Matthew 18:15-17 (NIV) “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”
As we read these words, it is vital to remember who is speaking them, to whom they are being spoken, and the context – what Jesus has just finished talking about. Far too many people read and follow this process as if Jesus was giving them a series of steps for them to take to be able to receive an apology, or to be made whole in the face of a wrong done to them.
But Jesus never focused on such things. Instead, He teaches everywhere that those who are wronged are to forgive those who wrong them (Matthew 6:12, 14-15), and to do good to those who mistreat them (Matthew 5:44). Jesus had just finished telling His disciples about the length that God Himself is willing to go to win back those who have wandered off into sin. This parable continues that theme, this time showing His disciples how they can help. Looking at this paragraph though that lens changes everything.
If a brother sins (the words “against you” are missing from many of the oldest and best manuscripts and seem to be later scribal additions), then the one who knows about the sin needs to assume that that person has wandered off, and is in danger of being lost. That disciple is being tasked by Jesus to begin the rescue effort by going to the sinning person, and helping him or her to see their fault, where they have wandered off into sin. The goal here is not to get an apology but repentance; not to shame the other person, but to win him or her over, and bring them back into the fold.
If they refuse to repent, the situation is more desperate, because it shows an unwillingness to acknowledge the sin, and a hardening of the heart. That is when one or two other godly brothers or sisters are to get involved, to see if additional input can reverse the dire situation and save the soul. If not, as a last-ditch effort, the whole congregation is brought in on the issue so that they can pray for that person, and talk to them, to try to restore them.
The last sentence of this paragraph has been used to justify, and even encourage, shunning of an unrepentant sinner. But again, the context must be seen and honored. To understand what Jesus meant by “treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector,” we have to look at how Jesus Himself treated pagans and tax collectors. (That is where the disciples would go to figure that out.) Jesus did not shun them or write them off as unredeemable. (That’s actually what the Pharisees and teachers of the law did!) Instead, Jesus considered the pagans and tax collectors as the lost sheep to whom He had been sent to show the way into the kingdom of God (cf. Matthew 15:24), and as the sick to whom He had been sent as a physician (Matthew 9:10-13).
What Jesus is telling His disciples here is that if someone, even someone who has been a brother of sister in the Church, turns away into sin (whether sin against me or sin in general), that is a sign that they have wandered away, and every effort must be made to pursue them and get them to repent and return to the fold. If, even after all of the steps listed are done, they refuse to repent, then they must be considered as one who is lost, as lost as a pagan or a tax collector. As such, they are no longer a candidate for restoration, but a target of wholehearted evangelistic efforts. God Himself will see them as lost sheep in need of saving, and will be pursuing them in love to bring them to Himself. And His people must see them that way too, and deal with them on that basis.
Father, it’s amazing the difference it makes to take the context into consideration. In the way that Jesus is saying it, even if I am the wronged party, from a kingdom perspective, the focus is not on me, on enabling me to be made whole. It is on the one who has so clearly demonstrated that they have wandered away from the fold and need to be found. If it was about me, about my getting an apology or satisfaction for the wrong done against me, then I can read that, after I have exhausted all of these steps, I am justified in writing that person off. But if it is about them, as Jesus clearly intended it to be, then their failure to repent after even the Church tries to help them to see their wrong shows that they are in need of salvation as a top priority, and urges us to pursue them on that basis. Thank You for shifting the frame! Amen.