The gospel text for this Sunday is one that we have to, have to, have to study and understand in the church. It is almost as if Jesus told this story for every church I ever served. Maybe Matthew included this story because of stuff going on in his church. Mark, Luke and John must not know this story, because if they did, I would have a hard time believing they would intentionally decided to leave it out of their gospels. For, wherever there is human community, there is conflict. Jesus had to deal with conflict even among his disciples, we can expect no less. There is nothing unchristian about conflict. But there are Christ-like ways to deal with conflict.
Before we jump into Matthew 18, I want to read the Epistle reading from Romans 13. We’ve been talking about Romans 12, and now we’ve moved on to 13, the passage that purportedly caused Augustine to convert to Christianity. It sets the tone for what we must deal with in Matthew 18.
Romans 13: Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.
So as we start to talk about conflict, we need to remember that love is at the heart of the law. Jesus said the entire law rested on these two: love God and love neighbor. Luther said if you could keep the first commandment you could throw out the other nine, for love does no wrong to a neighbor. Paul says you can sum up the entire Decalogue in a single phrase: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
So this passage on dealing with conflict is outlining a way to keep community healthy. If it is carried out without love, we have missed the point. In fact, some have pointed out this procedure could be misappropriated as a tool to wield power over someone else. Any process can be abused. To use it in this way would be to miss the point. So let’s look at it.
Matt 18: “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.
So we have a three step process.
- If a member sins against you, go and talk to that person privately.
- If you aren’t listened to, take one or two others along.
- If that doesn’t work, take it to the church.
Friends, this is not how most communities function. This is why you have to teach this. It’s counter-cultural. When someone sins against them, most people tell everyone except the person that offended them. “Do you know what so-and-so did to me/said to me? Well let me tell you. I am never speaking to her again…” And we create a triangle. What was a one-on-one conflict now involves others, who are brought into the anger. We infect the whole community with our conflict. Anger is like an infection. Communities that function like this constantly throb with conflict. It will be hard to get a vibrant sense of well-being and health in a community that doesn’t know how to handle conflict in healthy ways.
The solution is you go to the person privately. When this happens nine times out of ten you will end up resolving the conflict, and the community has not been dragged through the drama.
Notice whose responsibility it is to initiate the conversation? It says, “If a member of the church sins against you…” It is the person who is hurt, the person who is wronged who has the responsibility to initiate the action. This is because sometimes, sometimes the offender does not even know that he or she has offended. Jesus seems to understand that left unchecked, resentment can turn into anger and anger can harden into hatred.
Here’s what St. Augustine had to say about it:
Our Lord warns us not to neglect one another’s sins, not by searching out what to find fault with, but by looking out for what to amend. For He said that his eye is sharp to cast out a mote out of his brother’s eye, who has not a beam in his own eye. Now what this means, I will briefly convey to you, Beloved. A mote in the eye is anger; a beam in the eye is hatred. When therefore one who has hatred finds fault with one who is angry, he wishes to take a mote out of his brother’s eye, but is hindered by the beam which he carries in his own eye. A mote is the beginning of a beam. For a beam in the course of its growth, is first a mote. By watering the mote, you bring it to a beam; by nourishing anger with evil suspicions, you bring it on to hatred. (Sermon XXXII)
Augustine points out something important. We are not to go around looking for people to offend us. But when something happens that we can’t let go of, it’s time to act.
Let me also say this. If anger and anxiety are infections in the community, the leaders are the immunity system. Leaders are the ones who model healthy conflict resolution. They are the ones that convey a sense of well-being in the community. If they do, others will follow suit. The pastor, the staff and the church council are the most important people in setting the tone of how we are going to be in community together.
Jesus says, “if the member listens to you, you have gained that person back.” The goal of the conversation is reconciliation. The Christian life is about forgiveness, compassion and reconciliation. We interact not to humiliate, but to heal. That is why Jesus says to talk alone. Think about it, when confronted by a group, most people will put up their walls and get defensive, but one-on-one softens the heart. The meeting can end with an embrace.
But not always. Sometimes people can’t or won’t hear. There are some out there, like me, who are hard-headed Germans, and we have to hear things a couple of times before they sink in. In those cases, Jesus says, don’t give up! Try again, this time take someone along with you.
When someone comes to me and starts complaining about another person, my first response is “Have you spoken to him about this?” Leaders teach people to talk to one another directly. Quite often they’ll say, “Not yet,” to which I’ll say, “Perhaps that would be a good starting place.” Sometimes they say, “I’m afraid.” Other times they’ll say, “I’ve tried.” In those cases a caring response is, “Would you like me to come along with you?” Some people need moral support. The Scriptures say there is much wisdom in many counselors. And Jesus points out, having witnesses means there can be no he-said/she-said. Every word can be confirmed. If most people respond to the one-on-one, the rest are going to respond to a caring, small group conversation.
But not always. There are some situations that need extra care. To these Jesus says, “Take it to the church.” Keep in mind that in Matthew’s day (80 A.D?) the church was not a building, or a highly evolved institution. It was a small house-church. It’s a small group only a bit bigger than the group that you used in step two. And, Matthew may mean the leaders of the church. This system protects the leaders from having to arbitrate every conflict. Deal with it one-on-one, and if that doesn’t work then in a group of two or three caring people. It only comes to the leaders of the church if those two steps don’t work. The leaders will certainly take care of it.
But not always. There are some conflicts so deeply entrenched and some people so unwilling to bend that they cannot be resolved. If the sinner won’t listen to the leaders of the church, then he or she is to be treated as a Gentile or tax collector. (By the way, this is a clue that Matthew is writing to a Jewish-Christian community, unlike the Gentile-Christian communities with whom Paul worked.)
One way to interpret this is that Jesus is suggesting that after all these efforts have been expended, it is okay to ostracize that person completely from the community. This is a form of excommunication. We know that orthodox Jews were not to speak to Gentiles or tax collectors, touch them or even make eye contact.
But there is another interpretation.
What does Jesus mean when he says to let that person be to you as a Gentile or tax collector? How did Jesus treat Gentiles and tax collectors. It just so happens we have quite a few stories of such encounters. As it turns out, Jesus interacted freely with Gentiles, tax collectors and sinners. In fact, it got him into a bit of hot water with the Pharisees and Sadducees. They complain in Luke 15 that he even eats with them. Good heavens! And isn’t it interesting that this gospel is named after a tax collector who was one of Jesus’ disciples?
Could it be that when Jesus says to treat someone as a tax collector or Gentile he means to treat them with compassion? To see them as a target for mission and conversion? I’ll leave it to you to think this through.
This process of conflict management is so important to the life of the Christian community that it is included in the ELCA model constitution for congregations, chapter 15 on discipline of members of the church.
DISCIPLINE OF MEMBERS AND ADJUDICATION
*C15.01. Denial of the Christian faith as described in this constitution, conduct grossly unbecoming a member of the Church of Christ, or persistent trouble-making in this congregation are sufficient cause for discipline of a member. Prior to disciplinary action, reconciliation will be attempted following Matthew18:15-17, proceeding through these successive steps: a) private admonition by the pastor, b) admonition by the pastor in the presence of two or three witnesses, and c) citation to appear before the Congregation Council…
I wouldn’t miss an opportunity to preach on this text in a second. It only comes up in the lectionary once every three years. The last time we heard it was in 2008. If the average congregation has at 10% turnover per year in people who move, die or leave, then at least 30% of your congregation may not have heard this important message yet. It might be about time for the congregation to hear these important words again. For they call us to love one another, to take sin seriously, to not let hurts fester and get infected. They call us to be a community of reconciliation and peace.
Where love rules, there is no will to power,
and where power predominates, love is lacking.
The one is the shadow of the other.
Carl Jung, “On the Psychology of the Unconciousness”, 1917
Swiss psychologist (1875 – 1961)