Matthew 18:15-18

SEEKING THE STUBBORN

Matt. 18:15-18

“If your brother sins against you, go, and try to convince him of his error between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. If he will not listen to you, take with you one or two more, that the whole matter may be established in the mouth of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the Church. And if he refuses to listen to the Church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector. This is the truth I tell you–all that you bind upon earth will remain bound in heaven; and all that you loose upon earth will remain loosed in heaven.”

In many ways this is one of the most difficult passages to interpret in the whole of Matthew’s gospel. Its difficulty lies in the undoubted fact that it does not ring true; it does not sound like Jesus; it sounds much more like the regulations of an ecclesiastical committee.

We may go further. It is not possible that Jesus said this in its present form. Jesus could not have told his disciples to take things to the Church, for it did not exist; and the passage implies a fully developed and organized Church with a system of ecclesiastical discipline. What is more, it speaks of tax-collectors and Gentiles as irreclaimable outsiders. Yet Jesus was accused of being the friend of tax-gatherers and sinners; and he never spoke of them as hopeless outsiders, but always with sympathy and love, and even with praise (compare Matt. 9:10ff; Matt. 11:19; Lk.18:10ff; and especially Matt. 21:31ff, where it is actually said that the tax-gatherers and harlots will go into the Kingdom before the orthodox religious people of the time). Further, the whole tone of the passage is that there is a limit to forgiveness, that there comes a time when a man may be abandoned as beyond hope, counsel which it is impossible to think of Jesus giving.
And the last verse actually seems to give the Church the power to retain and to forgive sins. There are many reasons to make us think that this, as it stands, cannot be a correct report of the words of Jesus, but an adaptation made by the Church in later days, when Church discipline was rather a thing of rules and regulations than of love and forgiveness.

Although this passage is certainly not a correct report of what Jesus said, it is equally certain that it goes back to something he did say. Can we press behind it and come to the actual commandment of Jesus? At its widest what Jesus was saying was, “If anyone sins against you, spare no effort to make that man admit his fault, and to get things right again between you and him.” Basically it means that we must never tolerate any situation in which there is a breach of personal relationships between us and another member of the Christian community.

Suppose something does go wrong, what are we to do to put it right? This passage presents us with a whole scheme of action for the mending of broken relationships within the Christian fellowship.

(i) If we feel that someone has wronged us, we should immediately put our complaint into words. The worst thing that we can do about a wrong is to brood about it. That is fatal. It can poison the whole mind and life, until we can think of nothing else but our sense of personal injury. Any such feeling should be brought out into the open, faced, and stated, and often the very stating of it will show how unimportant and trivial the whole thing is.

(ii) If we feel that someone has wronged us, we should go to see him personally. More trouble has been caused by the writing of letters than by almost anything else. A letter may be misread and misunderstood; it may quite unconsciously convey a tone it was never meant to convey. If we have a difference with someone, there is only one way to settle it–and that is face to face. The spoken word can often settle a difference which the written word would only have exacerbated.

(iii) If a private and personal meeting fails of its purpose, we should take some wise person or persons with us. Deut.19:15 has it: “A single witness shall not prevail against a man for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offence that he has committed; only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses, shall a charge be sustained.” That is the saying which Matthew has in mind. But in this case the taking of the witnesses is not meant to be a way of proving to a man that he has committed an offence. It is meant to help the process of reconciliation. A man often hates those whom he has injured most of all; and it may well be that nothing we can say can win him back. But to talk matters over with some wise and kindly and gracious people present is to create a new atmosphere in which there is at least a chance that we should see ourselves “as others see us.” The Rabbis had a wise saying, “Judge not alone, for none may judge alone save One (that is God).”

(iv) If that still fails, we must take our personal troubles to the Christian fellowship. Why? Because troubles are never settled by going to law, or by Christless argument. Legalism merely produces further trouble. It is in an atmosphere of Christian prayer, Christian love and Christian fellowship that personal relationships may be righted. The clear assumption is that the Church fellowship is Christian, and seeks to judge everything, not in the light of a book of practice and procedure, but in the light of love.

(v) It is now we come to the difficult part. Matthew says that, if even that does not succeed, then the man who has wronged us is to be regarded as a Gentile and a tax-collector. The first impression is that the man must be abandoned as hopeless and irreclaimable, but that is precisely what Jesus cannot have meant. He never set limits to human forgiveness. What then did he mean?

We have seen that when he speaks of tax-gatherers and sinners he always does so with sympathy and gentleness and an appreciation of their good qualities. It may be that what Jesus said was something like this: “When you have done all this, when you have given the sinner every chance, and when he remains stubborn and obdurate, you may think that he is no better than a renegade tax-collector, or even a godless Gentile. Well, you may be right. But I have not found the tax-gatherers and the Gentiles hopeless. My experience of them is that they, too, have a heart to be touched; and there are many of them, like Matthew and Zacchaeus, who have become my best friends. Even if the stubborn sinner is like a tax-collector or a Gentile, you may still win him, as I have done.”

This, in fact, is not an injunction to abandon a man; it is a challenge to win him with the love which can touch even the hardest heart. It is not a statement that some men are hopeless; it is a statement that Jesus Christ has found no man hopeless–and neither must we.

(vi) Finally, there is the saying about loosing and binding. It is a difficult saying. It cannot mean that the Church can remit or forgive sins, and so settle a man’s destiny in time or in eternity. What it may well mean is that the relationships which we establish with our fellow-men last not only through time but into eternity–therefore we must get them right.

Back to: THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW (Chapters 11-28)

Back to: Barclay’s Commentary

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