Matthew 18:15-20 2017
As Christians we are followers of Jesus.
So we naturally try to do things the way that Jesus would do them.
As with many things this has even been turned into a slogan.
People ask themselves WWJD – What Would Jesus Do?
And that’s a good question to ask ourselves.
We know that Jesus taught us to love our neighbours.
We know as well that he taught us to bear with the faults of others,
even when they do something wrong to us.
And we know that he taught us to do this beyond what is natural to us.
He said, “If you love those who love you what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?…Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
And this teaching of Jesus can lead us to some deep and difficult questions.
Do we never draw a line, with behaviour that never gets any better, or with abusive behaviour?
Do we keep on loving and praying anyway?
Or does there come a point where we say , enough is enough.
And if we do that, if we draw a line and say, “no further”,
are we still doing what Jesus would do?
If these are questions that we have had to deal with in our lives,
then we are blessed today because in our gospel,
Jesus himself teaches us about this very subject:
“What do you do if your brother sins against you?”
So what does Jesus say?
First of all, he says, “go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.”
By the way we should just point out that it is equally possible that it is your sister you may have to go to – unfortunately men don’t have any monopoly on sin!
“Go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone” –
well, at first that might not seem very promising.
For one thing, it seems to encourage us to assume we 100% in the right.
What about Jesus saying, “remove the beam from your own eye, before trying to help your brother with the mote in his eye”?
And, we know what kind of reception people usually get when they go and tell someone else their fault.
Well, it helps to read what comes before and after a gospel passage.
What comes before this one is one of Jesus’s strongest teachings about dealing with our own faults:
If your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.”
Jesus has already emphasized as strongly as possible our need to address our own sins first.
But the problem remains.
“What do you do if your brother sins against you?”
And Jesus tells us to go to your brother and confront the problem with him.
He tells us to do it alone, and that’s significant.
Because our natural reaction when someone wrongs us is surely to enlist all the support we can get on our side.
We look for allies and we run down the other person with them.
And that will increase the hostility.
We need to try to diffuse the situation as quickly and as quietly as possible,
“between you and him alone.”
This is difficult – very few people like confrontation and as Canadians we probably dislike it more than most!
But some humble and unaggressive confrontation is surely better than doing what we might otherwise do – ignore the problem, pretend it doesn’t exist.
Bishop Tom Wright says about this:
“Many of us prefer to pretend there isn’t a problem. We can refuse to face the facts, swallow our anger or resentment, paper over the cracks, and carry on as if everything is normal…Many Christians have taken the paper-over-the-cracks option, believing that this is what ‘forgiveness’ means – pretending that everything is all right, that the other person hasn’t really done anything wrong. That simply won’t do. If someone else…has been offensive, aggressive, bullying, dishonest or immoral, nothing whatever is gained by trying to create ‘reconciliation’ without confronting the real evil that’s been done. Forgiveness doesn’t mean saying ‘it didn’t really happen’ or ‘it didn’t really matter’…when it did happen and it did matter…”
So we go and try to deal with the issue, first without drawing other people into it.
“And,” Jesus says, “if he listens to you, you have gained your brother.”
There we see what Jesus has in mind – bringing true reconciliation,
true restoration of the relationship.
But what if that doesn’t happen?
Jesus says, “But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you.”
Get some other people involved,
people who are able to be objective.
Maybe it’s not as one-sided as you think.
Or maybe it is, but people won’t believe you until there are witnesses beside yourself.
I read a story once about a minister who had a man come to him, very distressed.
He had been fired by his boss, shortly before he would have reached retirement.
That deprived him of his pension, which he depended on.
He hadn’t done anything wrong – he had been a model employee.
It looked very much as if he was being fired so the employer wouldn’t have to pay his pension.
So the minister went to the employer, who was also a member of his congregation.
At first he got a lot of empty reassurance.
“Don’t worry, we’ll take care of him.”
But when he pressed for a concrete commitment the man started to get nasty
about ministers interfering in business, which they didn’t know anything about.
So he went back with two members of the congregation who were in business.
Then the gloves really came off – he told them to mind their own business and get out.
But then it was no longer – “he said, he said.”
The other witnesses shed light for everyone about what was really going on.
In many organizations now, including our church,
there are processes for trying to bring about reconciliation.
These often seem cumbersome and take a lot of time.
We sometimes wish someone would simply do something dramatic.
But these processes are good, because they lift situations out of personal confrontation to shed light on what’s really going on.
Dealing with things slowly, deliberately, with documentation,
is the best way of achieving the best result.
So, we are to take witnesses.
But what if this doesn’t work?
Then, Jesus says, “tell it to the church.”
Jesus is talking about wrongs within congregations of believers.
But what he says applies more widely than that.
Now we have to go public,
because the only alternative is to paper it over, to pretend that nothing happened.
And if the person doesn’t listen to the church,
or to whatever public authorities that there are,
then Jesus says, “let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
Well, again we have a difficulty.
Cutting someone off, refusing to associate with them, what is Jesus saying?
Isn’t he giving free reign to an unforgiving spirit?
How is this loving your enemy?
Again, we have to read what comes before and after.
Immediately after this passage, we have Peter asking how often he must forgive his neighbour,
and Jesus says, “seventy times seven,” which means “indefinitely.”
So this “letting him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector”
isn’t about unforgiveness.
Forgiveness is there waiting, but forgiveness depends on repentance.
There is a limit to how much you can forgive someone who keeps on doing it!
And so, Jesus says, you do have to draw a line.
You do have to say “enough is enough”.
You can’t go on pretending things are normal.
We know that we are sinners ourselves, so we are not being “judgemental.”
But we have to bear witness to what is going on – for that person’s sake.
Even if that person doesn’t care at all at the moment what we think,
later on, our refusal to accept wrong may help him or her to see the truth.
Harsh as it seems, the purpose of what Jesus teaches us is redemptive.
“Let him be unto you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
Of course we have to remember that Jesus’s relation to Gentiles and tax collectors was to desire their redemption as well.
So our passage tells us that Jesus did not teach that we should put up with everything and anything.
And this teaching of Jesus is important.
Otherwise we might think that Jesus had no place in his teaching for drawing a line.
We might think that if there is reconciliation, we have done what Jesus would do.
But if there isn’t, then somehow Jesus’s teaching hasn’t worked,
or we have failed it.
But Jesus makes it very clear that that is not true.
His final words in this gospel reading are not easy to understand,
but they surely teach this,
that when we have to draw a line, to say “enough is enough,”
that he is with us in that as well.
“Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven…For where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am among them.”
There he is among us, even when we have to make hard decisions and draw difficult lines.
If our purposes are redemptive towards the one who has wronged us,
if we have not tried to settle things ourselves,
but have brought in witnesses, used the available processes,
then if we must draw a line,
we may well be doing what Jesus would do.