Jesus did not shun tax-collectors

Matthew 18:15-17 presents a piece of advice from Jesus that seems wise and constructive:

If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector.

I like that passage itself, but I almost never agree with those who cite it.

Those four sentences are usually invoked for one of two reasons. The first typical conscription of this passage is by those attempting to deflect legitimate criticism. They hide behind this passage, insisting that Jesus’ words institute a strict, lawyerly process that must be legalistically followed, step-by-step, in every circumstance. Matthew 18:15-17 is often the last refuge of scoundrels.

The second form of conscription is to use this passage as a way to keep people in line, to squelch anyone who challenges authority by applying “church discipline” based on this text.

Both of those words present problems. If this passage describes “church discipline,” then it doesn’t mean “church” the way we mean that word, and it doesn’t mean “discipline” the way we mean it either.

Let’s start with that word “church.” That’s the word Jesus used, sort of, but it’s an anachronistic confusion to assume that he was using it the same way we use it. This thing we call “the church” did not exist during Jesus’ lifetime.

I like the way Garry Wills handled this in his book What Paul Meant. Wills uses “gathering,” rather than “church,” in order to avoid all the connotations that the latter term has accreted to itself in the centuries since Paul was writing and to help us not to read the term anachronistically. He explains this in an appendix, in which he also uses the word “Brothers,” rather than “Christians,” for similar reasons:

The Greek ekklesia simply means “gathering.” The meeting place of the Brothers was almost always in Paul’s time the house of a Brother or a Sister, or both — as in “the gathering at Prisca’s and Aquila’s house” (1 Cor. 16:19, Rom. 16:5) or “the gathering at your [Philemon's] house” (Phlm 2). So basic is this cell of the Brothers’ assembly that Paul could refer, as we have seen, to all the Brotherhood as “the housefellows (oikeioi) of our trust” (Gal. 6:10). Some towns or regions had two or more such gathering spots — like “the gatherings in Macedonia” (2 Cor. 8:1) or “the gatherings in Galatia” (Gal. 1:2) — with no hierarchy among them. All those in one city could be called, for instance, “God’s gathering at Corinth” (1 Cor. 1:2, 2 Cor. 1:1). What would later be called “the church” is, for Paul, “all the gatherings” (1 Cor. 4:17, 7:17, 14:33), “God’s gatherings” (1 Cor. 11:16), or simply “God’s gathering” (1 Cor. 10:32, 11:22, 15:9), or “the gathering” (1 Cor. 12:28).

If we want to say that Jesus gave instructions on “church discipline,” then we have to remember that whatever he meant by “church” could not have been the same as whatever it is we mean by it.

But Richard Beck describes a much larger problem with this second use of Matthew 18:15-17 — that whatever Jesus could have meant by “discipline” also likely isn’t the same as whatever it is we mean by it.

Beck’s objection centers on that final phrase of Jesus’ statement, “let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector” or, in the translation Beck uses, “treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”

Those who recite this passage as the basis for “church discipline” presume that this means “such a one” must be shunned as an outsider, just like pagans and tax-collectors must be shunned.

“But I wonder if that interpretation makes any sense,” Beck writes, meaning, of course, that this interpretation does not make any sense:

This passage in Matthew is found between two parables of forgiveness, the Parable of the Lost Sheep (Matthew 18.10-14) and the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matthew 18.21-35).

… In light of these parables which bookend Jesus’s discussion of “church discipline” how are we to understand Jesus’s call to treat the unrepentant as “pagans and tax collectors”? On the surface it seems that the message of Matthew 18.15-17 contradicts the parables surrounding it.

The key, I think, to resolving the tension is found in observing how Jesus interacted with “tax collectors and sinners.” …

How might this understanding — we treat tax collectors as Jesus treated tax collectors — change how people have read Matthew 18.15-17? Well, it changes it completely. No longer is this text read as a mandate for exclusion, as a warrant for kicking people out. Rather what we find is a mandate for inclusion, a warrant for sending and seeking and embracing.

Bingo.

  • michael mcshea

    You can shun strangers.  With tax collectors, you can only avoid them temporarily – death and taxes and all that. 

  • ako

    Wasn’t Matthew a former tax collector?  That kind of makes the whole “Treat as a tax collector=reject and shun” thing kind of implausible. 

  • Evan

    Fred has a great point.  However, what would you say about other places where Scripture does seem to indicate shunning?  Take, for example, I Corinthians 5:11:
    But now I have written unto you not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such an one no not to eat.

  • Patrick

    Isn’t it more plausible that the passage, or the surrounding passages, or some combination, do not actually represent the opinions of an actual historical Jesus?

    Putting tons of work into reconciling the irreconcilable is not an honorable task.  Its a Sisyphean one.

  • http://tobascodagama.com Tobasco da Gama

    I’ll never look at the “Gathering of the Juggalos” the same way again.

  • ConservativeWhitebread

    Bit of a non sequitur there.

  • erikagillian

    Don’t you try and convert a pagan?  Oh, maybe that’s too early in the story?  Pre-Paul?  Then I guess one treats them as one would like to be treated oneself, as one should treat everyone. 

    And possibly turn a tax collector into a disciple and then an apostle and finally the writer of a gospel?  Well, the nominal writer of the gospel :)

  • Michael Pullmann

    Whether in religion or role-playing games, nobody likes a Rules Lawyer.

  • ReverendRef

    and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector.

    I’ve always read this in the context of treating those “other” people as . . . well . . . people.  Jesus ate with Gentiles and tax collectors.  Jesus talked with them.  He healed them.

    Therefore, when this passage comes up in the Lectionary, I preach that this is how we are to treat those “other” people — we are to eat with them, talk with them, and, if possible, help to heal them.

    Treating them as Gentiles and tax collectors does NOT mean ignoring them or treating them as less than.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Speaking of not shunning?

    http://imgur.com/gallery/VwfDj

    That church is doing it right. It’s the next suburb (or two) over from where I live. :)

  • flat

    jesus safed us from the death, not from the tax collector

  • http://www.jesusandthebible.wordpress.com/ Lucas Dawn

    The context of Mt. 18:10-14 begins (v. 10) and ends (v. 14) by referring to “one of these little ones.” These are introduced in Mt. 18:6, where someone might be “scandalizing”  one of these little ones who believe in Jesus (causing one of these little ones to sin/stumble and fall away). Like the child (and children) of 18:2-4, one “such child” (a humble/lowly new disciple) is to be received/welcomed by the others (18:5) (others like the original disciples who argue about who is the greatest in 18:1).

    So the danger here is that disciples who think they are the greatest might “despise”  (18:10) one of these little ones. The despising could lead to scandalizing. Self-inflated stumbling blocks can cause lowly disciples to stumble and fall away. Jesus then uses metaphors to refer to these stumbling blocks (scandalizers): they are a hand or foot or eye that causes you to stumble/sin. Jesus says to cut off, or pluck out, such members of the “body” who cause others to stumble/sin and throw them out (18:8-9). But the little ones who have stumbled and fallen away from the “body” are to be found and received (welcomed) by the “body.”

    In this context, the “brother” sinning against another one in the “body” could be especially the more powerful one who thinks he is great and despises certain lowly ones.  Compare Gal. 2:11-12 where Cephas (the great Peter) is confronted “to his face” by Paul for separating himself from eating with the Gentiles (in the “body”). In this case Paul speaks to Peter in front of them all (Gentiles as well as Jews) since the issue concerns the whole body (Gal. 2:14). Peter feared the “circumcision party” that still did not welcome lowly (uncircumcised) Gentiles into the “body.”

    In Gal. 2:15 Paul refers to the customary division by Jews between “Jews by birth” and “Gentile sinners,” but goes on to say Jews cannot be justified by the works of their Jewish law. I think Mt. 18:17, about Gentiles and tax collectors has a similar “use.” Jesus is saying the brother who sins and refuses to repent after several degrees of discussion about the sin should be “as (like) the Gentile and tax collector (in the kingdom of Israel).” That is, “as” the Gentile and tax collector are outcasts in Israel, so the unrepentant brother should be an outcast in the church “body.” Jesus uses the customary division by Jews to make a point about unrepentant stumbling blocks.

    When Peter asks Jesus how many times he should forgive a brother who sins against him (a disciple who wants to be great, at this point), Jesus says not seven times but seventy-seven (Mt. 18:21-22), and then tells a parable about a king’s servant who received forgiveness from the king but then didn’t forgive a servant below him (the first servant). This warns Peter and other would-be great disciples that if they despise one of these little ones, they are in danger themselves.

  • Tricksterson

    If it’s in Matthew then it’s wouldn’t be pre-Paul.  Paul’s letters came first, then the Gospels.

  • erikagillian

    Oh, I was thinking in internal logic.  If you believe Matthew’s gospel is really about Jesus’ life then could he be talking about converting pagans since no pagans get converted till at least Acts.  I haven’t read the whole new testament so I really should just be quiet :)


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