Or: how Matthew 18 is not “how to throw people out of the church in three easy steps.”
When I first saw this passage, it seemed so simple. When someone in life irritates you, this is how you kick them out for good and all with biblical backing. It was an obvious roadmap to throwing people out of the church/kicking them out of your life with the blessing of Almighty God thrown into the bargain. And then I started reading the Old Testament more closely, and learned Greek, and the whole “throw out the jerks with God’s blessing” thing fell apart.
You see, even in the Old Testament, the “ultra judgmental, throw them all out” God says things like “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked.” Again and again, there are laments over hard human hearts that will not give God space. While the judgmental language is still there, there’s also lot of longing for those “outside.” And then, like I said, I learned Greek.
The key word in this part of the Good News According to Matthew is kerdaino “to gain.” As in “if they listen to you, you have gained them.” This means that the whole goal of this three step process is to gain our brother or sister. For extra fun, the word for gain means “to gain at a profit” and is used in that famous passage about “what good is it for a person to gain the whole cosmos and yet lose their being?” Thus, the point of this process is to gain our sister or brother once more, and to gain them at a profit no less.
Far from “how to kick them out” this is “how to gain them (and ourselves).” Adding to the fun, once we realize that the purpose of this process is to gain rather than lose the other, the whole getting-others-involved thing becomes more interesting. In the standard reading, these people are here to help back up our word in order to get Them to back down. We gather up a carefully selected mob to make sure that “that idiot” surrenders to our righteousness. This makes the process one of “crushing our enemies, seeing them driven before us, and hearing the lamentation of their women.” For some reason, this just doesn’t square with Jesus or the power of resurrection.
If instead of submission to our victory, the goal is gaining with benefits, the people who come along with us take on another shape. They are brought along not so much to provide intimidation as to enable both parties to stay on task. Instead of a mass of screaming partisans, they are there to cool tempers and keep us focused on the actual process of reconciliation.
But wait, you say, what about that whole ‘tax collectors and sinners” bit? Isn’t that a clear sign that we really are focused on kicking people out? Um, have you been paying any attention to Jesus? He got a regular ration of complaint from the Righteous because he spent so much time with tax collecters and sinners. In fact, Luke 15, that famous and beloved chapter where we find the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost sons took place when Jesus was hanging out with the tax collectors and sinners (and didn’t the Righteous get miffed at that!)
So the point of this three step process is to gain our neighbor, our sister or brother, rather than to kick them out. The people we take this to are there to confirm what is true and pull us up short when we go to exageration-town and keep us focused on getting the issue resolved. And if the break means we need to take a break, we are sent out to each other in hopes of gaining each other back again.
In a very large sense, we are sent out to do it like Jesus did. To go to those who have broken relationship and use our whole life to work toward reconciliation, with the goal of gaining the other. We are not going to get it perfectly right because only Jesus is perfect. We do however, still have to try.
Even though it is emotionally tempting to read it this way, this text is not a pattern for us to kick people out. Ultimately, we can’t actually vote people off the island because it is Jesus’ island thankyouverymuch. What we can do is go out to each other, seek for the heart of each other, open our own hearts to each other, and build a reconciled Body of Christ in this world that would rather throw us (and everyone else) away.