Of course we know that this is clearly and unambiguously a “both/and” sort of thing and that Jesus is addressing two rather different things: our mandated love for one another on the one hand (“love your neighbor as yourself”), and, on the other hand, our response to an unrepentant “brother.” And before we take this any further, note that we are commanded to “love” our neighbor without “neighbor” being qualified in any way, whereas the person we are to treat as “a Gentile and a tax collector” is a fellow-believer, a “brother” (or, of course, a ”sister”) in Christ.
The teaching of Jesus in this passage falls under the heading of “church discipline,” something that’s so incredibly unpopular among Christians that it’s almost never employed even in the most heinous and obvious circumstances that cry out for some sort of response. To be brutally frank, I’ve been a member of various churches for my entire life since infancy, and never once in 3,744 weeks of Sundays have I ever seen church discipline carried out according to the formula taught by the Head of the Church, Jesus Christ Himself. Nor can I recall ever hearing a sermon from this Gospel reading. This is not something the Church made up in the Middle Ages that was gladly set aside in the Reformation. And it certainly is not something that addressed only a particular situation in the early Church that has become irrelevant.
We have in fact replaced the methodology of Jesus with new ones of our own design. Jesus lays out a completely clear 3-staged process for dealing with a Christian’s sin:
- Go to him in private to show him his fault.
- If he doesn’t listen, go again with one or two other persons.
- If he still doesn’t listen, then and only then, “tell it to the Church.”
Why does the Church fail miserably in the exercise of church discipline? Simple: it’s because we generally refuse to do Step 1 at all. And without Step 1, it’s hard to move on to Steps 2 and 3. It’s tempting to ask for a show of hands as to how many of you have been wounded directly or indirectly by the failure of the Church to exercise discipline in the way prescribed by Jesus. I suspect there would be an embarrassingly large percentage of hands raised. On the other hand, if I were to ask how many of you have been helped personally by church discipline offered according to today’s Gospel, there would be far fewer hands raised, if any.
If the problem lies in the refusal to do Step 1, why is that? There are two primary reasons. The first is that Christians love to hide falsely behind the proscription of Jesus in Matthew 7 (verses 1, 2), “Judge not, that you be not judged.” That excuse works only if we completely wrest it out of its context. Jesus is only saying that before we apply judgment to someone else, we need to be certain that we’re not guilty of exactly the same thing. This is very different from saying that we cannot call sin “sin,” or that we cannot help a believer who is found to be committing sin until we ourselves are 100% “perfect.” Raise your hand if you ever have known a person who is 100% perfect. And please raise your hand if you think you are 100% perfect! We need to talk! But admitting to being less than perfect should not deter us from addressing sin as sin and being ready and willing to help a brother or sister who is caught up in some particular sin.
The second reason we let ourselves off the hook is that we’re afraid of being labeled hypocrites. Yes, hypocrisy is a disease that riddles Christianity, just as it riddles all of humankind regardless of religious affiliation. It riddles those humans who have no religious affiliation at all; they just feel self-righteously and hypocritically good about themselves because they have no religion in their lives! Identifying sin and helping a fellow-believer to deal with it is only hypocritical if we refuse to acknowledge that we, too, are sinners saved by grace alone. Those persons who say that they will not accept Christianity because the Church is full of hypocrites need to buy mirrors.
There’s one other thing we fear here: it’s not just that we might feel ourselves to be hypocritical, but that we fear the other person will brand us as hypocrites. Put in different terms, we’re reluctant to exercise spiritual judgment for fear that we ourselves will be judged by the other person. Do you see what we’re doing? We’re acting defensively and turning everything upside down until, as often, it’s all about us instead of being about the other person. Yes, of course, there’s always the possibility that the other person will try to turn the tables and point the finger back at us. And we may even be right to feel that we deserve it.
But Jesus does not qualify His outline of the process in any way, least of all by saying, “Don’t go to your sinning brother until you are perfect, or until you have conquered your fearful reticence, or until you are certain that it will have the result for which you are hoping.” In fact, Jesus clearly is anticipating the possibility that Step 1, while essential, may be unsuccessful. That’s why he adds Steps 2 and 3.
I think we all would feel more comfortable with Step 2 if we didn’t have to preface it with Step 1. But let’s look at Step 2 in a more specific way: suppose you have gone to someone privately and that person has refused to listen. Can you think of exactly who are the one or two persons you would choose to join you on the next visit? Will they have to be perfect? What if they refuse and you only will have broadened the circle of persons who have been informed of your brother’s sin? How will you process their refusal? Is it that they prefer not to “get involved” in church discipline, or that they are rejecting you and your actions? Has it come back once more to being all about you?
I suspect there may have been some instances in the history of the Church where Step 1 has been left to a clergyperson, Step 2 has been skipped altogether and things have moved directly on to Step 3, the most comfortable step since it becomes a group action rather than the action of 1-3 persons. But isn’t it interesting that Jesus makes the group action the final step? There are really good reasons for that: why should we ever doubt that this is the right way to go?
What’s the entire point of Church discipline? It’s to bring the brother or sister in Christ to a place of repentance, to restore that person to full fellowship with the whole Body of Christ, to make that individual spiritually whole and healthy. Jesus understood that the best way to do this absolutely was not to drag the person in front of the whole church body, embarrassing the person, perhaps permanently damaging some interpersonal relationships and possibly losing the person altogether.
Then why do the last step at all? Because Jesus said to do it? That’s sufficient reason all by itself. But more to the point, Step 3 makes an unmistakable statement to the whole church body that sin must be identified as sin, not winked at, not overlooked, not ignored, not swept under the carpet, not allowed to fester until it’s infected the whole or has become an epidemic that severely damages the witness of the Church.
The Catholic Church may have led the way for centuries in trying to hide the sins of its people, notably including its clergy, and now there are priests who are afraid to wear the collar in public because they assume others are thinking, “There’s goes one of ‘those’ lecherous hypocrites.” I confess that I think about that frequently, acknowledging that I’m far from perfect and that my identity as a follower of Jesus is now more “public” than ever before. But the problem is that the Church has neglected to exercise discipline when such action was absolutely imperative. It’s still imperative.
Again we have a place where the Apostle Paul reflects on what Jesus said. In Galatians 6:1, he writes, “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.” Later on he writes even more strongly about a specific person in the church at Corinth who required more extreme measures: “When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (I Corinthians 5:4, 5).
I hope you were listening carefully to these words: “When you are assembled in the Name of the Lord Jesus... with the power of our Lord Jesus...” While this is Paul writing much later, it’s precisely the key to how Jesus moves directly from His words about church discipline to his statement first made to Peter and now repeated to the disciples as a whole, “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Matthew 18:18). Whenever we exercise church discipline, we’re to be doing it in the Name and in the power of Jesus so that we may be instruments of God’s grace and forgiveness. And, as God’s instruments, we’re ratifying what is done in heaven.
And so, for the third time, this highlights the fact that what we’re doing is not “all about ourselves;” in fact, it’s not even the least bit about ourselves. We are God’s agents to help bring about awareness of sin, conviction concerning sin, repentance from sin and reception of the immeasurable grace of God’s forgiveness! If you see it in this way, then you personally are completely lost in the process. You almost stand outside of the process. This is 100% God’s action. You are His intermediary.
Yet Jesus says that if the person “listens to you, you have won your brother.” You are being used to restore a fellow Christian. What a privilege! And now the message is that you don’t have to be perfect, you don’t have to view yourself as a hypocrite, you don’t need to be held back by fear of a poor result, and you don’t have to measure yourself against public opinion or cultural accommodation. You simply have to do what God calls you to do and enables you to do, if you’re doing it in the Name and power of Jesus! How liberating is that? How humbling is that?
Might we see this and understand it in the context of the commands Jesus gave in last week’s Gospel, to deny ourselves, to take up our crosses and to follow Him? We’re being asked to do something difficult, something that comes naturally to very few persons. But it’s a command of Jesus, repeated by Paul, that’s absolutely indispensable to the spiritual health both of individual believers and of the Church as a whole. And if we do it, following the steps outlined by Jesus, in “the spirit of gentleness” to which we’re admonished by Paul and in the Name and power of our Lord Jesus, then what we’re doing on earth will be exactly what God is doing in heaven. Who could ask for anything more?
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, Amen