Jesus on reconciliation and community

Jesus said to his disciples:
“If your brother sins against you,
go and tell him his fault between you and him alone.
If he listens to you, you have won over your brother.
If he does not listen,
take one or two others along with you,
so that every fact may be established
on the testimony of two or three witnesses.
If he refuses to listen to them, tell the Church.
If he refuses to listen even to the Church,
then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.
Amen, I say to you,
whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven,
and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
Again, amen, I say to you, if two of you agree on earth
about anything for which they are to pray,
it shall be granted to them by my heavenly Father.
For where two or three are gathered together in my name,
there am I in the midst of them.” (Mt 18:15-20)

Although this passage at first looks as though it is about correcting a fault in a brother or sister in the church, Jesus’s words speak to me even more about reconciliation. One reason to think so is that the passage specifically concerns what to do if someone has hurt a particular individual, personally. Here the rift is initially between two people. Jesus starts by encouraging communication: if someone has hurt you, it’s a good idea to go to the person and to try to explain why. Listening is also presented as a virtue: if the brother listens, then perhaps reconciliation can already take place. Of course, there is a good chance in any scenario that the hurt is mutual, in which case the person who goes to his brother may himself or herself also have to listen and to receive what the other person has to say.

Jesus also offers a strategy for what to do if the other person won’t listen or is uncommunicative: to seek the support of friends. Certainly I know from female friendships that trying to work things out between two people in conflict sometimes takes place by the actions of others in one’s same group of friends–perhaps a third, mutual friend can offer support to both people and ideas for how to encourage reconciliation. Jesus encourages the care and support of the larger community in cases of a rift or of sinning.

Then Jesus says that if this communicative approach does not work, to treat the other person like a Gentile (non-Jew) or a tax collector. While at first glance, that might look like permission to exclude the person who refuses reconciliation from the larger community, when we consider how Jesus himself treated tax collectors and Gentiles, it means the opposite! This Gospel passage comes from the Gospel according to Matthew, who was himself a tax collector then called by Jesus to be an apostle. In other Gospel passages, Jesus ministers to Samaritans, Gentiles such as the Roman centurion, and other outsiders. So, to treat someone like a tax collector or a Gentile is to continue to love them and to minister to their needs where possible. For example, in a personal rift where another person refuses reconciliation, one can pray for the other’s well being with sincerity of heart. This action of relationship in prayer is also reconciling, if imperfect reconciliation– since it is not yet face to face restoration of friendship and care. Jesus’s words emphasize that we are always to restore relationship where possible: even with that difficult family member or with other members of the community, who are, after all, in Christ also our family.