Forgiveness and Community
Yesterday, we emphasized the sonship of the two brothers in the parable of the prodigal son. Today, being brothers in the family of God is again a central theme. In most English translations, the following teaching begins, “If another member of the church sins against you….” But in the original Greek, it reads as follows:
[Jesus said,] “If your brother sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If he listens to you, you have regained your brother. 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 he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he 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).
The earliest Christians saw themselves as having been adopted into the family of God as legitimate sons, fully authorized to carry out God’s mission. Hence, to one another, they were brothers.
• For women in Christian communities, seeing themselves as “sons” was a status upgrade. It makes sense in our context to be sure that when the Gospel is read aloud in church it doesn’t exclude women who are listening, who will not relate to the term “brother.” Thus, most of the translations we hear in church use phrases like “member of the church,” since that is the sense of the counsel given here – it pertains to all, not merely to the men in the church.
• But for purposes of study, it is important for us to take into account the strength of early Christians’ sense that they were part of the household of God, and that they were as concerned for their fellow Christians as one would be for a beloved brother, with whom one shared the father’s work.
• So what should you do if a brother sins against you?
As we learned in the story of the prodigal, the sons in traditional families had the role of carrying out the work of their father.
• Thus, in Christian community it is the mission of all (since all are sons) to carry out the mission of God, reconciling the world to God and to one another.
• If members of the community are at odds with one another, how will they ever be able to carry out God’s reconciling mission in the world at large?
This teaching of Jesus (which is found only in the Gospel of Matthew) is a guide for working out accountability in Christian community.
• The issue is handled at the lowest possible level, beginning with a
straightforward conversation between the two people involved (perhaps to
limit the public shame of the offender?); then involving a very small number of others; at last involving the community as a whole in the deliberations.
• The issue of one person harming another is not swept under the rug, but is seen as being significant to the whole community, affecting the whole community’s integrity.
• One of the most important aspects of Christian witness is their own churches’ modeling of practices of forgiveness and reconciliation.
Questions for Reflection
• Have you had experiences of a church community that had practices of accountability like the ones Jesus teaches in Matthew 18?
• What has been the most difficult experience of forgiveness that you have worked out? Did you involve others in any way, from giving you counsel to accompanying you in your conversation with the person you were having trouble with?
• What common values do the people in the teaching presumably share, even though one has sinned against the other? Do you think that this process would work with people who are not part of a Christian community together? What would make the process more or less fruitful?
God of all, you have given us to one another as a gift of true community. Teach us day by day how to value human community, how to guard it with practices of forgiveness, and how to be willing to be held accountable to one another and to you. We pray this in the name of Jesus, our teacher, brother, and guide. Amen.