If Your Brother Sins Against You...What Did Jesus Really Mean?

If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault...And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.
— Matthew 18:15-17

What does this verse mean to you?

If you have heard anyone talk about this verse while dealing with a Christian who continues to sin after being repeatedly called out on it, then the point was probably that you should stop spending time with them. Treat them as if they are no longer part of your community, and have nothing to do with them.

But is that really what Jesus was trying to say? Nope! That's not what Jesus was saying at all. And here are two reasons we believe this: 

1. Look what else Jesus says in this chapter

When we read the Bible, it's always important to get the context of a particular passage. And, one of the ways we can do that is to look at what comes directly before and after the section we are looking at.

So, let's do that with this section of Matthew 18.

The Parable of the Wandering Sheep (Matthew 18:10-14)

Before Jesus talks about what to do "if your brother sins against you," he tells this parable about a man and his sheep. 100 sheep, to be exact. And he asks this question:

"If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray?" - Matt 18:12

Jesus answers his own question by saying that, of course he would go looking for that sheep. And, when he finds it, he's going to celebrate! That one sheep that wandered off, despite every effort the man had made to keep it where it belonged. That sheep that refused to stay with the flock, and made decisions that were dangerous and unwise.

The man in Jesus' story doesn't say, "I give up on you. Just go wherever you want to go." He doesn't write off that one sheep as a lost cause. Or stop trying after a preset number of attempts to give correction.

He takes it upon himself to leave the others behind in order to bring that one, stubborn sheep back.

 We'll come back to this later. But first, let's look at how Jesus answers a question from his disciple.

Peter's question about forgiveness (Matthew 18:21-22)

After this passage is the famous question from Peter:

“Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” - Matt. 18:21

We're not going to get into the ridiculously misguided language/math debate here, but Jesus gives Peter a really big number (77 or 70x7, or whatever big number you like). The point is that he wants us to be extremely forgiving.

You might be asking yourself if Jesus contradicted himself here. First, he says to give them three chances to repent (one-on-one, with 2 or 3 witnesses, and in front of the whole church) before treating him like a Gentile or a tax collector. But now he says we have to forgive him how many times? But, we don't think he contradicted himself at all with these two statements

Does it really make sense that Jesus would tell his disciples to shun a sinful brother right between these two discussions? Right after a parable about the importance of pursuing one who repeatedly disobeys and before telling Peter to forgive someone 77 or 490 times?

Of course not. Now, let's see how the common understanding of this passage matches the way Jesus lived his life.

2. It doesn't match Jesus' actions

Think about how Jesus treated people.

First off, you never see Jesus shun people who sinned. Quite the opposite, actually. He drew near to them and encouraged others to do the same.

Second, look at how Jesus interacted with Gentiles and tax collectors. Did he treat them as if they were not part of his community? No.

Remember Matthew, the disciple? Coincidentally, he is also the guy who wrote these words down for us to remember. He was a tax collector when Jesus met him! 

How about Zacchaeus? Remember him? The tax collector that climbed a tree to see Jesus. Jesus chose to go to his house to hang out. 

And, we know you remember the woman at the well. The Samaritan woman at the well. Jesus started that conversation. Willingly.

And there are multiple accounts of Jesus healing people after being asked to do so by Gentiles. We have an Unfiltered Joe article about how Jesus interacted with Gentiles if you need more convincing here.

Jesus welcomed Gentiles. And he shared meals with tax collectors. The religious elites actually gave him a lot of crap for this. So, does it really make sense that Jesus would have used the words "let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector" to imply abandoning a relationship?

So what did Jesus really mean?

Since Jesus made this statement in the middle of a discussion about forgiveness and reaching out to help those who are lost, we should probably start by deciding if his point here was to add emphasis to those points. 

And, since Jesus spent time with Gentiles and tax collectors and treated them like they were a valuable part of the community, we need to be careful not to misinterpret what he means by "let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector."

How should we treat Gentiles and tax collectors?

Obviously, we don't label people with these terms today. But, in Jesus' time, Gentiles and tax collectors were known to be outside of the Jewish tradition. Gentiles, by definition, were not Jewish. And tax collectors were Jews who immorally became rich by extorting other Jews as employees of the government, so they were also considered to have abandoned their religion.

So, When Jesus says to "let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector," he is very clearly saying to treat them as if they are not part of the Jewish religion. Which we can fairly safely say would be the same as a person today who does not self-identify as a Christian. 

Jesus is telling us that, if someone refuses to alter their lifestyle and choices to match what is expected of a Christian, then we should treat them as if they are not a Christian...But what does that REALLY MEAN?

How are we supposed to treat non-Christians?

Should we make them feel less valuable than us? Should we jump at every opportunity to point out their sinful behavior? Should we avoid them at all costs?

NO!

None of those match the way Jesus wants us to interact with people who don't know him!

Our interactions with non-Christians should mirror Jesus' interactions with the world that did not know him. We should show compassion. We should be supportive. We should show the same love that Jesus would. We should offer ourselves in sacrifice for them.

So, when Jesus tells us to treat a fellow Christian who refuses to repent like a Gentile or a tax collector, he is saying the exact opposite of what many Christians think he is saying. He isn't giving us a pass that allows us to turn our backs on people.

In fact, he is telling us we need to be more deliberate in the way we show love to that person. We need to assume that he doesn't know the love of Jesus, and we need to show it to him. We need to take a note from Jesus' playbook, and go out of our way to spend time with that person.

Jesus spent time with the people that were abandoned by the religious elites of his day. He didn't write them off because they ran out of chances. That would have been the easy way out. 

Instead, Jesus gives us this difficult task. When someone refuses to accept that their actions are wrong and damaging, Jesus wants you to be the one that stands by them. The one that shows them what unconditional love looks like. The one that suffers condemnation from others for not giving up on a person God loves.

Don't take the easy way out by abandoning people when loving them gets hard. Follow Jesus' example. Forgive them over and over and  over again. Leave the 99 that don't need help, so you can bring back the one who does. And when that happens, you better celebrate!