I once saw it written: “If you flip people’s tables, you better be prepared to die for them.” This line has stuck with me for many years, serving as a heart check when my motive is straying from love to judgment. When Jesus flipped the tables of the money changers in the Temple, he saw what should not be and pointed it out in dramatic fashion. But just as many times, if not much more often, Jesus “flipped people’s tables” with simple love that gently commanded, “Go and sin no more.”
In Matthew 18, Jesus teaches his followers how to echo this charge when dealing with sin among their community. The general idea is that first, you should go to the person directly and talk to them privately about what you see as harmful to them or others. These kind of conversations are what we’ve been discussing during a lot of this series, Speak Life, over the last few months.
But what do I do if my friend doesn’t listen? What do I do when my friend is so caught up in a sin that a conversation isn’t enough to help her see the truth or the way through?
In this passage, Jesus tells us to keep trying by taking one or two others along for another conversation. The idea here isn’t ganging up on someone, but rather offering more voices of wise counsel. In our context this might look like bringing in another close friend from your same small group, or a trusted mentor or leader.
But what if they still don’t listen to wise counsel? Jesus goes on to say that if they still refuse to listen, you should bring the matter to the church. But this is where I start to say – Wait a second…You’re telling me that I should bring someone else’s personal sin struggle out into the public? That sounds a lot like gossip and pretty unkind! That doesn’t sound like Jesus’ MO at all, so I must be missing something here.
As I’ve wrestled with this passage and it’s modern-day application over the past years, two important contextual pieces keep rising to the surface for me, which I think are important to consider if you find yourself in a situation where this passage feels relevant.
1. Does “church” mean the same thing to Jesus here as it does to me today?
The “church” as we know it today was founded upon Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, but Jesus said this before he even went to the cross. So, is he talking to the church as I know it today?
Jesus does use the word ekklesia here, usually translated as “church,” but let’s remember that, when he uses it here, he’s talking to his actual followers during his earthly ministry in their cultural context (Matt. 18:1). The “church” of today was not his original audience. When Jesus says “church” here, he’s speaking directly about the assembly of his followers in a local area, much more akin to what would become house churches or your small group than the way we think of church today.
A better question, then, is, does it also apply to my understanding of “church” today, even though that wasn’t exactly how Jesus was using the word when he said it? Does parading someone up in front of a large body of believers to deal with a sin in their life today line up with Jesus’ teaching here and elsewhere?
Some argue that it does, but when we look at the whole body of Jesus’ teachings, which seem to prioritize humility, sacrifice, and honor of others, many struggle to harmonize this interpretation. Rather, if we translate Jesus’ use of “church” to apply to an assembly of similar size and relational closeness in our lives today as the one he was addressing when he said this, we’re much more likely to find a teaching that is in line with the whole counsel of his earthly ministry. When we read this passage as saying to talk one-on-one, then with a couple people, and then maybe with your small group, trusted inner circle, your “tribe” – however you want to think of it – this seems more in line with Jesus’ overall message as presented in the Gospels.
However, if I’m being honest, it still feels a bit too “interventiony” to be effective. Could there be anything else I’m missing here?
The second contextual piece that I think is important to understand for this passage when we’re using it to understand a way forward in helping a friend break free from a sin, is the culture into which Jesus spoke this teaching.
2. Did Jesus and his audience have the same worldview, values, and cultural lens as I do?
In the first century and still in much of the Eastern world today, an honor-shame culture as opposed to an individualistic culture drives our most basic decisions and thinking processes. In the Western world of today, we have grown up in an individualistic culture. It says trust yourself first, do what makes you happy, practice self-care as priority, and pursue your dreams. An honor-shame culture, on the other hand, holds the honor of the group as highest priority over honor of the self. Ones’ actions either bring honor to the collective, or they bring shame. And that is more important in this kind of culture than whether one’s actions bring honor or shame to the individual. In our culture, though, we primarily operate, at least in this current cultural moment, in an individualistic way. The individual’s honor or shame is a higher priority in most circles than that of the collective. Neither of these ways is inherently right or wrong, they’re just different value systems and ways to see the world. Naturally, though, we assume that what we know is best. If you want to see this in action, watch the Disney movie Mulan, which is a great example of a Western individualistic mindset challenging an honor-shame culture and assuming the latter to be inferior.
Understanding these two extremely different (yet equally valid) ways of seeing the world has been hugely helpful for me in understanding many Biblical passages, particularly how they would’ve come off to their original audience versus how they sound to me. For example, in the case of Matthew 18, to a culture that highly values the collective’s honor, bringing sin before the assembly might have more positive impact on the person than it would in an individualistic society. Doing that in our culture would bring shame on the person, but rather than that shame bringing conviction and a desire to correct to restore collective honor, the individual would likely choose to separate from the collective because pursuing one’s individual needs, comfort, happiness, purpose, etc. is held in higher priority than unity of the collective. To a person that highly values the opinion and honor of the collective over their own opinions and honor, however, for whom breaking from the collective is a highly undesirable option culturally-speaking, such an intervention might indeed sway them.
To be honest, at the end of the day, I’m still wrestling with “Phase 3” of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 18. I fully believe Jesus’ guidance for my life is trustworthy, but I’m still working out whether I correctly understand his heart here, because that part feels problematic to me. And if you’re there too, you have permission to hold space for these kind of tensions in your study and application of Scripture. If you needed to hear that, then let me assure you: it’s okay to wrestle – good, in fact.
However, what Jesus says next is certainly still relevant for us, as long as we read it right.
At the end of verse 17, he says, “and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” When I first read that years ago, my assumed understanding was “treat them as an”…outcast, because I knew pagans and tax collectors were outcasts in first-century Jewish culture. And, unfortunately, I don’t think I’m alone in that misguided thought. Church history is grievously littered with the practice of kicking someone out of the church when they misbehave.
But when we actually look at Jesus’ life and example regarding how he treated tax collectors, non-Jews (pagans), and the other outcasts of his society, we find stark contrast to that mentality. Jesus didn’t expel unbelievers from his presence. He became their friend and trusted them with his message. Jesus didn’t glare or even spit at tax collectors, as was often the practice of the day. He ate dinner at their houses and invited them into his life. Jesus didn’t look down on or reject those in society who didn’t meet his standard. He loved them, in practical, every-day ways, and in the theoretical, big-picture way: all the way to the cross and back.
When Jesus says to treat someone caught in sin who won’t listen to wise counsel like a pagan or tax collector, he’s not saying to treat them like an outcast or kick them out of the community of believers. He’s calling us to love them like he did, to love them in word and in action, and maybe to even love them back into right relationship with their Father.
When we have a friend caught in sin, particularly sin that has become an entrenched part of their lives, we can try to talk to them. In fact, I’ve spent quite a bit of time talking about how to do that the past few months. And we can practice Jesus’ method of bringing in some wise counsel to help us encourage them. It might not seem like they’re listening, but remember, you don’t know when the Holy Spirit will work on their head and heart using your words. But even if they don’t seem like they’re listening and when it seems like they’re choosing to stay stuck, our directive is clear: we love them like we love the lost.
And so maybe, as we talk to and pray for our friends caught up in sin who don’t seem to even want to find a way out, as we speak truth and pray for them to find clarity and bravery to act, maybe we also pray for our own hearts: that we would have Jesus’ heart for the lost, for the captive.
And when our heart toward our friend caught in sin is right, we can practice Paul’s advice in 2 Timothy 4:2 with grace and love, which says: “Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage–with great patience and careful instruction.”
1. We can preach the Word – not with judgment in our hearts, but as the lifeline to pull us out of corrupt thinking, darkness, and hopelessness.
2. We can be prepared in season and out. We don’t have to plan an intervention. We must be ready to speak truth with love in season – when we’re ready for it – and out – when they catch us off guard, but they’re suddenly ready to talk.
3. We can be ready to correct, rebuke, AND encourage. In the Greek, correction implies the idea of, “this is wrong,” and rebuke says, “stop doing it.” Some people just stop there. But we are called to also encourage, which says, “do this instead.” Jesus didn’t just say “go and sin no more” to the lost he encountered; he taught everywhere he went how to live a Godly life.
4. And finally, we can do this with great patience and careful instruction. We love and we love and we love. And when we feel like it’s not getting through, like it doesn’t matter, like our careful instruction is falling on deaf ears…we love some more.
Love ya, friend.
Your Sister, Kimber
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