There is an old story about a young man who would every day open his Bible looking for direct, personal communication from God. He would close his eyes, let the Bible fall open at random, put his finger down on the page, and then read whatever was at the tip of his finger as a personal communication from God for him that day. This seemed to work okay, until the day he opened his eyes to see his finger pointing to Matthew 27:5, “Throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple, he [Judas] departed; and he went and hanged himself.” Perplexed as to how this could be God’s communication for him, the young man decided that perhaps he had done something wrong in his ritual, so he repeated it. This time, he opened his eyes to find his finger pointing to the last half of Luke 10:37, “Go and do likewise.”
Obviously, there are some dangers to treating the Bible like a Magic 8-Ball. There are, however, some things that I think we should take literally, and that we ignore to our own detriment. Take, for instance, what Jesus says we should do when another Christian sins against us:
“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” (Matthew 18:15-17)
A couple of things are worth noting here. First, there is a set progression in how to handle such situations, starting with approaching the other person one on one. Interpersonal conflicts are to be handled at the lowest possible level, and as privately as possible. If that doesn’t work, we’re supposed to try again, taking along one or two others as witnesses. We don’t take others along to “gang up” on the offender, but simply as witnesses. If that doesn’t work, only then is it to be taken to the faith community as a whole. Also, throughout all of these steps, the emphasis is on seeking reconciliation. The point here isn’t to achieve the public humiliation of the offender, but to effect healing of the relationship. Finally, if the offender won’t listen even to the church, Jesus says to “let such a one be to you as a Gentile or a tax collector.” This from a guy who spent a lot of time (and got in a lot of trouble for) eating with, socializing with and ministering to (you guessed it) Gentiles and tax collectors. In other words, no one gets written off.
Just as important is to note what is not said in any of this. Nowhere in the process Jesus lays out are the steps “retaliate in kind” or “blast the offender with vague but transparent posts on social media” listed. Nor does Jesus endorse copping out when life in community gets tough and saying “I’m done with this community of faith, I’m outta here.” On the contrary, Jesus commands us to double down on those relationships that are tough and to take risks to heal them.
This is yet another place where Jesus’ teaching is profoundly countercultural. The prevailing wisdom in our culture is still “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,” a way of thinking that Jesus specifically rejects in the Sermon on the Mount (cf. Matthew 5:38-41). Another body of prevailing wisdom says that it is okay to cut certain people out of our lives in the name of personal safety and our own emotional health. Jesus, however, encourages a kind of risky discipleship, the kind of discipleship that is willing to risk being hurt in order to preserve and heal relationships. Yes, we do need to attend to matters of personal safety. (For instance, I’m not suggesting that an abused wife should take this approach with her abuser at the risk of bodily harm.) The notion of personal safety, though, has been warped from “avoiding grievous bodily harm” into “avoiding feeling uncomfortable”. This has seriously detrimental effects both to the individuals involved and to the community of faith as a whole. On a micro level, it perpetuates broken relationship. On a macro level, it leads to bailing out of a community of faith instead of working to make it healthier.
That brings me to two observations about following these instructions from Jesus. First, it is uncomfortable. It is much easier to complain loudly to those who will affirm our victim status than it is to seek reconciliation with those who have wronged us. Doing the former is easy, and tends to feel good; doing the latter is uncomfortable, and runs the risk that we may be confronted with, and have to repent for, our own part in the situation. One of the benefits of playing the victim is that victims are rarely held accountable.
The second observation, though, trumps the first, at least in my mind: in my experience, doing what Jesus commands actually works. The congregation in which I served my first call was a deeply conflicted community. Long-standing grudges were everywhere, and at least once a week I was approached by someone complaining about how they were aggrieved by someone else in the congregation. Finally, in self-defense, I started reading Matthew 18:15-17 with people and encouraging them to follow the progression Jesus laid out, offering to be one of the “one or two others” if going to the offender alone didn’t work. I’d talk them through how they were going to approach the conversation and pray with them for courage and reconciliation. I must have done that over a dozen times in the course of two years, and in almost every case, the conflict was resolved at the first step. The only exception in which we had to progress to the second step was a case in which the offender refused to even talk to the person seeking reconciliation. In the vast majority of cases, the person who had caused the offense was unaware that they had done something harmful. In every case except the one noted above, once the fault was pointed out in a way that made clear that the goal was reconciliation, the offending party was willing to apologize and set right the wrong.
Discipleship as Jesus teaches it is not easy, nor is it always comfortable. It is, however, the way of life and healing and wholeness, but only if we’re willing to take it seriously.