Reading Matthew 18:15-17 as a Joke.

The passage Matthew 18:15-17, where Jesus talks about how to treat believers who continue to sin, is often pointed to as permission to “speak authority into the lives of others” or to cast out particular members of a church. But is Jesus, who generally seems to hate rigid systems, really giving us legal procedure for excommunication in this passage, or is something else going on?

The passage reads as follows:

15 “If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother.

16 “But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed.

17 “If he refuses to listen to them, 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.”

I think that the last phrase, “let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector” should be thought of as something of a punchline of sorts. By way of explanation, let’s look at how Jesus treats a tax collector. In Luke 19, Jesus (as my Bible titles it) “Brings Salvation to Zaccheus’s home.”[1]

In that passage, Jesus elects to stay with Zaccheus, a tax collector. Luke 19:5. This is phrased as a statement rather than a request. We are even told that the crowd “began to grumble, saying, ‘He has gone to be the guest of a man who is a sinner.’” Luke 19:7. Note that the crowd wants to condemn, while Jesus wants to demonstrate compassion.

The presence of Jesus, as it is wont to do, brings about a transformation in Zaccheus, who promises to right his wrongs. Luke 19:8. Then, Jesus tells him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.” Luke 19-9-10.

This takes us back to Matthew. Based on Jesus’ treatment of Zaccheus, I would suggest a paraphrase of Matthew 18:15-17 that does something like this:

“Jesus said, ‘If a believer in your midst is a sinner, go and help him not to sin. If you win him over, he wasn’t an intentional sinner. If he continues to sin, take some other people to talk to him again, to make sure that it’s clear what was said. If he still continues to sin, he might be a true sinner, and you need to put him before the church. If even after being put before the church he continues to sin, he might be a really bad sinner, so you should continue to do the best you can to love him like I’ve been telling you to do this whole time!’[2]

Comedian Bo Burnham says, “For me, if you distill comedy down, it is surprise and the unexpected. That has to be it on its most base level, in any form.” I think many professional comics would agree, and that’s exactly what Jesus is playing off of here—he knows that (as we see in the Luke passage) the crowd expects condemnation. He twists that expectation with an exhortation to compassion, and there is a hopeful humor to be found there.

It is important to note that Matthew 18:15-17 is followed by the Parable of the Unforgiving Debtor (Matthew 18:21-35), which Jesus begins by warning Peter not to forgive just seven times, but “seventy times seven” times. Matthew 18:22. Keep in mind that seven is a number of Biblical completeness.

In the parable, Jesus contrasts the righteousness of one who will forgive an insurmountable debt with one who, having been forgiven, will not himself forgive a (relatively speaking, of course) trifling debt. The passage concludes with a stern warning from Jesus: “My heavenly Father will also do the same to you, if each of you does not forgive his brother from your heart.”

If we take the “traditional” approach of interpreting Matthew 18:15-17 as the proper procedure to earn the “right” to condemn someone and to cast them out, the Parable of the Unforgiving Debtor is a strange passage to follow. But if we believe that the ultimate point of Matthew 18:15-17 is to tell us not to condemn but to love (and I think it’s fair to say that Jesus’ words in the scriptures never give us permission to condemn), then there is no apparent conflict between the two passages.

Some caveats are probably due here. I am not asserting that we should not oppose sin and help others to defeat their own sin, although how we do that is worth a (very) complex discussion at another time. Instead, I’m trying to communicate through the above interpretation that Jesus wants us to be compassionate to others above all else, and that we are not to condemn.

As important, I want to affirm that there is a difference between distancing yourself from some people and casting them out with condemnation. There will be people in all of our lives who, for many different reasons, it is not beneficial for us to associate with. This could be about temptation, or the abusive behavior or one of many other difficult social and psychological issues. If a destructive person does not want to change, you don’t need to put yourself in that person’s path to be left in his wake. But, as much as you can, as often as you can, in every way that you can, you ought to be compassionate.


[1] Admittedly, there is a disconnect in jumping from one Gospel to another for explanation here, and there are certainly historical and literary criticisms to be made for my doing so. In one sense, such criticism is lessened if we are to believe Q theory as the source of both Matthew and Luke. For my part, I’m going to take a more Barthian and Tillichian approach and assert that we should use the person of Christ (as the manifest Word of God) as the lens through which all scripture is interpreted. I assume that both passages are generally reliable relations of actual events meant to be taken seriously (even while claiming one is a joke—the best jokes educate and delight).

[2] I am tempted to add expletives for effect to the last line of the paraphrase (mostly because it makes it funnier to me), but I think you get the point as it is.

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