September 10, 2017 - Treat Your Brother As You Would a Tax Collector

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, so that 'every fact may be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses.' 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.

Matthew 18:15-17

In stark contrast to, “turn the other cheek,” here Jesus lays out a process for mediation that ends with treating someone who has hurt us and refused to make restitution as an outsider or even as an accomplice of the Roman occupiers. 

This is scandalous only if one reads the exhortation to turn the other cheek as a command intended to improve social order.  In all likelihood, Jesus intended it as a spiritual exercise – one that demonstrated to the disciples that retaliation and anger leads to self-diminishment.  Similarly, when Jesus sent out the disciples with no change of clothes and no money, requiring them to beg for their daily bread, he was emulating (perhaps consciously) the discipleship program of the Buddha as it was then being practiced at the far reaches of the area conquered by Alexander.  For both spiritual leaders, this was not an economic program – it was a spiritual exercise of self-denial and reliance on community.

In my book, Faith on a Stone Foundation, I make the scandalous observation that Jesus never commands anyone to give up their possessions or wealth to change the economic circumstances of the poor.  Rather, it is always an exercise in self-denial or living simply.

One objection I hear quite often is that the Beatitudes require care for the poor.  But do they?  Is Jesus saying, “bless the poor with alms so that they will no longer be poor”? Or is he saying the poor are already blessed in some way?   In all likelihood, Jesus is rejecting the idea, prevalent at the time and still prevalent today, that God metes out reward to the good and punishment to the bad.  Wealth, Jesus was saying, is not a sign of God’s favor and, in fact, God’s attention rests far longer on the poor.  The poor are not cursed by God, but are blessed by His sympathy.  This was very good news for the poor, but in direct contradiction to the Pharisees’ and Sadducees’ theology.  Jesus makes precisely this point again in Chapter Nine of the Gospel of John.

We often take Jesus's exhortations as demands for moral behavior, but Jesus's intent is far more often spiritual exercises.  What's the harm in seeing Jesus as a moral cheerleader and moral example?   Well, first, we have a responsibility to understand Scripture as it is and not as we want it to be.  Second,  secular values and the values we attribute to faith are practically identical (be nice, give generously to charity, develop your talents, etc.).  If faith is indistinguishable from secular concerns, then it becomes insipid and irrelevant. 

Of course, Jesus preached love.  But clearly, he intended that we really love each other – not just act like we love each other to receive divine reward or avoid divine punishment.  This is not a moral exhortation, setting out what is prohibited and what is obligatory; but an emotive one, setting out what we are to one another and to God.

Image: Red Nebula