Summary: Many misunderstand and misapply Jesus’ instruction to his disciples, concerning how to handle a brother who sins against another Christian. This homily outlines the correct response.
Deut. 19: 15-20, 1 Tim. 5:17:24; Matthew 18:15-20
Tell it to the Church, Last
Sometimes people criticize the Christian faith because of the complicated, confusing, or mysterious things it contains. A good answer to that critique is to admit that the Bible has confusing, complicated, and mysterious things in it; and then to ask this question: if all those places in the Bible were removed, would you be willing to accept all the things that are left?
Of course, if you have been a Christian for more than a few months – and if you’ve given even a cursory glance at the Bible, you’ll have discovered that the confusing, complicated and mysterious parts amount to a tiny sliver of the Biblical text. And, we all know how easy it is to dismiss what is confusing. Far more difficult to handle are the places in the Bible which are not confusing, not complicated, and very nonmysterious. Those are the parts of the Bible that REALLY give us some things to wrestle with.
Like the passage in the gospel for today. Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 18, verses 15-20 is probably one of the most clear portions of his teaching. It is also a passage that seems almost immune to correct understanding. After we have looked over these simple verses in the next few minutes, we are going to think of dozens of questions of the form “But what about this? or that?” And, we are not going to answer all those questions today. But, I do hope you will carry away with you today a more focused and more accurate understanding of what our Lord was teaching his disciples in preparation for them to assume their office as the Apostles of Christ and the heads of the Church.
The first place where readers go wrong here is the situation for which Jesus is giving instruction. He begins with these words, “If your brother sins against you.”
These words have generated thousands of sermons and no doubt hundreds of books about Church discipline, or how to handle conflict. Those concepts may certainly be related to what Jesus is addressing here, but that’s not what these verses are about. They are instructions on how to handle the situation where a brother in Christ sins against you.
Before going further, let me note in passing the situations that Jesus is NOT talking about here. He is not speaking, for example, of the situation where your brother does something you don’t particularly like. There are a whole lot of things our brothers and sisters in Christ may do which we will not like.
That’s not what’s in view here. Nor is Jesus talking about someone who is sinning, but not against you. That situation is addressed by Paul in the sixth chapter of Galatians, when he says, “ 1 Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted.”
Nor is Jesus talking about a situation where one of your brothers thinks that YOU are the sinner. Jesus addresses this in Matthew 5, and his instructions are somewhat different from these here in Matthew 18.
No, what Jesus has in view here is that a brother has sinned, and that you are the one damaged by it.
The next thing to observe here is that everything Jesus says here supposes here is your cause is just: namely that your brother ACTUALLY sinned, that he actually sinned AGAINST YOU. In other words, you have a valid accusation to bring against your brother.
Here is where a knowledge of the Old Testament background of the New Testament is invaluable, and protects us against a host of misinterpretations and misunderstandings of Jesus’ teaching here. In the Old Testament lesson we heard read a short while ago, we heard a passage from Deuteronomy which is roughly parallel to what we find here in Matthew 18.
Moses says in that place: ““One witness shall not rise against a man concerning any iniquity or any sin that he commits; by the mouth of two or three witnesses the matter shall be established.” One eyewitness to a crime is not sufficient for conviction under the Law of Moses: It takes at least two, better three witnesses to a crime in order to lodge an accusation of sin.
I am always amused at those who accuse the Old Testament Law of being harsh and severe. The truth is this: if the American criminal justice system operated on this single principle of the Mosaic Law – namely, that any indictment of a crime required the eyewitness testimony of at least two people – that principle alone would result in the elimination of over half the courts and slash the prison population by two-thirds. Whether we would like this result or not is another question, but clearly the requirement of witnesses in order to establish a crime is a requirement that greatly tilts the scales of justice toward transgressors.