In this coming Sunday’s gospel (Matthew 18:15-20, Proper 18A) the final step in Jesus’ system of reconciling differences in the church allows for the non-repentant offender to be treated as someone who is lost to the community – lost in the manner of a Gentile, or a tax collector. I think there’s significance in those particular words, as opposed to “casting into outer darkness” or something permanently damning. After all, who did Jesus accept and spend time with, even eat with and forgive, much to the consternation of the religious elite of his day, the scribes and Pharisees? The answer is: Gentiles and tax collectors. There’s even a bit of irony here, because this particular gospel was written in the name of one who was a tax collector! So like that lost sheep that the shepherd goes and finds, there is always hope of restoration and reconciliation, even if one has to go back and start over. Perhaps this was Jesus’ way of warning the church not abuse its authority to “bind and loose” – that is, decide whom to forgive and accept back into fellowship, and who would be excommunicated and thus lose hope of salvation. And, he promised to be in the midst of even the smallest gathering of believers, to guide their decision making.
The world of first century Christianity was much smaller, and its worldview so vastly different from ours that we can barely begin to compare them. Our lives are not isolated, and for many of us, no matter how faithful, the church may no longer be our primary form of community; we move in many diverse circles, some of which barely overlap one another. Though Jesus’ words are clearly intended for the church, is there a message here for us about forgiving and reconciling with those outside it? The larger message in this gospel tells us that our behavior, no matter where we may be, should always be modeled after the life and teachings of Jesus: courageous honesty, true humility, and above all, love. We bring those virtues to any of our damaged relationships, and we have the tools of reconciliation.