Matthew 18:15-20
A Roadmap to Resolution
by Rev. Richard A. Miserendinoi
Reprinted by permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"

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Matthew wrote to show that Christ was the
Messiah and fulfilled the Jewish prophecies.

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, 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."

In this week's installment of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus gives us the famous roadmap to resolving conflicts and setting healthy boundaries. The entire passage presumes that Christian believers should be at harmony with each other. Why? Because we are in the presence of Christ, and by our baptism are grafted into the prince of peace himself. After all: “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”

That said, we live in a fallen world and we sin. Thus, Jesus gives us pointers to restore that baseline of peace in Christ. Not for a second does Jesus make light of our wounds. He takes them seriously and gives very concrete, practical advice. Of interest to us, though, is how much the rationale behind Christ’s instructions differs from what we often see in the world. For instance, it is notable that Jesus leaves no room for either the self-pitying victim or for wrath-filled revenge.

We are not allowed to sit and sulk in our being offended or wronged. No wallowing allowed. We don’t even get to wait for the wrongdoer to come around and apologize to us. Rather, in prayer, we are instructed to take the initiative. We’re sent out to confront the wrong as wrong, but we are also challenged to see that the offense was committed by someone who is themselves wounded and in need of conversion. The greater good comes about not just in assessing guilt, but in healing in Christ for both parties.

It’s also worthy of note that this excludes vengeance as well. We are on a project of rehabilitation, not demolition. The goal is to win our brother back. Nowhere are we given license to whine to friends or others. The matter is to be treated with confidentiality, expanding to include friends or the church only when necessary, and always for the sake of our brother’s conversion and forgiveness. Jesus’ method assumes that we first pray and then explain things one on one with as much kindness and calm as we can muster. After all, often things we experience as grievous wrongs are simply misunderstandings or oversights and no cause for serious anger.

But Jesus is the master physician of human hearts and knows that sometimes even the prayerful witness of individuals and the church will not be heeded. What happens then? “Then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.” Ultimately, unrepented sin and wrongdoing by a Christian wounds the whole community and places them outside the communion of the church. Jesus instructs us to acknowledge the rift in the light of truth, and to take prudent and just steps to show the reality of that rupture. You cannot simply do whatever you please and call yourself a Christian.

Again, we find the teaching of Christ at variance with what is so often practiced in the world. Simply: Christianity does not entail being a doormat or an enabler. Wrongs must be righted. It is true that we are called to bear wrongs patiently and to offer mercy to all. But it is equally true that Christian forbearance allows for the setting of healthy boundaries and that Christlike mercy is true mercy only if it seeks salvation through truth and conversion. In fact, the steps Jesus outlines are precisely a guidebook as to how one bears wrongs patiently or treats a brother with mercy. The good news is, even if we’re brought to the point of exclusion, salvation is always in sight through repentance. After all, Jesus called tax collectors and gentiles to be his disciples and even apostles, a fact that Matthew, the author of this passage, knew well.