If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector… (Read the whole passage)
Human beings are not good at conflict. In fact most of the time, we are quite bad at dealing with conflict in our lives. From arguments in the home to disagreements between nations, we often fall back on the same bad behaviours.
Conflict awakens that part of our brains that takes us from being rational, reasonable people to defensive and irrational reptilian like creatures. Our reptilian brain, the part which governs our fight, flight or freeze responses can take over when we enter into conflict… and fighting, running or hiding are not the ways to solve conflict, they are ways to escape danger like T-Rexes and sabre-tooth tigers.
So to help us with conflict, we have this handy passage from Matthew, a simple yet effective process that allows us to deal with and get through disagreements and conflict in our communities of faith. It is one that Christians have been using for a long time, one enshrined in our church constitution. And as far as conflict management goes, it is on point.
If someone wrongs you, take your concern to them directly. Or in other words, don’t talk about your problem with everyone but the person who has wronged you. Simple yet difficult, as we almost always would much rather gossip than face those who have wronged us directly.
This first step is the hardest, it is the step that actives our reptilian brain. We feel that addressing a perceived wrong is not likely to end in an apology, but for the wrongdoer to tell us that we are actually the ones who are wrong. An argument with a family member or friend feels like the danger posed by a sabre-tooth tiger to our reptilian brain.
And so to mitigate our reptilian defensiveness when two people simply cannot come to an understanding, we are to take 1 or 2 trustworthy persons with us. A neutral third party, who will be witness to the conflict and someone who might gently bring objectivity to conflict. Someone to remind us that our reptilian brain might be overblowing things.
But then, if conflict cannot be resolved will one or two neutral witness, we are to bring the issue before the community. Let the whole body of our brothers and sisters in faith address the conflict. And usually the idea of having a fight out in the open is good perspective giver, a motivator to come to resolution rather than show the world the worst parts of ourselves. And yet, if even this kind of radical transparency cannot solve conflict, than Jesus says is one solution:
“Let such a one be to you as a Gentile or tax collector.”
Over the years Christians have called this step by different names. Shunning, banishment, excommunication, being cut off. A drastic last step when relationships are broken by conflict.
A straightforward and clear process for conflict resolution.
And yet, this process demands more of us than we might think. It is simple, but not easy.
For the disciples hearing Jesus’ words today, this process was very different than the way their world worked. In their world, everyone knew their place. The authorities, those with power, those who were righteous… they knew that they controlled society. They knew that they were the judges of the world. They were ones who chose the winners and losers in any conflict.
And the ones on the bottom, the unclean, tax collectors, fishermen, gentiles, beggars, labourers, the sick and ill… they knew that they had no power, no one on their side. The outcomes of conflict was in the hands of those more powerful than they.
The disciples and others listening to Jesus, lived in a world so carefully categorized that you knew who you could talk to, who you could eat with, where you were allowed to sit in the synagogue, which door you could use when going to the temple and so on. This hierarchical world carefully laid out who had power and who didn’t. And Jesus’ followers didn’t. They were bottom dwellers, low on the social ladder.
And so this kind of process would have sounded great to Jesus’ followers. A process where they could be the ones with power, the ones who could judge the sins committed against them. It could turn their whole world upside down. Those in power could be thrown down to the bottom, those on the bottom could finally rise up and take control. The powerful are no longer the judges of all things. The authorities don’t get to decide who is right and who is wrong for everyone, rather those who have been sinned against, like those on the bottom… they can judge for themselves. They can judge sin directly.
Or at least, that is what is this iconic passage from Matthew 18 sounds like.
Until Jesus says, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
For you see, there wasn’t a day that went by that the Pharisees and Scribes, the temple authorities and priests didn’t remind Jesus and his followers that they were spending time with the wrong crowd. Jesus liked to eat with tax collectors, unclean sinners who worked for the terrible Romans collecting their unclean money. Jesus liked to interact with Gentiles, unclean sinners who worshipped incorrectly, like the Canaanite woman who Jesus called a dog. Jesus like be around those on the bottom, people like fishermen, people like his disciples.
How easily has the church forgotten this. How quickly have we gone back to thinking that Gentiles and tax collectors are those we should shun and banish and excommunicate and cut off. How easy is it for us to think that when we cannot resolve conflicts we should just end the relationship and cut people out of our communities and our lives.
And if this passage from Matthew 18 were just a standalone piece of advice, it might sound like something from a self-help book. But it isn’t. It comes right after Jesus has been telling his disciples that the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to the one who is like a child, the least important of the world. That to be a stumbling block to the least of these little ones is to be avoided at all costs. That Jesus is the shepherd who leaves the 99 to seek out the one lost sheep.
And so when Jesus says let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector…
The Gentiles and tax collectors were the one that Jesus came to seek and find.
The ones like little children to whom the Kingdom belongs.
The little who believed in Christ and should not be caused to stumble.
The lost sheep whom the Shepherd searches out and rescues.
Gentiles and tax collectors are those that Jesus has come for.
Come for to show God’s love and mercy and grace.
Come for to eat with like beloved guests and equals.
Come for to heal and restore to wholeness.
Come for to bring God’s Kingdom near.
Gentiles and tax collectors are the lost and least that Jesus has come to minister to.
Jesus’ words on resolving conflict were not a way for his disciples to move from the bottom off their world to the top. And they are not a way for us to stand in judgment of our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Rather, they are a reminder of whom God has come for, who God’s love and mercy and grace are given to. They are a reminder about how God sees us.
They are a reminder that for God, we are all Gentiles and tax collectors.
That in the confession and forgiveness we hear week after week, God seeks us out like the one lost sheep.
That in the Word of God spoken in our midst, God welcomes the little ones who stumble.
That in the bread and wine of Christ’s body, God makes us God’s children and gives us the Kingdom.
The word that Jesus gives us today is so much more than a simple process for conflict resolution. Jesus reminds the disciples and us just who we are. That even with the process for solving conflict we will not be able reconcile with our brothers and sisters on our own. But that we are all instead ones such as Gentiles and Tax collectors to God. And that when we would cut each other off from relationship, that Jesus has come instead to find and reconcile us.
Jesus has come to heal us and eat with us.
To show us God’s love and mercy and grace.