So, there I am, at a weekday Mass, mind wandering as usual (“Focus, man, focus! You’re at the threshold of heaven, and, um,…what does that guy’s t-shirt say?”), and we get to the Gospel:
Jesus said to his disciples: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have won over your brother. If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you…. If he refuses to listen to them, tell the Church. If he refuses to listen even to the Church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.”
Right, makes sense. There’s a progression here that both just and prudent – similar to what we do in our nursing program when there’s a complaint about a grade. It’s a subsidiarity thing: Start at the lowest level, closest to the source of the problem, and progress up the chain of command until…
Hey! Wait a doggone minute – hold on there! Did Jesus sneak one past us in that Gospel? The ol’ switcheroo perhaps? A little New Covenant flimflam?
I think so – see if you agree.
The dodge comes in the last line: “…as you would a Gentile of a tax collector.” It’s no secret that this is biblical code for the shunned and disdained – the first century Jewish equivalent of an untouchable caste. In Matthew’s telling, Jesus instructs his followers to treat as outliers those of their number who persistently refuse correction – to be avoided, that is, and held in contempt. Like Gentiles. And tax collectors.
But remember how Jesus treats those guys? Daniel Harrington, S.J., noted this glaring disconnect in his commentary on Matthew’s Gospel:
The designation of the excommunicated member as a Gentile or a tax collector in verse 17 is odd in view of Jesus’ openness to both groups.
Take the Gentiles, for example, the “non-Jews” who were literally outliers with regards to the Covenant God established with his Chosen People. Sometimes in the Gospels, Jesus seems to come across as cruel and dismissive with regards to Gentiles. When the Syro-Phoenician woman pleads for her child, for instance, Jesus compares her kind to dogs. Elsewhere, he directly charges the disciples to avoid the Gentile riffraff, and to reserve their pearls of preaching for Israel’s lost sheep rather than the outsider swine.
Later, however, Jesus changes his tune. The parable of the Good Samaritan gives us a heads up about this shift in tone, for it’s the Samaritan – a Gentile – who ends up being the hero in the story, not the pious Jewish scholar or Pharisee. Then there’s the woman at the well, also a Gentile – and a woman at that, not to mention an unblushing adulteress. Yet, rather than snub her, as a first-century rabbi might’ve been expected to do, Jesus treats her with kindness, compassion, and graciousness – so much so that the Apostles are shocked at his unconventional liberality and comity.
And what about tax collectors? Consider Jesus’ dealings with Zacchaeus, a revenue man and a crook – everybody knows it! Even so, Jesus sees past the man’s record of petty larceny and greed, and recognizes a hungry soul – one that simply requires a bit of affirmation and divine affiliation in order to be pulled over to the side of those seeking righteousness.
Finally, there’s St. Matthew, of course, a tax collector whom Jesus appointed as an apostle – an apostle, for goodness sake! The guy’s supposed to be an outcast, and the Lord appoints him as an apostle!
Plus this tax collector/apostle goes on to write a Gospel, and it’s Matthew who records Jesus’ proscription regarding the unrepentant – that they be relegated to the same status as odious tax collectors – despite being a tax collector himself!
What’s the take home here? For a clue, we can return to Matthew 18. The weekday Mass reading that got me thinking about this stuff stopped at verse 20, but if you check your New Testament, you’ll see that what follows the discourse on church discipline is surprising – beginning with verse 21:
Then Peter approaching asked him, “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus answered, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.”
In other words, sure, we have to have rules and consequences for breaking them. And, sure, we have to take more drastic measures when rule-breakers refuse to reform – drastic measures like the tax collector/Gentile treatment.
But you can’t fool me, Jesus. You want me to love them and forgive them all anyway – the whole tax collector and Gentile ilk, obstinate sinners all. Just like you loved them and forgave them all yourself.
Just like you love and forgive me.