A Stubborn Christian
Matthew 18: 15-20
In many ways this is one of the most difficult passages of Scripture to understand. The difficulty lies in the fact that these verses just don’t ring true. These verses do not sound like something which Jesus would have said. It sounds more like the rules and regulations of a church committee. We can go even further and say that these cannot be the words of Jesus in their present form. First of all, they are way to legalistic for Jesus; they sound more like the words of a Jewish Rabbi or a pharisee or scribe. Secondly, Jesus could not have told his disciples to take these things to the church, for the church at the time did not exist and the tone of these words implies a fully developed and organized church.
We can also point out that the passage speaks of Gentiles and tax collectors as people who are irreclaimable outsiders, yet Jesus was known for being the friend of tax collectors and sinners. Jesus never said that tax collectors or sinners were beyond reconciliation. Jesus always spoke of them with love and compassion. In fact, in both the gospels of Luke and Matthew Jesus states that tax collectors and harlots will go into the Kingdom before the orthodox religious people of the time. Finally, the whole tone of the passage gives you the impression that there is a limit to forgiveness and there comes a time when we just abandon people as beyond all hope.
We know that this is something which Jesus did not say, but it has to be based upon something which Jesus did say. I would suggest that at its widest it is as if Jesus was saying, “If anyone sins against you, spare no effort to make that person admit their fault, and to get things right again between you and them.” William Barkley writes in his commentary on Matthew, “So basically this passage means that we must never tolerate any situation in which there is a breach of personal relationships between us and another member of the Christian community.” So, what are we supposed to do to put things right? This passage spells out several suggestions for mending relationships within the Christian community.
First, if we feel someone has wronged us, we should put our feelings into words. The worst thing we can do is brood about. It can poison our mind and life until we can think of nothing else but the manner in which we were wronged. These feelings should be brought into the open and faced head on. Often in putting things into words and facing the situation we will find that it is not as important or hurtful as we first thought.
Secondly, if we feel someone has wronged us, we should go see them personally. More trouble has been caused by people writing letters, texts, or e-mails than anything else. These written passages can be misread or misunderstood and can convey a feeling or attitude that just wasn’t intended. If we have a disagreement with anyone the only way to settle it is face to face.
If a private and personal meeting fails then we should take a wise person or persons with us. The taking of a wise person or persons with you is not intended to prove the other person wrong, but it is intended to help in the process of reconciliation. We may find that it is not the other person who is wrong, but in fact it is us who is wrong. There may be a whole atmosphere of indignation or even hate that a person or person who is wise and kindly and gracious can change so that there is at least a change to make amends.
If that still fails, we are to take our troubles to the Christian fellowship, if in fact we have a true Christian fellowship. It is in an atmosphere of Christian prayer, Christian love, and Christian fellowship that personal relationships have a chance to be righted.
Now we come to part of the passage that is difficult to understand. Matthew says that if none of these things are successful, then we are to treat the person as if they were a gentile or a tax collector. In response to that sentence, one would have to say that we are being told to give up on that person as hopeless and that is precisely what Jesus could not have meant. Jesus would never have set limits on forgiveness. What then did he mean? Jesus always spoke of the gentile and the tax collectors with sympathy and gentleness and would point out their good qualities. All we have to do is to look to Matthew and Zacchaeus who became close personal friends. So, what did he mean? He meant that he had never met a sinner, a tax collector, or a gentile that was hopeless. Even they have a heart that can be touched and won over for God. So then what we are looking at is a challenge to each of us to win the sinner over with the Christian love that can win over any heart. Jesus never found a person to be hopeless, and neither should we.
Finally, there is the part about loosing and binding. It cannot mean that the church can remit or forgive sins and thus establish a person’s destiny. What it must mean is that the relationships we establish with each other will last not only in this age, but in the age to come, therefore we better get it right!
Grace and Peace,