Thought for the Week: 6th September 2020

Our thought this Sunday is by Steve Langton.

Love and reconciliation

15 ‘If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. 16 But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that “every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.” 17 If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector. (Matthew 18: 15-17)

This little section of Matthew’s gospel almost sounds like it should be from one of Paul’s letters.  This is partially because in our English translation the word ‘church’ is used, which makes us think of the early church after the resurrection.  In fact the word just refers to a group of believers.  However, the other reason is that it concerns disputes between people, and this was a common theme in many of Paul’s letters.

So why does Jesus describe this procedure for dispute resolution and why does the gospel writer think it worth including?  It could be because arguments sometimes broke out amongst Jesus’ followers – for example, we know about a rather silly dispute about who was the greatest (Luke 22: 24).  Or maybe Jesus foresaw the divisions of his future church, which would occupy so much of Paul’s time and so much of the time of Christian leaders ever since.  But perhaps he was just aware that human beings in all times and places have a natural tendency to squabble and so advice on resolving disputes was important.

The procedure starts by going to the person at fault and bringing the matter to their attention.  Some discretion is needed here – raising trivial grievances is liable to stir up trouble, whereas time can be the best healer.  But in many cases a tactful, quiet word in private may be sufficient to bring things into the open and clear up the dispute.  This does not come naturally to many of us, myself included, and we instead sweep things under the carpet, where they fester and cause further hurt.

If this stage doesn’t work, Jesus suggests involving a couple of others, and if that still doesn’t bring resolution, the whole church should be involved.  Finally, if no agreement is possible, Jesus suggests treating the person as you would a pagan or a tax collector.  This sounds harsh, but remember that Jesus emphasised the importance of loving our enemies, and one of the accusations levelled against him was that he mixed with tax collectors (Mark 2: 17).  So I would suggest that Jesus is not suggesting that we should be deliberately rude to such people, but rather that we should keep them at a distance, without the closeness that should characterise relationships within a fellowship of believers.

In today’s other new testament lesson (Romans 13:8-14) we are reminded of the second part of Jesus’ summary of the law ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’.  This is no coincidence; without love being shown by all parties even Jesus’ approach to disputes will struggle to achieve reconciliation.

Almighty God, you long to bring us to live together in harmony.  We thank you for providing us with an example of how to resolve disputes.  Fill us with your love so that we can show love to all people, particularly those we disagree with. Amen