"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." -- Our reading from Matthew deals with a subject which many of us would prefer to avoid. I suppose, on the one hand, it is human nature to want to avoid conflict. Many of us, when confronted with a conflict, choose either to avoid it as much as possible or to "punch back" way too forcefully. We seem not to be good at handling conflict. Of course, on the other hand, the spirit of the age, that "there is no such thing as truth with a capital t" or that "everything is relative" attitude, makes it even harder to determine an offense. What might seem perfectly fine to you may offend me greatly; and that which offends you mightily may seem perfectly fine to me. Who is to say which perspective is correct in this age?
Adding to the complication this week, seemingly, is the fact that both parties are member of the church. People often join churches because they expect church to be the one place where they can get away from conflicts. Families, offices, schools, and the rest of the world has plenty of opportunity for conflict. Church ought to be that place where we find solace from those behaviors. After all, do not church members love the Prince of Peace? Do not all church members try to love God with all their heart, with all their soul, and with all their mind?
Yet, here is Jesus instructing His disciples and us how to handle conflict in the church. This is not conflict between a pagan and a Christian; this is not conflict between a non-disciple and disciple of Christ. No, Jesus is telling His disciples and us quite clearly that there will be conflict in the church. Why? Mostly it is because we have one foot in His kingdom and one foot in this world. As St. Paul would say, we sometimes make too many provisions for the flesh for there not to be conflict. As a pastor, I am often amazed at how one sentence in a Bible study or sermon can feed a listener like a heavenly feast and how that same sentence absolutely starve and drive away another listener. The words are the same. They are heard simultaneously. How can there be such a difference in response?
Still, Jesus predicts that there will be conflict. And rather than leaving us wallowing in our conflicts, Jesus tells us how we should handle them. First, we should talk privately. If both parties are followers of Jesus, such a discussion should cause no dread, no fear. If both have the same Lord, each should be willing to listen to the other so as not to become a stumbling block to anyone.
But, in those cases where the two cannot reconcile themselves, Jesus commands the offended party to go to others in the church. Usually, we interpret this to be leaders, particularly spiritual leaders. This is done for a couple obvious reasons. One, the leaders can tell the offended whether he or she should be offended. They can provide a perspective and a loving ear. Sometimes, their advice may be for the offended to let it go. At other times, they may agree that such an offense needs an intervention. The leaders are called to go with the offended party to hear both sides of the dispute, to serve as mediators, and to serve as witnesses.
Finally, if the offender refuses to listen even to the leaders, the offense is to be taken to the whole church. The body of Christ then goes to the offender and tells the offender what needs to be done in order to restore the relationship. Amazingly, as we might not want to believe, some offenders will not listen even to the church. They will ignore the council of everyone in the church and continue to ignore the need for repentance. Jesus instructs us that we should let such a one be to us as a Gentile or a tax collector.
Naturally, when an offender is a leader in the church, they are removed from office, be they lay or clergy. To us this only makes sense. But should we treat them as a Gentile and a tax collector? As I remarked this weekend, a couple commentators were convinced that Jesus never uttered those words. "Matthew," they argued, "penned those instructions to deal with recalcitrants in a new and struggling church." "Jesus," these same commentators continued, "would never exclude anyone." Leaving aside for a moment Jesus' numerous teachings on the last judgment, where He and His angels separate the sheep and the goats and the wheat and the tares, consider the author of this narrative. What was Matthew's job prior to His call from our Lord? He was a tax collector. As much as we hate the IRS today, tax collectors were despised even more in Jesus' day. They were Benedict Arnold's and thieves all rolled into one. Think of a tax collector as a modern Johnny Taliban who could use the armed forces to take your money from you to support his lavish lifestyle. And, oh, by the way, if you did not pay, you could be sold into slavery to pay your debts. Appeal? What appeal? Tax collectors had a writ from Caesar. Nice guys these tax collectors. They were utterly hated by the people of Israel.
Yet Jesus' command to treat unrepentant offenders as tax collectors and Gentiles ought to give us pause. What was He thinking? And why would a former tax collector ever tell his brothers and sisters to treat unrepentant sinners like his former fraternity of thieves? Why remind people who you were if it was not Jesus' instruction? And what would Jesus mean by such a statement?
Sometimes, I think scholars often miss the trees for the forests. When the scholars read of Jesus excluding anyone, they immediately reject such statements out of hand because of their preconceived notions of how they think Jesus thought and acted. Yet, those very notions keep them from seeing how Jesus acted. What does Jesus do to tax collectors and Gentiles? Does He avoid them like the plague, as the Pharisees and Sadducees demand? Does He treat them as unclean, as the temple elites and priests do? Does Jesus mean by this instruction that we are to ostracize an unrepentant member? Of course not! Jesus hung out with the tax collectors and Gentiles. Jesus partied and feasted with the very people whom He seemingly rejects in our statement from this week. Why? Jesus' goal was to incarnate God's love to a broken and battered humanity. Jesus brought people to God by loving them into the kingdom. Jesus, more than any human being who ever lived, understood the pain and isolation that we can heap on ourselves because of our sins. And Jesus, as fully God, also understood the love which God feels for us. Though He could have justifiably left us to wallow in our sin and condemned us to death, God chose to send His Son to restore us. Each of us, before accepting the offer of salvation from Christ, was a Gentile and like a tax collector to God. We were His enemies. We were traitors to Him.
Thankfully and mercifully, He sent His Son to where we were. Jesus met us in those least likely of places. He met us in our hurts, in our pains, in our fears, and in our sufferings. He did not stay only in the synagogues. He did not stay in an ivory tower isolating Himself from the world. Jesus engaged those living in the world. And He engaged those living in the world with love and joy and compassion! So, what does Jesus mean by instructing us to let offenders be as a Gentile and tax collectors? He means for us to need to share God's love with them. We must treat them as they once were and now are, unrepentant sinners, and show them the radical servanthood that was first and best incarnated by Him. With that love and with some patience and with God's grace, we may well love that offender back into the kingdom! And then the angels and the whole body of Christ can truly rejoice!