by Ellen Sims
text: Matthew 18:15-20
Often the Bible teaches ethics indirectly with a story, a parable about the compassionate Good Samaritan, for example. Or it addresses basic ethical expectations with a list of commandments but without explaining HOW to “honor your father and your mother,” for instance. Rarely does the Bible get as methodical about how we’re to live in relationship to others as it does in today’s controversial Gospel reading.
One of the worst applications of this scripture was used by a “Christian” marriage counselor to counsel a couple I know. Quoting from these verses in Matthew, he advised the couple in crisis to invite two members of their church to hear the wife’s accusations against the husband. When the couple didn’t reconcile after that, they were advised to share their marital problems with the whole church. Which they wisely decided not to do.
Another terrible and too common misuse of this passage is when a pastor or parent tries to “repair” gay Christians by outing them to the church and eventually disfellowshiping the “offending” member of the church.
You can see why part of me wants to steer clear of these verses.
But sidestepping this pericope would deprive us of a chance to reflect on one of the most important themes in the Christian scriptures: reconciliation. Open Table has had few instances of significant tension and conflict. I am grateful for healthy relationships within our faith community. But every relationship, every family, every organization, every group, every church experiences discord at times. When we do have conflict, we can use those uncomfortable situations as opportunities to learn more about ourselves and practice again the relationship skills that Jesus taught.
For Matthew’s community of Jesus followers who were being pushed out of the synagogue, the steps Jesus set forth offered a process-oriented, non-authoritarian way to deal with life’s inevitable conflicts. Mishandling or ignoring conflict feeds the great cancer that eats at all types of human relationships, from marriages to international alliances. So it’s worthwhile for us to consider the steps the writer of Matthew lays out for his community. And because I want to tackle the most controversial aspect of this process head on, let’s start with the end of the reconciliation process: what happens if all the other steps fail?
The final and harshest step in this movement toward reconciliation says if an offender refuses to listen to the person they offended, then refuses to listen to the offender in the company of a couple of other witnesses, and then refuses even to be swayed by the church’s advice, the offender should be as “a Gentile and a tax collector.” Many interpreters have equated this response toward the unrepentant offender with excommunication.
We’ll consider in a moment if Jesus is recommending, as a last resort, excommunication and shunning. First let’s see what Matthew is talking about just prior to and after this bit of “church policy.” Jesus tells this parable before outlining the steps for reconciliation:
“What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of your Parent in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost” (18:10-14).
This parable doesn’t seem to be talking about shaming the lost lamb. When it was outside the safety of the fold, the shepherd’s only response was care and welcome.
The parable Jesus tells to close out this chapter is that of the servant whose king forgave his tremendous debts, but the forgiven servant would not in turn forgive a smaller debt someone owed him. The point here is that God forgives us and therefore we should forgive others. God does not, according to the framing parables to this Jesus lesson, give up on us or shame us or end the relationship.
How then should we understand what happens if, after three different conciliatory overtures to the church member who offended another, the “offender” still doesn’t recognize the harm to which he or she has contributed? Does “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” mean the church should publicly denounce and humiliate him and prevent him from returning to the congregation? Not if we connect this advice to the framing parable. Not if we consider Jesus’s increasing overtures to the Gentiles. And although tax collectors were despised by the Jews of Jesus’ day, Jesus made a point of dining with tax collectors, and the Gospel of Matthew was named after a disciple of Jesus who, tradition says, was a tax collector. Warren Carter considers “gentiles and tax collectors” to represent categories of people with whom the first disciples were in conflict and for whom Jesus was making a special effort toward reconciliation. Treating people who have not been reconciled to the congregation as if they’re in the same category as “Gentiles” and “tax collectors” could mean that even if all the steps fail, we still acknowledge the strained relationship but continue working for or at least remain open to reconciliation. After all, Jesus himself increasingly opened himself to those two group excluded by his culture. No one can be forced to the peace table. But if planned talks fail, we can at least look for future opportunities for reconciliation.
Of course, sometimes a conflict is so damaging that the relationship must be ended. Although rare, we as individuals and a congregation may at times have to end a toxic relationship. At other times we might recognize that neither side is “at fault” if the conflict is really an acknowledgement that individuals hold very different expectations of one another. Sometimes people visit Open Table with expectations that we just can’t meet. When people realize that, for instance, we really do mean we’re open and affirming, or when the way they believe Jesus is leading them is different from the way we think Jesus is leading us. So we bless and support them when they realize this. There have been a couple of times when someone dear to us has told us their path is taking them somewhere else. In those cases, after I have been in conversation with that person for a long time and have tried making sure there’s not something we as a faith community can do to meet their needs, I don’t beg them to stay. Graceful goodbyes are healthy. It’s not ideal for members to slink off after we have covenanted with one another to be there for one another, so we acknowledge the relationship we’ve shared, mark the decision someone has made to follow a different path, and thank them for serving with us. We don’t pressure anyone to say this kind of goodbye in a worship service. But just as I invite people moving to another city to let us acknowledge their final Sunday with us (as happened last Sunday), I invite those who occasionally want to find spiritual sustenance elsewhere to let us offer our blessing for them.
Other situations may require a severance in the relationship with a church participant, and today’s text gives me an opportunity to mention one rare situation that we haven’t discussed recently. Several years ago our congregation created a process to allow us to include under certain circumstances persons who are registered as “sex offenders.” While we are scrupulous in screening people who work with our children, and we follow safe church policies that, for instance, prohibit an adult from ever being alone at church with a child who is not their own family member, and we follow policies to prevent sexual harassment, we recognize the importance of remaining open to Christ’s reconciling work. However, we also acknowledge that this core value of extravagant welcome implies an obligation to provide a safe place for everyone concerned. To welcome one can make another feel unsafe. Trying to address both needs requires due diligence and conscientious risk management. Therefore, our welcome of people on the registry for sex offenders is contingent on the convicted offender’s willingness to enter with us into an individualized Covenant Agreement to set appropriate limits on the offender’s participation in church activities.
We do not have someone attending Open Table who is on the sex offender registry. We may never. You will be told if we do enter into such an agreement and have a role in that process. But we have thought through the difficult challenge of welcoming someone who may be the least welcome person in our society. While our love is unconditional, our concern for the safety of others and the law requires us to follow very detailed procedures for including someone registered as a sex offender.
Let’s return now to the first steps of Matthew’s reconciliation process:
Step one seems simple enough. If someone has hurt you, go to them by yourself and calmly point out how you have experienced a situation between the two of you and how you feel it has hurt you and harmed the relationship. Maybe that’s all that needs to be done. The person who hurt you might ask for forgiveness and offer to make amends. Or you may come to realize you misunderstood the situation.
The problem with the step as described in Matthew is that it seems to ignore the fact that the person being named as the offender may also feel aggrieved. Maybe the accused did something wrong but the aggrieved party overreacted. Genuine reconciliation in this relationship depends on both parties being willing to listen to another’s perspective, to communicate forthrightly, to expect the best of the other, and to accept responsibility for improving the relationship. Verse 15 emphasizes: “IF the member LISTENS to you, you have regained that one.” Our practice of group discernment helps us learn to individual discernment so that we listen to one another and tune in to the spirit of love that is nudging us toward healthier relationships. The least utilized communication skill is listening. Both the person deemed the offender and the person who initiates the conversation and feels aggrieved need to be listening to one another. Which is hard to do when someone feels offended and another feels wrongly accused. Which is why we may need to move to step two.
If the other person doesn’t listen to you, take one or two other members of the church with you and try again. It’s not clear if verse 16 means these “witnesses” are brought to this second conversation because they previously “witnessed” the offensive act or if they are brought in to witness what happens in this conversation. But sometimes mediation or advocacy is needed. For example, if there were to be a complaint about sexual harassment or exploitation within our church, anyone may contact in confidence any current member of the church council, who will begin the formal and confidential process for reviewing the complaint, initially by a response team. So far we’ve not had to engage in this process, but we are prepared to do so.
Persisting conflict can affect and maybe infect the whole church. Rather than pretend there’s no problem, a problem needs to be directly acknowledged. Truth telling has to be done. With great care. It’s easy for lines to be drawn, sides taken. The United Church of Christ can offer resources to our congregation. For instance, we may invite our Conference Minister to advise about or help arbitrate a conflict.
There are extreme situations when individual conversations fail, when mediation fails, and when the entire church appealing to the offender fails to bring about reconciliation. Again, one concern I have with Matthew’s three-step policy is that it seems to assume there’s a clear offender and a clear victim, which is not always the case. Besides, our social context is different enough that we may be wise to observe the spirit of this advice rather than use it as a church policy handbook. Reconciliation is clearly Jesus’s goal, but that entails fairness and care for both parties.
Repairing damaged relationships takes time, care, and humility. It requires that you and I work together patiently as fellow listeners and speakers, as people diverse in abilities and perspectives, as flawed followers of Jesus who sometimes need others to give us the special care we’d give “the Gentiles and tax collectors” and all those we hope to include.
PRAYER: God of Loving Hearts, how precious is this faith community, how dear each person. May we safeguard these relationships and grow more and more skillful in listening with empathy, speaking with kindness and clarity, and working to repair relationships. Amen.
Carter, Warren. Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading. The Bible and Liberation Series. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2003.