Matthew 18:15-20 | We’re in this thing together

a reflection by Dan Spragg

I must admit to ‘sighing’ a little when I saw that this was the gospel reading for today! It falls into the category of ‘one of those’ passages, those ones that we would rather not have to deal with. I think I’ve put it into this category for two reasons. Firstly because I really do get tired of seeing bible passages portrayed as ‘how to’ guides – it gets a bit tiresome how some of these are taken and applied literally as if there was no time gap between then and now. Secondly, this passage makes me sigh a little because it has been used destructively by some. It has been used as an excuse to say that excommunication, of kicking someone out of the church was a valid thing to do. It has been used as a justification for severing ties with people and booting them out of the community. And I just feel uncomfortable about that. 

So, in order to get over my resistance to engaging with the passage, in trying to go beyond a simple ‘how-to’ I asked myself what are they trying to achieve here? Why have they written this down? What is Matthew trying to say? It is quite clearly talking about conflict within the church community. Which we all know does happen, yes, even in our church community conflict happens! Now in my limited experience and knowledge of conflict resolution processes, this passage is probably not holding up what we would call an exemplar of conflict resolution. There are much better and more robust tools and processes available to us these days. But, it does highlight at least an attempt from this early Christian community to address what is a fairly common trait of our human nature. As I said there is a time gap between this passage and us here and now but there are certain things that do span that gap as universal to all humans in every time. Our response when we feel aggrieved or offended is one of them! It seems to be quite a normal response when we are offended or have been hurt by someone else, and I would say with the rise of social media it seems to be more and more prevalent that we go on a bit of a rant and share with anyone who will listen about what a jerk that person is! We like to complain out loud or perhaps get the rumour mill going in an effort to feel better about ourselves. I think this passage is evidence of a community trying at least to address this aspect of human nature; our tendency to not cope with being on the receiving end of conflict very well. 

Matthew is writing here to a small group of Christians early in Christianity’s story. They are living in quite a hostile environment – hostile because the Roman empire is a big thing and they don’t really like the Christians being around, and hostile because the Jewish establishment, as we see in the book of Acts, is struggling to come to grips with what this new movement means for them and their sense of identity and control. This small community is trying to survive in a hostile environment and while doing that they are trying to capture the sense in which the church is a community that is brought together by something bigger than simply being interested in similar things. The often-quoted last verse of this passage – where two or three are gathered – tells us that they understood themselves as a community that contained the presence of the risen Christ. They were bound together by something bigger than themselves. We understand this. We understand that church is a community of Jesus followers, brought together by the spirit of Christ, held together in the promise, the covenant of God’s grace. This is also why they and indeed we want to hold up reconciliation as a good intention to have. There is a sense here that because this is a church community there is the imperative to do the work when the inevitable conflict does arise. To be committed to living together, to be committed to reconciliation is to believe, by our actions, that we know God to be present in holding us as one. So, our attempts to reconcile to one another are good because it addresses something that is not entirely natural for us to do. And our attempts to reconcile to one another are good because in that very act, in the very process of reaching towards the other person, Christ is present, it is if you like an act of Christ – God after all always moves towards us to bring us into life with God and so it seems good that we might do this with one another. 

There is one little phrase in the middle of this passage that is worth noting in particular and I do think that this is where things have gone wrong for so many when attempting to implement this process literally. It says, as a kind of last resort, “treat them as you would a Gentile and tax collector” and when this is read through the lens of either the Jewish lawmakers of the time or through a punitive understanding of justice, it paints a particular picture. The Gentiles at the time were considered outsiders by the Jews and tax collectors, well they worked for the Romans, the enemy. So if we read that phrase along these lines we can see how excommunication, kicking people out of the community, turning our backs on them might be what it says to do. If the particular individual seems a bit stubborn or won’t acknowledge the error of their ways then, of course, they deserve to be kicked out. But, I wonder if we can remember how Jesus treated Gentiles and tax collectors? If we are a community of people who are trying to follow Jesus then surely it is a good thing for us to do to consider what Jesus might do in this situation. What did Jesus do with Gentiles and tax collectors? If I recall correctly Jesus tended to go to parties with tax collectors and spend time ministering to and teaching with Gentiles. It seems as if he was always inviting them to be part of his group, to be part of what God was up to. For the Gentiles and Jesus, there was a growing sense over the course of his ministry that this mission of God in the world was in no way to be restricted to the Jewish people, they were always chosen to be a light, to bear witness so that the love and grace of God could be known by all people. Gentiles were to be reached out to. Tax collectors were to be made friends with. Of course, it is also good for us to remember the story from Matthew 9 where the author Matthew himself a tax collector was invited by Jesus to come and follow him. So, how should we treat people as if they are Gentiles and tax collectors?

Conflict is in no doubt a hard thing to be a part of – especially if you are on the receiving end of hurtful things. Resolving conflict when you are hurt is not an easy road to travel on. There are many situations in which actually we might say that reconciliation is just about impossible or perhaps in the interests of safety it should not be attempted. Conflict is so often a complex problem. For example, a conflict that involves someone exploiting unfair power over someone else, a conflict that is to do with any kind of abuse where someone’s vulnerability has been taken advantage of, these are situations that need to be attended to with care and wisdom. Reconciliation might be an almost impossible thing in some cases. But, ‘treat them as if they were a Gentile and tax collector’ I wonder if this is saying that in the mission of God’s love and grace things are never finished. That even if reconciliation or attempts towards it are not successful or achievable by our efforts, or if we are unable to reach that point, or if it is unsafe to do so, that God would still want to reach out towards them and that grace still has a place for them to come home. We as a community of Jesus followers who know that Christ is present with us are to know this to be true even if it seems beyond us. 

We have had a confronting example of this in our midst within the last few weeks. The man who perpetrated the horrific Mosque attacks in our city was sentenced to life without parole. If I am honest I do believe that this was the only sentence that the judge could give him. It was a horrific and evil act. Life without parole is probably the best response our current justice system has to offer. But if I’m equally as honest I do hold hope that someday, somehow, this man has an encounter with the Spirit of God whose love and grace make him see the evil that this act was and at the same time purge this evil from his heart and mind reconciling him, in the process, back into Goodness. Whether or not it will happen, I don’t know! But as a follower of Jesus, I can have hope that it will because I don’t believe it is our decision to completely right anyone off, for I know that God doesn’t. …Treat them as a Gentile and tax collector. 

Working for reconciliation and the restoration of relationships is how we are to be as the church. It is to be our default way of living with one another. Christ is present as we do this. We are the community of Christ living out and making real what the essence of Christ’s love and grace means. Whether the grievance is small or large our intention is always to bring ourselves back together. As Paul says in Romans 13, we are ‘obligated to love’ which will be difficult and hard and messy at times but it is what is right and indeed what is to be our point of difference in the world. Do you remember the golden rule? ‘Treat others how you want to be treated.’ In regards to our tendencies to not behave so well in the face of conflict – especially on social media, I heard it recently re-written – ‘tweet others how you would like to be tweeted.’ Whether you’re tweeting on Twitter, posting on Facebook, or having a cup of tea with a friend it seems like quite good advice! As followers of Jesus, we follow a better way, the way towards sorting out our issues and living well together, the way of reconciliation, The way of hope in the Goodness of God, that is much more than our abilities or capacities… We follow the way of Grace.