Face to Face

The whole passage from Matthew we heard this morning is printed in red: whenever Jesus speaks, the editors want his words to stand out. Our passage is part of a long teaching Jesus gives in response to the disciples who asked, “Who is the greatest  in the kingdom of heaven?” Jesus talks about children and humility, about stumbling blocks and lost sheep, all in very rich, metaphorical language – but then there is a noticeable change. “If a brother or sister sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” The words are printed in red, but Anna Carter Florence observes, “Jesus is so concrete and practical in this passage that you could swear he was Paul, writing to a feuding congregation. He tells the disciples what to do if [one sins against another,] and then offers step by step instructions for how to proceed.”[1] She is right, he does sound a little bit like Paul who wrote long, passionate letters to the church in Corinth to remind them and the church throughout all generations that we need each other in order to be whole.

Paul is often concrete and practical, but he’s no stranger to rich, metaphorical language. We need each other in order to be whole. We must pursue one another when sin creates a rift in our relationship. Paul says it beautifully: One member of the body of Christ cannot say to another, “I have no need of you.”[2]

Jesus may sound like he’s teaching a course on church polity; he may sound like he’s writing the article on excommunication for the bylaws, but he’s still responding to the disciples who are with him on the road to Jerusalem, wondering who will get the best seats in the kingdom.[3] They have their eyes and minds set on greatness and triumph, and he teaches them, teaches us the hard and humble work of reconciliation between one sinner and another.

A congregation is not just another organization that needs members and money and bylaws. Paul wants us to think about a body where every limb and organ is part of the whole. Jesus wants us to keep in mind the one lost sheep without which the flock is incomplete. He may sound like he’s starting to write the bylaws, but he’s teaching his followers how to be one body, how to be each other’s shepherds when sin has caused separation. We may be dreaming about greatness, but he teaches us to humbly seek and restore one another and cultivate gentleness, mercy and forgiveness.

Here is how it often goes, instead, and I’m not talking about any of you – I have plenty of illustrations from my own life. If a brother or sister sins against me, I want to tell somebody about it. I want to tell my story and make sure I get plenty of sympathy. I have been wronged. I have been harmed. I have been hurt. I may end up telling all my friends about it, but not the one person who, according to Jesus, needs to hear about it first and foremost. Or I just carry the weight of that sin around with me and don’t tell anyone. This is how it often goes. I know it’s not right, but often I can’t get my proud heart to relent. The Spirit urges me to mend the relationship, but the flesh is slow to go. Let me add that hesitation isn’t always bad; waiting a bit and pondering what has happened sometimes helps me see that just because I’m miffed with someone, doesn’t necessarily mean they’re in the wrong.

Jesus skips all the preliminaries and says, “Go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” You can add a cup of coffee, but beyond that it’s as basic as it gets: One-to-one. Face-to-face. Take a breath. Tell the truth.

Beverly Gaventa states quite elegantly, “Jesus’ counsel … demands a costly forthrightness that I normally reserve for the few and the greatly trusted.”[4] Yes indeed, Jesus’ counsel demands that I expand my small circle of the few and the greatly trusted to include all who are members of the community he has established. I may think that sin is a matter between me and God and between me and the other person, but Jesus has placed me and the other into this community of reconciliation. Consequently the rift sin has created between me and another is not a private matter, but the place where the whole fabric is torn. What we do or fail to do to each other has an impact not just on individual relationships, but on the community as a whole. In every instant, the whole community Christ has gathered is at stake.

Jesus teaches in the tradition of Israel’s covenant law, where we read in Leviticus, “You shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”[5] It is this particular expression of love Jesus points to when he says, “If a brother or sister sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” Face-to-face. Take a breath. Tell the truth. Hear them out. If the two of you can work it out, no one else needs to know. There was pain, there was guilt and shame, but now all is held in mutual love. In the place where the covenant of love was broken, it has also been restored.

Jesus continues, “If you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you.” You’re not bringing in additional troops to intimidate your brother or sister. You ask for their help so the two of you can hear each other out and come to a shared understanding of what happened. You ask for their prayers to hold you both in the mutual love of the community. If you can work it out, no one else needs to know. The relationship has been mended, the community is restored.

Jesus continues, “If the brother or sister refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church.” It is easy to see how this can go terribly wrong. First one, then several people, then an entire congregation confront one person with their sin, but instead of a humble confession, they only encounter a growing wall of silence. Some may describe such a coordinated effort as loving persistence, but the person at the center of their attention may experience their actions as harassment. Scenes from The Scarlet Letter come to mind where an entire community is all too eager to mark and exclude the “offender.” Jesus himself comes to mind, alone on the cross, outside the city gates, the excluded “offender,” violently excommunicated. Keep that image in mind for a moment.

“If the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a gentile and a tax collector.” A hard word of exclusion. But the one who said it died for gentiles, tax collectors and every other species of scoundrel on the face of the earth. The excluded are the very people Jesus seeks out to save and restore to community in his ministry.[6] So in one sense, treating someone “as a gentile and a tax collector” means rejection, exclusion, excommunication. In another sense, and quite ironically, it means the radical, offensive inclusion demanded by the gospel itself.[7]

I take this challenging dilemma as further encouragement to focus my attention on the beginning, the first step on the road to reconciliation. That first step is the bigger issue for me and, I suspect, all of us. Take a step. Face-to-face. Take a breath. Tell the truth. This approach to dealing with the reality of sin is tough. It is demanding. It is persistent. It doesn’t write off anyone. It hangs in there. Paul comes to mind again.[8] Love is patient. Love is kind. Love is demanding. Love is persistent. It doesn’t write off anyone. It keeps going back repeatedly to work toward reconciliation. “Owe no one anything, except to love one another,” Paul writes in Romans; “for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.”[9] In every relationship, the whole community Christ has gathered is at stake. The road to the brother or sister who has sinned against me is demanding and difficult, but it is the road Jesus has prepared for us. I must learn to be truthful without being hurtful. You must learn to say hard things gently. We must learn to live as people of the covenant by trusting the bond of love Christ has created between us.

Jesus says last, “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” To me, this is the verse that holds the entire passage together. “If a brother or sister sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.” One-to-one. Face-to-face. In his name. Not alone. When we gather in his name, we are never just the two or three of us. We are only together because of him and the work of reconciliation he has accomplished. At first glance, we may only see a sister struggling to find the right words to tell a brother how he has sinned against her. Now we see Jesus, one arm on her shoulder, the other on his. Trusting in the work and presence of Christ, we find the courage to bring each other back to the reconciled community.

Let me finish with another scene, one which at first glance has nothing to do with what Jesus teaches in this passage. On Friday morning, just hours before Jesus was crucified, Judas realized what he had done, and he brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders. He said, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” And they replied, “What is that to us? See to it yourself.” They left him alone with his guilt and his shame. He went and hanged himself.[10]

I wonder what might have happened if, instead of going to the chief priests and elders, Judas had gone to his brothers and sisters to confess. I wonder what might have happened if he had remembered the promise, “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” I wonder if mercy would have embraced him, a sinner among fellow sinners.


[1] Anna Carter Florence, Preaching the Lesson, Lectionary Homiletics Vol. 19, No. 5, p. 54

[2] 1 Corinthians 12:21

[3] See Thomas G. Long, Matthew (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 202

[4] Beverly Gaventa, “Costly Confrontation,” The Christian Century, August 11-18, 1993, p. 773

[5] Leviticus 19:17-18

[6] See, e.g. Matthew 9:10-13

[7] See Beverly Gaventa, “Costly Confrontation,” The Christian Century, August 11-18, 1993, p. 773

[8] See 1 Corinthians 13

[9] Romans 13:8

[10] Matthew 27:3-5