“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.” (Matthew 18:15-17)
Many people assume there is one Bible manuscript that is the “original.” There is not. There are many manuscripts that exist, available to scholars, that agree in very, very high detail, but there are textual variations. The question becomes are those variations important? We have one such variant in today’s gospel: notice the underlined words “against you” (the “you” is singular).” These two words do not appear in some ancient manuscripts. This is perhaps significant and raises the question: “Do I go and point out the fault only when a fellow believer has wronged me?” Or am I called to respond if I think he or she has committed a sin whether or not it affects me? And there are options in between that we have found. Isn’t there a part of us that is inclined to “forgive” sins in advance of repentance rather than have to confront the guilty party? There is also a part of us that says, “That’s it – forget them. It’s their problem, not mine.”
It is interesting that today’s gospel never uses the word “forgive.” But it’s clear that the primary purpose of the process is to restore the wayward one back into the family relationship of the church. It is a passage about reconciliation – which should include contrition for sins, forgiveness, and restoration.
The gospel asks us to go to them. “If he listens to you, you have won over your brother. If he does not listen…” What’s at stake is winning over the brother or sisters, underlined by the verb “win.” The concern is with the spiritual welfare of the individual. “Win” suggests that the person was in danger of being lost and has now been regained. The hoped for response is akouo, that the sinner might “listen,” but this word can extend beyond what the ears do, to what the mind does, “understand, comprehend.” The danger is parakouo. Our version translates it “refuses to listen,” but the more literal meaning is: “to mis-hear” or “to misinterpret.”
We are indeed called to go to them. With words that will “win” them; words that will help them hear, understand, and be reconciled to the community. What will be the first 10 words you will use? Therein lies the path to reconciliation.