At the core of salvation and the message of the Gospel, Jesus came to forgive sinners and to make things right so that all might go to live in the eternal kingdom. He came to give new life to sinners and to show them the way to the kingdom. It’s in that spirit that I think we should dig into the interesting instructions Jesus gives in today’s Gospel reading.
Those of us who have been in, or are in, seminary can tell you that the community of a seminary is somewhat of a cross between a fishbowl and a pressure cooker. It’s a community unlike most others, because in seminary everyone pretty much knows everyone, and whatever happens, mostly everyone hears about it. And so when something doesn’t go right, or worse, when someone is wronged, it becomes, well, a whole thing. It was in that milieux that I first learned the whole concept of fraternal correction; that is, bringing your brother’s faults to him and working through that together.
That’s the kind of thing that’s happening in today’s Gospel. By the time Matthew’s Gospel was composed, the early Church community was already separate from the Jewish community. They weren’t subject, then, to the daily expectations of the Jewish community. And much like my seminary experience, they were in a bit of a fishbowl, because they were a recognizable community surrounded by non-believers. So Matthew’s Gospel has Jesus teaching the community how they are to be a community. This part deals with how to diffuse conflicts and right wrongs, and it begins with that idea of fraternal correction.
Step one has the wronged party going to his or her brother or sister and discussing the matter privately. This respects the privacy of both parties, and respects, and expects, their desire to live in concord with the other and not be simply a troublemaker. This, I think, is different from how most of us were brought up. I’m Irish and Italian. So either we never speak about the problem, force it into repression, and harbor ongoing resentment, or we have a massive blowup and everyone gets emotional shrapnel. Or sometimes all of the above. Now, I have a great family, and I’ll say that most of that is a stereotype and isn’t functionally true, but it doesn’t mean I’ve never seen it. And we could all tell the same story, if we’re honest. So this idea of actually talking to the party who wronged us and working toward a solution is one that we need to take to heart.
Step two, if the person doesn’t repent, is to get a couple of other people together to talk to her or him. This, actually, well-reflects the last line of today’s Gospel: “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” When two or three come together, Jesus is there, waiting to make things right, wanting to affect forgiveness, yearning to bring salvation. That’s why he came. So that microcosm of the community has the power of Christ to bring resolution to the situation.
Step three, if it gets that far, is to tell the Church. This is the one that, in my experience as a pastor, we abuse all the time. Way too often someone gets mad about something, and they go right to the pastor, or the bishop, or whatever. They’ve skipped steps one and two, the steps that are more satisfying, and, in my experience, more likely to work well. By the time it gets to the top, however it works out, chances are, no one’s going to be happy with the outcome. But that is step three, and it’s there if it’s needed. That reflects the power Jesus gives to the Church in the very next verse, the power to bind and loose: “whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven…”
Step four is the most heartbreaking of all. If the person doesn’t listen to the Church, then treat her or him as an outcast, “as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.” Gentiles and tax collectors were the collective term for the pariahs of society at that time. But here’s the catch: Jesus welcomed Gentiles and tax collectors, so what does he really mean? I think you know: if the person won’t listen to the Church, then I guess the idea is to welcome the person in and let the community of the Church and the presence of Christ soften their hearts and change their attitudes. How’s that for a challenge for the week ahead?
Here’s the idea. None of us is an island; we are not intended to live on our own without interaction with other people. But in community, there will be the occasional problem with someone else. How we handle that has to reflect who we are and with whom we are identified, namely our Lord, Jesus Christ. That same Lord who, again, came to forgive sinners and make things right so that all might find salvation. All. All of us find salvation. Even the person who just cut you off in traffic; even the person that drives you nuts. All of us. And so, in our dealing with one another when we have discord, our goal has to be not just the absence of conflict, but instead the salvation of both of us, because that’s what’s ultimately at stake.
Now, another challenge if you’re up for it. This method of solving conflicts doesn’t apply just to individual conflict, or individual sins and sinners. It doesn’t just apply in the fishbowl of a seminary or church community. It has to apply also to societal ills and social sins. It has ramifications about how we address racial injustice. It has meaning for dealing with the government official or political candidate whose stance or actions are offensive. It convicts us when we have, as a society, sinned against the poor and the marginalized. The salvation of all is of ultimate importance.
“For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”