Matthew 18.15-17This is one of those passages that has been used to support practices of exclusion and excommunication within the church. Specifically, if a fellow brother or sister is in sin and fails to repent at the encouragement of the church we are to "treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector." That is, we are to shun them.
[Jesus said:] “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they 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 they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector."
But I wonder if that interpretation makes any sense. This passage in Matthew is found between two parables of forgiveness, the Parable of the Lost Sheep (Matthew 18.10-14) and the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 18.21-35).
In the Parable of the Lost Sheep we see the good shepherd leaving the ninety-nine sheep to find the one lost sheep. And after finding that sheep a party is thrown.
The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant begins with Peter's question: “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me?" Jesus responds: "Seven times seventy times" and goes on to tell the parable which concludes with these words: “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
In light of these parables which bookend Jesus's discussion of "church discipline" how are we to understand Jesus's call to treat the unrepentant as "pagans and tax collectors"? On the surface it seems that the message of Matthew 18.15-17 contradicts the parables surrounding it.
The key, I think, to resolving the tension is found in observing how Jesus interacted with "tax collectors and sinners." That is, it makes no sense to read Jesus as telling his followers to treat tax collectors and sinners like the Pharisees were treating tax collectors and sinners. Recall the contrast observed earlier in Matthew 9:
Matthew 9.10-13aThese concluding words--"For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners"--is an almost perfect anticipation of the Parable of the Lost Sheep: "And if the shepherd finds the lost sheep, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off."
While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew’s house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
On hearing this, Jesus said, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.”
How might this understanding--we treat tax collectors as Jesus treated tax collectors--change how people have read Matthew 18.15-17? Well, it changes it completely. No longer is this text read as a mandate for exclusion, as a warrant for kicking people out. Rather what we find is a mandate for inclusion, a warrant for sending and seeking and embracing. True, if a brother or sister is engaged in sin our relationship within the church is altered. You've become "a lost sheep" and a "tax collector."
But if I am following Jesus that doesn't mean I'm excluding you. It actually means I'm pursuing you and spending more time with you than ever before.
I'm leaving the ninety-nine sheep back at the church and hanging out with you in the wilderness.