exactly what they are doing 100% of the time. The truth is we do many things in life we have no clue we have done. Some actions take months, even years, to come to fruition. Someone may have done something wrong against you but they may not even know it. How is someone going to say sorry if they don’t even know they are supposed to say sorry? Exactly. Second, and this one is more difficult to accept, if you talk to your offender you may find they were in the right. That is where humility comes in. Very very rarely is one side of an argument completely in the right. Talking to someone privately just doesn’t save their face, it may just save yours too. The privacy avoids embarrassment from both sides. Usually the first step is the only one you ever have to take.
However, if this person has chosen not to listen after this gallant first step, it is time for an intervention. Once again this is not an easy step. Humanity does not deal well with rejection and to be rejected once and possibly rejected again, can seem daunting and uncomfortable. You might think these steps exist because you just got to keep giving people chances to repent. I don’t think so. I think these steps are in place to protect the accused. The next step seeks a few more people to enter the dialogue. Those extra people become peer mediators. They are not there to pick a side. These two or three are there to listen to every word, not just the words of the accuser. (That is part of the reason passive aggression is so dangerous because usually only one side of an argument is heard.) If you have to take a disagreement to the second step you have to be willing to accept you could be wrong. If you don’t go through this step with such a mindset you are simply looking for a witch hunt.
If this step does not bring reconciliation then you take it to the entire congregation. Once again this is to protect the accused. Why? It is really easy to make those two or three people your buddies or friends who would find it difficult to have an impartial view. Without these steps it would be easy and alluring to work the system. Some of you might wonder why we would need all these steps. The person who feels slighted appears to need some vindication. That is an easy answer. Ah, an easy answer, that’s why it’s not the Christian answer. Jesus didn’t want easy answers that would eventually tear congregations apart; he wanted difficult choices which would bring a congregation together. Whether you like it or not, the person who has done you wrong is still loved and cared for by God. God wants that person to be included in the Body of Christ just as much as God wants you to be included.
Now the last and most difficult step: There are many who believe this scripture invoke rules on how to excommunicate someone from the church. They believe it is a way to give it a good ole’ try but unfortunately it just didn't work out so they have to part ways. (You know, putting excommunication in a good light. There have been some pretty nasty excommunications in Christian history.) But, Jesus didn't give us permission to cut them off from the family. No, he told us to treat them like Gentiles and tax collectors. So how did Jesus treat tax collectors and Gentiles? Just using the Gospel of Matthew I can answer that question. In 11:19 it was written, Jesus was friends to the tax collectors and sinners. In 8:10 he praised the faith of the Centurion servant who was a Gentile. In 9:10 he ate with tax collectors and sinners. Oh, and let’s not forget our scripture a few weeks back about the Gentile woman who wanted her daughter healed. Her faith healed her daughter. That doesn't sound like excommunication to me. That sounds to me like the most difficult road to take. When someone has done something wrong against you, try your hardest to work it out by taking multiple avenues of reconciliation. If those avenues fail, be with them and love them and guide them. Help them back into the inner circle.
I don't know about you but that sounds like something that is going to take longer than a week to work through. But please, think it out. This whole scripture sets up next week’s question: How often should we forgive? In the shadow of September 11th, it forces us to answer some really tough and difficult questions. But, do not fear. As long as our minds and hearts remain centered on Christ where two or three are gathered Christ will be there with us.
If you feel your situation is abusive, and not just a disagreement, please feel free to email me, or contact me through PM in Reddit or Facebook. If I cannot help you, I can point you in the right direction.