Jesus speaks about what happens when a member of the church sins against you. Now the word “sin” in this context is best understood as when a member violates your boundaries. This isn’t about giving members of the church permission to be judge and jury over the behavior of other regardless of whether it personally affects them or not. Too many people have used the Bible as an excuse to think it’s their job to sit in the judgment seat – and that in itself is the sin of self-righteousness. What he’s really talking about is when someone does something to you which causes real and serious emotional, spiritual or physical harm - the kind of stuff that breaches trust and threatens your wellbeing.
Jesus gives us an outline of conflict resolution with the hope of reconciliation embedded within it. He says if a member of the church sins against you go to that person in private and talk to them about it. If that doesn’t work and the offense continues, then go to the person with two or three others as witnesses. If that doesn’t work and the offense continues, then you take it to the Church. Finally, when all else fails, walk away from the relationship and they are to be as a “Gentile and a tax collector” to you. Now admittedly words like “Gentile” and “tax collector” don’t have the same meaning to us as they did in first century Palestine. Gentiles were not “bad guys” with whom Jews never interacted. Rather the term Gentile is synonymous with “one who does not know God” and tax collectors were the extortionists and shake down artists of their day who exploited the people. So Jesus is essentially saying you can walk away from the person abusing you and consider them as one who is inappropriately exploiting you and does not know God.
Notice that Jesus recommends starting off with a one-on-one conversation to see if the amends can be made in private. That is an ideal. I can tell you that, in my experience, going alone to confront someone who has sinned against you isn’t always advisable – especially if there are physical or emotional threats to your safety. I had a work situation in the past where I had to confront a fellow chaplain about his open hostility towards me and my ministry (he didn’t believe women should be ordained). He was over six feet tall and muscular, weighing in at about 200 pounds. I’m five feet five inches tall and, although I am in good physical shape, 115 pounds of me was no match if he blew up at me. Given his hostility and behavior towards me, I did feel a sense of personal threat. In that case, I insisted my supervisor be present for my meeting with him and the issues were resolved. Clearly, if you have been in an abusive situation, Christ would not recommend putting yourself in harm’s way! But the point is that Jesus advises a process with appropriate and measured escalation. He wouldn’t tell us today, “If a member of the church sins against you go out and tell everyone in town what that jerk did and make sure you post it all over Facebook and Tweet it for good measure.” No … we are to start small to re-establish our boundaries.
Paul’s wrote to the Romans that all we owe one another is love and that love is the fulfillment of the law. Love does not wrong others. But we are human and we screw up. We do not act in loving ways and we hurt each other. Ideally, when we hurt others we seek forgiveness and reconciliation that we may be one which is our hope in Christ Jesus. But we know this doesn’t always happen. There are those whose egos cannot admit their wrongdoing and who persist in inflicting wounds on others. Jesus’ words to us are not meant to be a punishment.
Forgiveness and reconciliation are our common hope in Christ. But repentance, a turning around of the mind and heart, are necessary for reconciliation to take place. Three strikes and you’re out sounds punitive but remember, in another part of Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is asked about how many times one should forgive – and the answer was “not seven times but seventy times seven.” Episcopal priest and author Dennis Maynard in his book Forgive And Get Your Life Back describes the process of forgiveness and reconciliation in three steps: forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration. Forgiveness is the first step and is necessary for us to let go of the wrongs done us and move on without rancor or bitterness. Therefore, forgiveness is to be without limits. But, this does not mean that you must re-establish a relationship with a person. That is the next step of reconciliation – re-establishing some kind of renegotiated relationship with the person who harmed you. The relationship is never reset back to where it was before the offense occurred. In the case of a person who harms you and does not acknowledge their responsibility, you may forgive them and not reconcile. Again, Christ does not demand you tolerate abuse. The final step is restoration which is typified in the parable of the Prodigal Son. You may forgive and reconcile with someone but you may or may not restore them to their prior place in your life.
We are broken human beings and Jesus’ words to us today remind us we live in a sin-sick world where people will hurt you. Living amidst this mess is something we all face and setting boundaries is necessary for us – for our personal safety as well as the safety of the community. But our true hope is that Christ’s crucified Body is able to hold together and reconcile all of the broken and bleeding pieces of our lives and our relationships, even when we cannot.