OK, class, let’s take it from the top.
“If another member of the church sins against you, stew about it a good, long while and when you’ve calmed down, gather as many like-minded people as possible to talk about the person who has riled you. Speak endlessly about the person but never directly to them.”
The word of the Lord. No? Jesus didn’t say that? Shucks.
Again, from the top.
“If another member of the church sins against you, write a long and pointed angry letter to the person in the wrong, outlining your grievances. Write it, but also actually mail it. In fact, email it. Better yet, consider the “group” email and copy everyone in three counties who may agree with you. Maybe even post your grievances on Facebook.”
The word of the Lord. No? That wasn’t part of his counsel either? Darn it.
Lots of international villains fill the evening news and make us angry. But I suspect nothing raises one’s ire like the proximate “villain”—the neighbor, the co-worker, the church member, the lost friend who has wounded you.
Some of what Jesus says in the Gospels can be filed under “subjective ideal,” even if he didn’t mean it subjectively. However, his words in Matthew 18:15-20 are so blasted particular. Notice a few things about these instructions.
First, the one who’s been wronged makes the first move—exactly the opposite of how we usually go about reconciliation. Perhaps nursing the grudge, I often wait on the person who’s caused the hurt to step forward, apologize and ask for forgiveness. Sometimes I’m waiting a heck of a long time and the falling-out becomes full-blown. Jesus shifts the responsibility of initiating reconciliation onto the one who’s been sinned against.
Second, the infraction is named aloud. This is actually the difficult purpose of the meeting: to be honest about what created the enmity. Sometimes the perpetrator can be oblivious to the damage he or she has caused. “Point out the fault,” Jesus says.
This is difficult advice, risking self-righteousness. “But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (Ephesians 4:15). There’s a tendency to speak the truth in anger or speak lovingly and avoid any truth. Holding love and truth in balance is a prayerful challenge.
Third, this meeting is private. Jesus describes other steps if the meeting fails, but at first this involves only two people. A human sinner like me often seeks a collaboration of supportive gossip. Jesus instead desires face-to-face reconciliation “when the two of you are alone.”
There’s a tendency to speak the truth in anger or speak lovingly and avoid any truth. Holding love and truth in balance is a prayerful challenge.
There are many troubling news stories in the world today that test our faith and discipleship. Our response to such stories is a clear litmus test of our commitment to Jesus and his church.
But another test of faith resides much closer to home—namely, how we interact with people who have wounded us. We have some options. One is to avoid such people forever. Your town (or church) is big enough that you could probably pull that off.
Or you could do something a little crazy, a little countercultural. You could consider acting upon Jesus’ teachings. Living the true spirit of these words is crucifying work—literally. We are offering up our sense of fairness in the matter for the sake of the one who has wounded us. Additionally, the chance always exists that you will not be received with juice and cookies on the other end.
As he hung there that Friday so long ago, setting aside his own innocence on behalf of those who were crucifying him, did Jesus remember this teaching about making the first move? Did he recall these specific steps of reconciliation as he somehow looked down with love upon those who were wounding him?
It’s our move, not theirs.