It’s a curious line, in today’s Gospel: “… treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.” Brothers and sisters sin against each other with some frequency. What are we to do when sinned against, offended, hurt, or emotionally bleeding? Sometimes people regret their own offenses, often as soon as the transgression takes place. Some do not. What do we do then? Should we just let our hurt lie there, unresolved? Should we make an issue of it? Should we rage against those who cut us? Should we sulk or withdraw in hurt?
The stages Jesus sets before us make profound sense. First, and sensibly, try to resolve things quietly, just between the two of you. Not every good intentioned individual is also sensitive. Some, when they discover their words or actions are hurtful, will be truly repentant. It may take some explanation for them to understand the consequences of what they’ve done. If there is any good will at all, and there often is, calm explanations will work better here than angry finger pointing, irony or guilt making. This approach of the Lord has the advantage of not shaming the other publicly.
Second, when a quiet conversation fails to work, bring in witnesses, where possible. This can be a necessary stage since some, even those of general good will, fail to listen to people close to them, family or friends. Familiarity can breed deafness as well as contempt. The practice of drawing in two or three witnesses draws upon the requirement of Deut 19:15 and Num 35:30 that, for any serious offense, the testimony of multiple witnesses was required. Having a few others, somewhat more distant, may lead your offending siblings to hear the weight of their actions in a new way.
Third, consult with the church. I’m often drawn into some of the most painful family situations, to listen and provide counsel. Sometimes the distance I have from the situation, and the freedom I have from the deep emotions poisoning people’s relationships, provide me with the clarity needed to intercede without heated passions, but with sympathy. I haven’t saved every marriage, or resolved every parent/child dispute, but I have been helpful for many.
Then, and only then, when even the intervention of the church fails, comes the curious encouragement to treat the offender as we might “a Gentile or tax collector.” In Matthew’s world, they were the outsider born in sin, the irredeemable foot soldier of Rome’s financial oppression.
Do you have a way of treating Gentiles and tax collectors? I know I don’t … and that may be the very point. I have no expectations of tax collectors. Perhaps the invitation is to address, not the offender, but myself. If I can’t change my “brother” then, perhaps, I’m going to have to change myself, my own expectations. If my brother or sister can’t or won’t turn from what hurts me, do I continue to give them enduring control over my emotions, denying me peace of mind and happiness? As I have no expectations of “Gentiles or tax collectors,” perhaps I need to have no expectations of my unrepentant, offending siblings.