Matthew18:15-17, 20(A Paraphrase) Restoration within the Church
If your brother or sister insults or disrespects you or commits a transgression against you, go and correct them when you are alone. If they listen to you, great, then healing has begun. But if they won’t listen, take with you one or two others with you and confront them so that every word may be established by the mouth of two or three witnesses. But if they still won’t pay attention, bring it to the attention of the leadership of the church. If they won’t pay attention even to the church, treat them as you would a Gentile or a tax collector. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I’m there with them.”
This is the quindecinnial passage about church discipline, right? This is the one that gets dragged out when we have a dispute. This is the passage we hold up when someone in our congregation misbehaves. And this is a passage, I would contend, that often gets abused and misused. How? Well, first of all I’ve seen this formula used to beat-down the other side. It get used as a proof-text that I’m right and your wrong… Oh, and by the way, God’s on my side. In short, it’s been used to exclude people from the fellowship of a congregation. But what was Jesus really trying to do here? Is this passage really about exclusion or is there a better more theologically appropriate way to view this important teaching?
The answer to that final question is yes. There is a better way to understand this passage. Jesus’ guidance about settling disputes within the church is finally about restoration and not punishment.
How do we know this? Well you all know it’s important to look at the setting of the passage, its context within the larger canon. And here it’s especially important. Just before these verses, Jesus had spoken of God’s great care and concern for “the little ones,” and, although we have often heard these words in reference to innocent, lovable little children, contextually, they can be better understood as describing the newest members of the faith community. But it doesn’t end there. It also applies to those of us who have been around for a long time, a lifetime even, because we too get off-track once in a while.
That’s why we need a higher power, something beyond our own intellect and desire to guide us. God’s persistent and tender care, Jesus says, is like that of a shepherd who leaves the flock in search of just one little one who is lost, because it’s all about finding and seeking (think about the parables of the lost coin or the treasure in the field) and restoration (think Prodigal Son, and each one of us).
If God wills that not one little one should be lost, then the process outlined by the earliest church in this gospel passage is not about punishment or or proving that I’m right or exclusion; it’s not about one person or faction of a congregation having power over another. Rather, it’s about a methodical, respectful, earnest, and always hopeful, movement toward restoration.[i]
You know, Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Power is of two kinds. One is obtained by the fear of punishment and the other by acts of love. Power based on love is a thousand times more effective and permanent then the one derived from fear of punishment.”[ii] And that in a nutshell is what lays at the core this text. Acts of love verses fear of punishment. The former invites us to move toward a place where a church community can heal and begin to move forward. The latter, fear of punishment, only stalls a congregation. Fear paralyses while love liberates.
And this understanding is important! It’s important because if we read this passage in terms of reconciliation over and above punishment or exclusion, we are free to replace the word “discipline” with the word “restoration” as we seek to settle our disputes and move toward peace within our congregations. This concept frees us to convert this passage into a marvelously humane and even compassionate process that translates something of Jesus’ teaching into the workings of the life of the early church in a way that we can also use in our shared congregational life today.[iii]
But how do we go about converting this passage when our human temptation is to punish or exclude those with whom we disagree? How do we find the peace we seek?
Well, perhaps there’s a clue right here in our lesson. Consider the line, If they won’t pay attention even to the church, treat them as you would a Gentile and tax collector. I mean, this line invites us to ask ourselves the question: How did Jesus treat Gentiles and tax collectors?
Well, as you all remember, he broke bread with tax collectors and invited them to change their ways and become his followers. (remember one called Levi, who became Matthew the disciple or Zacchaeus, the wee little man who scrambled with a Sycamore tree to catch a glimpse of the Messiah as he passed by, he welcomed Jesus into his home and promised to return, with interest, all that he had extorted from his community) And as for Gentiles, those of other nationalities, religions, Jesus treated them as equal human beings. Think about the Canaanite Woman or the Tenth Leper or the Good Samaritan. These are all examples of how we should treat others, even when we disagree.
This is how God calls us, all of us, to seek restoration, to adopt “peace as a way of life.” And, my friends, that’s the bottom line here. We must walk that path of peace in our interpersonal relationships first, before we can even hope to spread peace beyond our church, or beyond our borders.
Now, as we move into this time of sacrament and prayer, I invite you listen to these words from the late Marcus Borg; words of liberation, words about God’s will for our shared journey, words about what adopting peace as a way of life might look like, and feel like, from a perspective of faith. Borg writes, “God wills our liberation, our exodus from Egypt. God wills our reconciliation, our return from exile. God wills our enlightenment, our seeing. God wills our forgiveness, our release from sin and guilt. God wills that we see ourselves as God’s beloved. God wills our resurrection, our passage from death to life. God wills for us food and drink that satisfy our hunger and thirst. God wills, comprehensively, our well-being–not just my well-being as an individual but the well-being of all of us and of the whole of creation. In short, God wills our salvation, our healing, here on earth. The Christian life is about participating in the salvation of God.”[iv]
[iii] Ibid Matthews.