Beloved Gentiles & Tax Collectors


Pentecost 15A2023
Matthew 18:15-20

At the beginning of Matthew 18, the disciples come to Jesus and ask him, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Imagine Jesus receiving this question. He knows each of the disciples are wondering: Is it me? He knows of their conflict with each other and that they wish to solve it by asserting their greatness. He maybe sighs as he looks back on everything he has taught them in the previous 17 chapters. Oh, disciples, gotta love ya even though you don’t really get it. To underline his point that greatness is not about righteousness, wisdom, or authority, Jesus calls over a child and says: “Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” Thus begins Matthew 18’s string of teaching about how to live in Christian community. With humility. By not setting up stumbling blocks for others. By caring for the most vulnerable. And finally in today’s passage: Dealing with conflict by leaning into relationships instead of avoiding conflict or severing relationships.

In the context of the community he shares with his twelve disciples, Jesus instructs the disciples what to do when another member of the church sins against them, like whatever conflict sparked them to ask who the greatest in the kingdom of heaven was. The word translated here as “member” is really, in Greek, adelphos or “brother” as in Phila-delphia, the city of brotherly love. The conflict of which Jesus speaks is not just with a random member of a large church—even though that’s the English translation offered us. Jesus is talking about conflict with another sister or brother in Christ, a sibling part of the same Christian family, someone with whom we share in community, as Jesus and the disciples do. But we know that, even in close relationships, perhaps especially in family relationships as the “brother and sister” language implies, conflict can be difficult.

Not so many years ago, a family member and I were embroiled in deep conflict. It surprised me, to be honest. But this conflict was a doozy involving tears streaming down my face as they spoke to me, long emails trying to get clarity, a holiday spent apart, meetings begun with ground rules and prayer. Mid-way through dealing with this conflict, I contemplated just giving up the relationship. This person was impossible. They never listened to me. They weren’t worth all this time and effort. I really thought my future may no longer include family holidays. But that’s when I noticed that my family member wasn’t giving up. Is it possible they were wiser than me on this point? Maybe more familiar with Jesus’ teaching today?

For Jesus teaches the disciples that, when there is conflict, when someone sins against us, we don’t walk away from the relationship. We don’t avoid the conflict and pretend it isn’t happening. We also don’t grow more and more distant from the person over time—with the other person not really knowing why. We don’t complain about them to other people. Instead, Jesus teaches, we go talk with them one on one about the problem. If that doesn’t go well, we might ask another person to come and help mediate the conversation. And if even that doesn’t work, we talk about the problem as a whole community or whole family with the hope of someone bringing a different perspective that will resolve the conflict. If conflict still persists, Jesus says: let that one be to you as a Gentile or tax collector. While there was no love lost between Gentiles, tax collectors, and the average first century Jew, we know from the gospels that Jesus counts Gentiles and tax collectors as followers of his and even beloved friends such as Matthew the tax collector-turned-disciple. Far from commanding the disciples to ostracize or marginalize a brother or sister, Jesus teaches them to deepen their relationships with those with whom they have conflict.

As I said, my family member was a little faster on the uptake on this point than me. I was the one who haughtily declared I would pass on Thanksgiving that year. I was the one who refused to see them. I was the one who spun stories in my head about their motivations and intentions. But they kept on trying. Trying to listen, trying to talk with me, trying to understand. I finally succumbed to continuing the relationship. Not because the person is perfect but because I wish to be a loving person, because I wish to follow Jesus, because not loving them was really just hurting me. I realized the person with whom I had conflict needed very little from me in order to feel loved by me, and even if they cannot love me exactly the way I wish to be loved, I can easily care for them in the ways they desire. Even today, our relationship is not perfect, but no relationship ever is. Which is exactly why, I imagine, Jesus shares this teaching with the disciples.

It’s amusing now to look back on that conflict with my family member and amusing to realize that, every time I read this passage, I always assume it’s the other person who’s going to be in the wrong—instead of me. I think Jesus teaches the disciples to lean into relationships because that’s what he does with us. When we think we’re right. When we get haughty. When we don’t listen. When we don’t listen to Jesus or to two of his friends or even the whole church. We are to him a Gentile or a tax collector. But the good news is that, even in their waywardness, Gentiles and tax collectors are beloved. And so are we. Thanks be to God! Amen.