Lectionary Reflection: Matthew 18: 15-20: Yet Another Misunderstood Passage

Gossip has harmed more people and killed more churches than all the religious wars, persecutions and inquisitions combined (just my opinion).  But is any community of God’s people free of it?  I don’t think so. 

I know one congregation that invited a woman to leave.  She simply could not refrain from “just stating the facts,” (pointing out the sins of others) or resist “just offering her opinion” on what others should do, say, think, believe…  Good for that church that invited her to leave, BUT be clear about this:  These words of Jesus are not a proscription for purifying the church.  No church, by definition, is pure; or will ever be pure.  As the man said when he refused to go to church: “Church is full of hypocrites.” 

“Exactly,” I answered.  “That is where the hypocrites need to be.  Why don’t you come and join us?”

Jesus was clear.  If one sins (especially if the sin is “against” you), go to that person in private.  If that sin gets spread around the church like wildfire because of your mouth, you, not they, should be invited to leave.  (Just my opinion).

In this passage, Jesus talks about being discrete.  Try and resolve it between the two of you, and if that does not work, take along one or two others.  And no, I don’t believe your two best friends who will be inclined to agree with you and take your side is what Jesus had in mind.  I think he meant more like church officers or standouts in the faith.  He meant people who can continue to be discrete.  This is not a trial.  This is not meant to condemn anyone.

Then, if that does not work he said take it to the church.  Here is the first place where we really get in trouble.  He was not saying gossip is okay at this point.  He was not saying stand up on Sunday morning and make an announcement.  He is saying take it to the ministers, the elders, the deacons, to those charged with the responsibility for oversight, for the peace and faith of the community.  Everything has been handled discretely up until this point.  Why should that change?  He is not saying make it a public spectacle.

Take it to those responsible for peace and order in the church – those charged with making decisions, and LET THEM make the decision.  If the person will not listen to them, LET THEM decide that the person is to be treated like a pagan and tax collector.  We should recues ourselves, as a judge might say.  Conflict of interest at that point.  Let the “rulers” of the church bind or loose.  Our place is to trust that where two or three are gathered, Jesus is in the midst.

But here is the other main place where we all get in trouble.  How do we treat pagans and tax collectors?  We do not turn our back on them.  We do not ostracize them.  We do not “hate” them or have nothing to do with them.  No.

We pray for them.  We evangelize pagans and tax collectors.  We show them a better way.  We tell them about Jesus who sets sinners free from sin.  We tell them about Jesus the great physician who is able to heal their infirmities.  We tell them about Jesus who wants to lift them out of their lifestyle and worldly ways and plant them firmly in the way of God.  We offer the love of God to pagans and tax collectors.  We reach out to them like outsiders that we want nothing more than to see them become insiders. 

Does this sound like what most people think when they talk about purifying the church?  It should be.  The Word of God in Jesus Christ is what we all need (all us hypocrites).  We all need salvation.  We all need to be changed from creatures of death into people of life.

The pendulum has swung too far in many places.  No church should be a police state, but that does not mean anything goes.  Like our local communities in America, we all need to police our faith communities. 

I am saying it is not a faithful response to God in Christ to back off and let everyone live however the Hell they please.  We should not condone people rationalizing their sin or evangelizing it by pretending or saying “it’s okay with God.”  We should not be deterred when people defend their sin by calling us closed-minded or intolerant or something worse. 

If it is not God’s best, God’s intention and desire for us human beings, we are to say so, particularly when it is “against” us.  But when we speak, let it be discrete and spoken out of love because we care about the person.  No other approach will do. 

And even if they are cut off from the community for a time, let us not cease to love them, pray for them and reach out to them.  After all, it may well be that someday they may come to us, discretely.  We can only hope it will be because they care about us and wish only to turn us from sin and grow with us – ever closer to God.

This is how we are to respond to all believers who get caught up in continual sin – except maybe the gossips.  For them, maybe isolation is the only way.


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