“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. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:15-20).
This passage appointed for today from the Gospel according to Matthew is undoubtedly helpful, but it requires some digging. First, a disclaimer. If you have a presumption that Christians, the followers of Jesus, are always going to be right and do right and never experience or cause an offense or breakdown in their relationships with other people, it’s simply not so. We can presume otherwise from this passage. We also know otherwise because of the endless squabbling between Jesus’ closest disciples. Remember how Peter, on whom Jesus said he would build his church, seems to have reached his limit on forgiving fellow Christians when Peter explodes and asks Jesus, “if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus answers him, “Not seven times, but, seventy-seven times,” which is code language meaning forever.1 Of course the subtext is this: offensive, disappointing, inappropriate stuff is going to keep happening between members of the Church. Jesus says our posture is to forgive. I’ll come back to that.
In the face of an offense, you need to go directly to the offender, so says Jesus. Don’t go off to have some kind of recreational conversation with other people about your offender. That’s gossip or slander, and it will only magnify your perceived offense, and maybe even poison other people’s relationship to your perceived offender. Go directly to him or her. But here’s a qualifier. When you do this, make sure you’re sober. If you’re enraged, if you’re feeling vindictive, wait. Wait until your actually in a place where reconciliation can happen. And then, speak from your experience, not from theirs. Don’t say, “When you did this or said this, you made me feel such-and-such.” No they didn’t. Your feelings are your feelings and no one else has the power to make you feel anything. Rather, say, “When I heard you say this,” or “when I experienced you doing this, I felt, or I experienced, or I heard you saying such-and-such.” Claim your own experience. But presume the other person also had an experience. You need to hear them. A possibility of reconciliation can break down when you go to a person, prepared to forgive but unprepared to be forgiven. There’s usually at least two versions of the same event.
Though it’s incredibly unhelpful to go off and gossip and slander a person with whom you are aggrieved instead of going to them directly, sometimes it is crucial to seek counsel from a confidant prior to speaking to the aggrieving person. Use a trusted soul to test what you heard or what you experienced and how you are inclined to respond. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten it wrong when left to my own devices. Most of us a quite myopic and we need someone else’s help to enlarge and correct our vision. You may benefit enormously by a trusted person’s perspective and counsel prior to your meeting individually with your perceived offender. Maybe you can’t or shouldn’t meet alone with this person. Jesus says you may need to take another member of the Church with you. It’s not about stacking the deck so you can trounce this other person. Quite to the contrary. Using the presence of another person can level the playing field, make a conversation more safe and accessible for both persons, and elicit trust and accountability, which is often compromised and raw when a relationship has broken down. Get help.
However you seek restitution or reconciliation, do it face-to-face. Unless it’s impossible, do it face-to-face. By all means, don’t use email. Even with the best use of emoticons – I can never figure out what those emoticons mean – there’s a sterility, a forensic quality about a grievance or altercation attempted to be worked out when it’s been memorialized in email. And there’s always the possibility, whether planned or not, that an email will be forwarded on to other parties, and then the problem can be appallingly and unfairly and unredeemably magnified. It can go viral. Stay away from email when trying to redress or reconcile a problem, a grievance, or a sin. Stay away from email. Simply stay away from writing, if you can. You may indeed want to write to a person after a reconciliation, but don’t try to work in out in writing before. Not normally.
Jesus signals that sometimes reconciliations among members of the Church cannot be worked out. In my own experience, as I’ve had the honor of listening to people who have been aggrieved or offended or violated, I have sometimes counseled someone not to attempt reconciliation with an offending person if there’s been an experience of abuse: of physical, or verbal, or sexual abuse. The attempt at reconciliation may be too fraught with danger for both parties, at least for now, and perhaps in this lifetime. This is where I’d make the distinction between forgiveness and reconciliation. We need to forgive, we need be at least moving in the direction of forgiving other people from whom we’ve experienced offense, if not for their sake then for our own. We don’t forgive another person because they are worthy, nor because they’ve asked for forgiveness. We forgive them because if we don’t, we tacitly allow them to hold power over us, to keep us, as it were, locked in a prison. We need to forgive them or, at least for starters, to move in that direction, if not for their sake (though they will be helped), then for our own sake.
When, for whatever reason, reconciliation cannot be worked out with another person – let’s say, when this other person refuses to receive you and reconcile with you – Jesus says this person should be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector. Now this could sound like permission to shun or damn this other person, but it’s exactly the opposite. Remember that Jesus loved Gentiles. Jesus was accused of being a friend of tax collectors and sinners, because of which he was condemned. Jesus always spoke of them with words of welcome, compassion, hope, and love.2 Jesus even said, at the close of Matthew’s Gospel, that in the end time, tax collectors and prostitutes and sinners will enter the Kingdom of God before the orthodox religious people of his time.3 At the very least, Jesus is signaling here to be patient. Sooner or later things will come round right with this other person who, like you, is a child of God.
What Jesus finally says does not make sense. “I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” That does not make sense… unless you’ve been there. Unless there’s someone in your life who has died, and – for whatever reason – words of forgiveness and reconciliation were not proffered before this other person died. On a number of occasions I’ve been invited to listen to someone tell about a person, now dead, with whom an offense had been experienced. Sometimes it’s the person speaking to me who had been offended or violated by the departed person. Sometimes it’s the opposite: the person speaking to me committed fault to another, who went to their death unreconciled to this person. And it’s too late, absolutely impossible to do anything about this. No it’s not. At the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, he uses this word, “bind” to speak of his work to liberate us and to heal us: to unbind and liberate us from the imprisoning effects of unforgiveness, and to heal us, bind us up, from the life-long lacerations to our soul. “The Spirit of the Lord has anointed me… to bind up the broken hearted, proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound.”4 Jesus’ work of unbinding and binding us up does not all happen in this lifetime. Most people depart this life broken and bound, sometimes in more ways than one. Death is the ultimate healing.
If there is someone in your life who has died, and things were not right between the two of you at the time of their death, use Jesus’ mediation. Speak to Jesus about them; speak to Jesus what you want to say to that person. Use Jesus’ help to express your pain, your regret, your brokenness in your relationship with this departed person. Somehow, Jesus – who lives within us and who lives with this other person, now departed, is inviting us to join in the work of healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation that spans the gulf of time. We say, at death, that “life is changed, not ended,” and that is both for us and for the departed. Jesus says, “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Does that mean that we can both liberate and incarcerate people in heaven? We can do that? Incarcerate? I don’t know what that means, in light of so many other tings that Jesus said. If that’s your question, go ask Jesus what he means. You ask. What I do know for sure is that Jesus always welcomes us to be transparent in our prayer, Jesus loves us – all of us, living and dead – and love will win out. Jesus has all the time in the world, this world and the next, and Jesus’ love will win out sooner or later with us all. If you have something unresolved with someone who is departed, it’s not too late. Work it out with Jesus.
In our Rule of Life, we recognize that life together will not always be smooth. Breakdowns in relationships – the kind spoken about in the Gospels and in the epistles of St. Paul and St. John – continue to this day… as does Jesus’ work of forgiveness and reconciliation. We say in our Rule, “Breaches of trust, injuries, and even enmity are bound to happen, since communities of love are special targets of evil forces. These forces will tempt us to defer reconciliation, or even to pretend that the fabric of our common life has not been torn. But the Spirit of the crucified and risen Christ spurs us to seek out the one from whom we feel estranged in order to establish communion with him again through a mutual change of heart.”5 This is difficult stuff, and it goes on and on and on. So much more could be said about the difference between forgiveness and reconciliation, about forgiveness and accountability, about abuse, about when you don’t want to forgive someone. Most of us need help with this, and we need time. Be comforted that Jesus is very streetwise about this, and that he is with us in this, to the end of this world and into the next.
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