When another member of the Church hurts, offends, or wrongs us, Jesus offers some straightforward, practical directions on how to maintain the bonds of peace in the congregation. These instructions consist of three steps.
First, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.”
In other words, the person with the grievance is the one who must take the initiative to rectify the problem. How often this is precisely what does not happen! We suffer some insult or injury and, instead of taking the matter up with the perpetrator, we either nurse a grudge, or complain to everyone except the person who has offended us. Nothing stirs up division and dissension in a church community more than people grumbling behind each other’s backs. But here our Lord is telling us: If someone has offended you, first of all take it up with that person, directly, and privately. That way, you might be able to achieve reconciliation without stirring up trouble and making the situation worse.
Sometimes this direct approach works; sometimes it does not. So, then, the second step: “If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of one or two witnesses.”
If we cannot work out our differences one to one, then we need to bring one or two friends into the picture. If the offender does not listen to us, perhaps he will listen to them. These third parties might even help us see some merit in the other person’s position that we cannot see by ourselves. More to the point, if this second step fails, we have gained witnesses who can corroborate our grievance when we move to the third step.
The third step may be the most problematic for contemporary readers: “tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
The early Christians took literally this command to “tell it to the church.” When members of the congregation had complaints against one another, they would stand up in church and air their grievances. The whole congregation would listen and try to arbitrate. The Eucharist could not proceed until both parties were reconciled, or the guilty party, if unrepentant, had been expelled from the assembly.
Not surprisingly, this procedure caused more problems than it solved. It was gradually replaced by the understanding that “telling it to the church” would be accomplished better by telling it to one of the church’s authorized representatives, namely, the clergy. Most clergy do not relish the thought of trying to mediate their parishioners’ disputes. But since the body of Christ is wounded by discord among its members, one of the ministries to which the clergy have been ordained is that of reconciliation. When any two people in the parish are at odds with each other, it is the clergy’s business.
The point of the three steps is that when discord arises we must do everything we possibly can to be at peace with one another. When a fellow church member sins against us, rather than retaliating, we are to offer them these three opportunities for repentance and reconciliation. Christ has shown his love for us by reconciling us to God. And it’s precisely in mutual forgiveness that we begin to show Christ’s love to one another and to the world.
Look It Up
How is our understanding of today’s Gospel illuminated by the use of the phrase “two or three witnesses” in Deuteronomy 17:6 and 19:15, 2 Corinthians 13:1, 1 Timothy 5:19, and Hebrews 10:58?
Think About It
Recall instances of conflict or discord in your parish or congregation. How might they have turned out differently if the procedure outlined in today’s Gospel had been followed?