You know those times when you’re reading a passage in the Bible and something suddenly jumps out at you? And it seems so obvious that you wonder why you hadn’t seen it before? Well, this was one of those moments. I was reading through Matthew 18, and came across the following passage:
“Moreover if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.’ And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.“ (Matt 18:15-17, emphasis added)
I’ve previously read through this passage many times, automatically assuming that it meant: “Here are the steps for when your brother sins against you. Do these things and if he is still unrepentant, remove him from the church and deliver such a one to satan.” After all, it made sense in light of 1 Corinthians 5:5, when Paul addressed an issue with those involved in sexually immorality. Paul says to “deliver such a one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.”
I never questioned it before and I had a lens of interpretation without even knowing it. However, on this one particular day, the fact that this passage was in red letters (the words of Jesus) stood out to me. And I found myself asking the question, “How did Jesus treat heathens and tax collectors?”
Immediately, I was reminded of Zacchaeus, a chief tax collector, and how Jesus invited himself over to Zacchaeus’ house for dinner. This resulted in Zacchaeus willingly repenting on his own initiative. I remembered how the Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery to Jesus and how He saved her from her accusers before telling her to ‘go and sin no more.’ Romans 2:4 says that the goodness of God leads to repentance. Jesus always showed unconditional love and compassion to heathens and tax collectors and this brought about repentance.
This made total sense, especially considering the very next thing Peter asked Jesus a couple verses later in Matthew 18. Peter asked how many times he should forgive his brother, and Jesus responded to forgive him up to seventy times seven. Peter must have understood that Jesus meant to not stop pursuing and unconditionally loving your brother, which prompted him to ask this follow-up question. Peter knew the character of Jesus, the one who looked at His sheep as sheep without a shepherd. I have never seen Jesus abandoning anyone. Instead, He is the Father who is always looking and waiting for His lost son to come back home.
This interpretation also makes sense in light of the previous section in Matthew 18. In this section, Jesus talked about leaving the ninety-nine sheep to go after the one that was astray. This would be in direct contrast to interpreting Matt 18:15-17 as a justification to remove someone from fellowship.
I came to the conclusion that I had in fact misinterpreted this passage. It was never God’s intention to give us a reason to exclude others or consider others as a lost cause. I think God is calling us to do the exact opposite. But I wonder if sometimes we have read it into the passage because sometimes it would be easier on us to do so. Here’s my stab at summarizing this passage: “If your brother remains unrepentant, then pursue him relentlessly with unconditional love. Invite yourself over to his house and have dinner with him. Silence his accusers and protect him. And the goodness of God will bring him to repentance.”