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  • Writer's pictureRev. Gerald (Jerry) Reiter, Emeritus

"Win Your Brother"

Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost

“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or 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 that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”

Matthew 18:15-20

The Gospel lesson for today is quite unique, and very practical. It contains the clearest step-by-step instruction that Jesus gave to His disciples. And it contains some very valuable principles; principles that could transform the church into a dynamic force; principles that would eliminate gossip and slander and replace them with real fellowship; principles that would help strengthen weaker Christians; principles that would show the world that God did send His Son with a message of hope for them.

Sounds like a lot to expect from a few instructions, doesn’t it? But then, the instructions were given by Jesus, weren’t they? Let me read them to you again (Matt 18:15-17): “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”

Simple enough instructions, don’t you think? But hard to follow! They didn’t sound easy to Jesus’ disciples either. Right away Peter asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me?” He probably meant, “How many times do I have to forgive my brother?”!

That’s our natural response too, isn’t it? So, maybe we’d better take a look at these instructions found in Matthew 18.

“If your brother…” Both God and the world expect Christians to demonstrate a special loyalty toward each other. In fact, John tells us, “We ought to lay down our lives for our brothers.” (I John 3:16) And Paul says, “Let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.” (Gal. 6:10) And you’d better believe that the world watches how we treat each other. Our ungodly relatives and neighbors know exactly how we’re supposed to act – and so does God!

“If your brother sins against you…” The word translated “sins” here is “harartano”, indicating a specific act of sin. It means to miss the mark so as not to win the prize, literally – so it’s to cause someone to lose – to cause an offense. Whenever a Christian misses the mark he not only damages the reputation of Christ, but he also offends everyone else who are Christians. When King David sinned, the prophet said, “You have given great occasion to the enemies of the Lord to blaspheme.” (II Samuel 12:14)

When we see a Christian brother or sister missing the mark, we tend to think, “He hasn’t actually offended me, so I’m not responsible.” But Scripture makes it every Christian’s responsibility when another Christian stumbles. When one member of the body hurts, the whole body suffers. (Rom. 12:5)

“If your brother sins against you, go to him…” Going to an offending brother or sister in order to restore the relationship might just be God’s greatest test of genuine love. It’s easy to pass judgement in our mind and then forget it. It’s easy to pass judgement, and then tell someone else (and maybe that can even be fun)! Sometimes it’s easy to tell someone else in a spirit of genuine concern and hope they’ll do something about it. And for some people it’s even easy to go to someone and tell them they were wrong in what they said or did.

But for most of us it’s not an easy thing to do. Especially when we are to go as Paul told the Galatians: “Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted.” (Gal. 6:1)

The purpose of going to someone who has wronged you, remember, is to win them back – to restore them gently; not to criticize them, chastise them, ostracize them, belittle them, berate them, or desert them – but to win them back!

“If your brother sins against you, go, and show him his fault…” This is really hard! What do we say? What reason can we give for talking about something he probably doesn’t want to talk about? How can we keep from starting a fight when we’ve come to make peace?

Well, there’s no pat answer, no opening statement that you can use every time. But there is a suggestion, and that is: Use “I” language. Like, “I have a problem. I don’t understand what I heard – or saw – or felt. I wonder if you could explain what happened? Is there something I’ve done to cause you to react to me in this way? Jesus told us we’ll only see clearly to take the splinter out of our brother’s eye after we’ve first taken the beam out of our own eye! (Matt. 7:3-5) The best way to tell someone else their fault is to point out our own in the same area!

And here’s a very important point: If there is any offense, or attitude or neglect on our part which has contributed to another’s offense, we can’t follow these steps of Matthew 18! Instead, we need to follow the steps of Matthew 5:23 and 24: “If you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift.

“Show him his fault just between the two of you…” If we tell anyone else first about a perceived offense, we create problems. First of all, we prove that we don’t really love the offender. Secondly, we may cause the person we’re telling the story to, to take on a second-hand offense. And thirdly, we spoil our chances of restoring our brother or sister. As the proverb says, “Without wood a fire goes out; without gossip a quarrel dies down.” (Proverbs 16:20)

Maybe the most important reason to go to the offender first is to check out the facts! How many times have you assumed something, and discovered you were wrong?!

“If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.” This statement of Jesus reinforces the spirit in which we are to go to an offender. Jesus assumes that we want to win our brother, not condemn him. I suppose most offenses are made by things we say. And often the person who has offended by his words isn’t aware of how his words were received – how they were understood, or misunderstood! If we can have him hear what his words meant to us, we give him an opportunity to explain what he meant by them. If we just assume that we know that he meant what we heard him say, and then attack him for it, we’re guilty of dividing Christians within the church.

“But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.” If it was difficult to go to an offender alone, it may be even more of a struggle to go a second time with the right witnesses. But this is necessary if we’re to follow Jesus’ instructions in restoring a brother or sister who doesn’t want the relationship restored.

If the offense was with words, then it’s important that two or three others confirm what he really meant by those words. If it’s an offense of actions, then the ideal witnesses would be those who’ve conquered a similar problem in their own life. They would first be witnesses to him before they would be witnesses against him.

“If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church.” This doesn’t mean to blab it all over the church; it means to enlist the church’s help in the program of restoration. If the church has in any way contributed to the offense, they must first ask the offender for forgiveness.

“And if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax-collector.” I don’t know of anything more frustrating – and disheartening – than trying to confront a person in love, in order to restore a broken relationship, and have them refuse to listen, refuse to discuss it. “I don’t want to talk about it,” they say – and that’s the end of the discussion. You’ve experienced that? Terrible, isn’t it?

But even if a person chooses to refuse fellowship with us, our responsibility as Christians to restore the relationship isn’t ended. We still need to love him or her, pray for reconciliation, be forgiving, and as the father acted toward his prodigal son, be ready to respond in love at every opportunity. That, of course, is how we are to treat pagans and tax-collectors.

These are the steps that Jesus said we are to follow if someone sins against us. Simple steps, but not east ones. They’re possible, though, if we remember that our goal is to win our brother or sister over; that we are to involve a minimum number of people in the process; and that we need to examine our own lives before we try to approach an offender. And if we remember that Jesus, in the context of two or three Christians meeting together to make things right, said, “Where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them.” We don’t have to do this alone! He’s promised to go with us!

If every Christian was committed to speaking only good of people, gossip and slander would cease. If someone began to speak ill of a person, those around him would ask, “Have you gone to him first?” “Are you telling us so we can go to him with you?” We shouldn’t hear a bad report about a person unless we are part of the problem, or part of the solution.

The mark of a true Christian to the outside world is the quality of his love for other Christians. As Jesus put it, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:35)

May God help us to have that kind of love for one another.


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