Gospel: Matthew 18:15-20

Reconciling with Other Christians

When others hurt you, do you confront them, reconcile with them, or just ignore them? Which way is the most effective? Which way is the most moral?

Disputes are probably the most uncomfortable of social situations. Whether private or public, disputes can define a person's style: confrontation or avoidance, blunt honesty or face-saving lies, "fight for the right" or "peace at all cost." Grace under this kind of fire can be impossible at times.

How do we address disputes in a way that encourages both mutual respect and justice? Jesus had a plan to answer such a question.

Popular Translation

Jesus said to his disciples:

15 "If another believer hurts you, go and talk to him about it in private. If he really hears you and does something about it, he will become a true friend. 16 If he refuses to hear you, go and talk to him again with two or three other believers. 'Every word spoken against someone can be confirmed with two or three witnesses.' 17 If he ignores them, explain the hurt to the community. If he also ignores the community, treat him like an unbeliever or a traitor.

18 "Listen to what I say to you! God approves of everything you permit or prohibit in the community. 19 Listen again to what I say to you! Any time two among you pray for agreement about any dispute between them, my Father in heaven will do it for them. 20 For, when two or three believers gather together to pray in my name, I am present with them."

Literal Translation

Jesus said to his disciples:

15 If your brother should sin [against you], go (and) discuss (the matter with) him, in private between you and him. If he should hear you, you have gained (back) a brother. 16 But if not, then take one or two (others) along with you, that 'on the (discussion) of two or three witnesses, every word will stand.' 17 But if he should refuse to hear them, speak (the accusation) to the assembly. But if he should also refuse to hear the assembly, let (him) be to you as the Gentile or the tax collector.

18 Amen, amen, I say to you. Whatever you should bind on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loosen on earth will have been loosen in heaven. 19 Again [amen] I say to you that if two of you agree on earth about any (dispute), whatever they should ask, it will happen for them from my Father, the (One) in heaven. 20 For, wherever two or three are brought together in my name, I will be there in the middle of them."

18:15 "[against you]" was an addition not found in many manuscripts. Here "you" referred to the individual, not to the group. This addition left open the question: was the sin mentioned strictly between two people? Or, did Jesus have any sin in mind? In the light of the previous section (The Parable of the Lost Sheep, Matthew 18:10-14), the sin in general was implied, but the context of this section stressed offenses between two people.

18:16 'on the (discussion) of two or three witnesses, every word will stand.' This verse is from Deuteronomy 19:15: "A single witness shall not prevail against a man for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed; only on the evidence of two witnesses, or of three witnesses, shall a charge be sustained." (RSV)

In light of the verse, if the sin was social (witnessed by others), the others would come to support the allegation of the accuser. But, if the sin was between two people, the others would act as a negotiating committee to see if a mutually acceptable arrangement could be worked out.

18:19 "if two of you agree on earth about any (dispute)" In the context of 18:15, the two that agree to resolve an argument are those that bind and loose on earth and heaven. They are the ones to whom God bless.

What did it meant to sin against another person? The Semitic culture in the time of Jesus held honor in the highest esteem. Sin (hurting another) meant a loss of honor. For, sin had more social than psychological dimensions. In other words, one took offense if reputation was hurt, not just feelings.

Jesus' world was socially combative. Adult men would publicly debate not only to score position points but to build up one's own reputation (i.e., one's honor) at the cost of another's. People used gossip, rumor, and slander in the same way. This conflicting spirit spilled over into family honor. One slight could escalate into a generations-long feud where both sides forgot the original incident. Only honor mattered.

When they proclaimed the reconciliation of people with God, Christian community fought against this social practice. Through Christ, God raised the status of sinners to that of his children. The saved had a new honor in the sight of God, for they enjoyed the benefits of eternal life: peace, joy, love, etc. In fact, love glued the community together. "Love one another, as I have loved you." Love meant protecting the reputation of the community and the members within.

What happens when a Christian hurt another? In order to protect one's honor (i.e., "save face") and preserve local church unity, Jesus described a three step process: private consultation, a quiet community proceeding, and, finally, public disassociation. Each step grew in weight and import.

Private consultation meant to protect the reputation of the sinner. The hurt party would approach the sinner with the accusation and try to work out a solution. If the person hurt the other by accident, he could apologize. If sinner hurt the victim intentionally, the sinner could repair the damage. In either case, the sinner and victim could grow closer together as "brethren" ("true friends"). [18:15]

If the sinner refused, others in the community could become involved in a way to protect the reputation of the sinner. The victim with two or three others from the community would meet with the sinner in private. The meeting had two agendas. First, the "witnesses" would present their "evidence" against the sinner. (The quote in 18:16 is a loose translation of Deuteronomy 19:15.) Second, the "witnesses" could act as negotiators between the parties. Quiet diplomacy could heal wounds in the community before they caused public scandal. [18:16]

If the sinner still refused, the victim could only take recourse with the community itself. The victim would present the evidence publically. If the community ruled in favor of the victim, they would excommunicate the sinner. At this point, the unity of the local church outweighed the reputation of the sinner. Outside the community, the outcast would seek other means of financial and social support. Homelessness was the worst case scenario in this process. Because of the public scandal and dire consequences for the sinner, the community only used excommunication as a "last ditch" measure. [18:17]

(In 18:17, the Greek listed "Gentile or tax collector." To the Jewish-Christian audience of Matthew, the Gentile was an unbelieving foreigner and the "tax collector" was a traitor, since he collected taxes for the Romans and gouged the people for his own profit. Ironically, Christians actively evangelized both groups.)

Jesus encouraged his followers to act in spite of the cost, if the situation demanded it. Twice, he emphatically ("Listen to what I have to say!") insisted that God would approve any church discipline done by consensus. [18:18-19] Why? Because the risen Lord was present in the worship of the gathered community. [18:20]

(Matthew assumed his readers knew that the community would take an action of church discipline, in gathered worship and in consensus. Hence, the community, even as small as a handful or less, could rule as a court.)

Insult and injury demand justice. But how do we obtain justice in a way that respects the sinner? As Jesus challenged his followers in Matthew's gospel, so he challenges us.

Think of a hurt in the past. How did you try to remedy the hurt? Did you do it in a way that respected you and the one who hurt you? Could you resolve present hurts in this way? Try to resolve one this week.