Jesus Pulls a Fast One

24 Aug

So, there I am, at a weekday Mass, mind wandering as usual (“Focus, man, focus! You’re at the threshold of heaven, and, um,…what does that guy’s t-shirt say?”), and we get to the Gospel:

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…. 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.”

Right, makes sense. There’s a progression here that both just and prudent – similar to what we do in our nursing program when there’s a complaint about a grade. It’s a subsidiarity thing: Start at the lowest level, closest to the source of the problem, and progress up the chain of command until…

Hey! Wait a doggone minute – hold on there! Did Jesus sneak one past us in that Gospel? The ol’ switcheroo perhaps? A little New Covenant flimflam?

I think so – see if you agree.

Bernardo_Strozzi_-_Christ_and_the_Samaritan_Woman_-_WGA21931The dodge comes in the last line: “…as you would a Gentile of a tax collector.” It’s no secret that this is biblical code for the shunned and disdained – the first century Jewish equivalent of an untouchable caste. In Matthew’s telling, Jesus instructs his followers to treat as outliers those of their number who persistently refuse correction – to be avoided, that is, and held in contempt. Like Gentiles. And tax collectors.

But remember how Jesus treats those guys? Daniel Harrington, S.J., noted this glaring disconnect in his commentary on Matthew’s Gospel:

The designation of the excommunicated member as a Gentile or a tax collector in verse 17 is odd in view of Jesus’ openness to both groups.

Take the Gentiles, for example, the “non-Jews” who were literally outliers with regards to the Covenant God established with his Chosen People. Sometimes in the Gospels, Jesus seems to come across as cruel and dismissive with regards to Gentiles. When the Syro-Phoenician woman pleads for her child, for instance, Jesus compares her kind to dogs. Elsewhere, he directly charges the disciples to avoid the Gentile riffraff, and to reserve their pearls of preaching for Israel’s lost sheep rather than the outsider swine.

Later, however, Jesus changes his tune. The parable of the Good Samaritan gives us a heads up about this shift in tone, for it’s the Samaritan – a Gentile – who ends up being the hero in the story, not the pious Jewish scholar or Pharisee. Then there’s the woman at the well, also a Gentile – and a woman at that, not to mention an unblushing adulteress. Yet, rather than snub her, as a first-century rabbi might’ve been expected to do, Jesus treats her with kindness, compassion, and graciousness – so much so that the Apostles are shocked at his unconventional liberality and comity.

And what about tax collectors? Consider Jesus’ dealings with Zaccheus, a revenue man and a crook – everybody knows it! Even so, JeBrugghen,_Hendrick_ter_-_The_Calling_of_St._Matthew_-_1621sus sees past the man’s record of petty larceny and greed, and recognizes a hungry soul – one that simply requires a bit of affirmation and divine affiliation in order to be pulled over to the side of those seeking righteousness.

Finally, there’s St. Matthew, of course, a tax collector whom Jesus appointed as an apostle – an apostle, for God’s sake! The guy’s supposed to be an outcast, and the Lord appoints him as an apostle!

Plus this tax collector/apostle goes on to write a Gospel, and it’s Matthew who records Jesus’ proscription regarding the unrepentant – that they be relegated to the same status as odious tax collectors – despite being a tax collector himself!

What’s the take home here? For a clue, we can return to Matthew 18. The weekday Mass reading that got me thinking about this stuff stopped at verse 20, but if you check your New Testament, you’ll see that what follows the discourse on church discipline is surprising – beginning with verse 21:

Then Peter approaching asked him, “Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often must I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus answered, “I say to you, not seven times but seventy-seven times.”

In other words, sure, we have to have rules and consequences for breaking them. And, sure, we have to take more drastic measures when rule-breakers refuse to reform – drastic measures like the tax collector/Gentile treatment.

But you can’t fool me, Jesus. You want me to love them and forgive them all anyway – the whole tax collector and Gentile ilk, obstinate sinners all. Just like you loved them and forgave them all yourself.

Just like you love and forgive me.


A version of this essay appeared on Catholic Exchange.

4 Responses to “Jesus Pulls a Fast One”

  1. Marybeth at 8:16 am #

    Yes, but doesn’t repentance need to fit in there someplace? I mean, yes, we must forgive and love the way Christ tells us to… meaning we cannot judge who goes to heaven or hell, and we must leave that up to God, but in all the reading of the Bible that I have done, repentance is the key to moving forward into forgiveness and love. Without repentance, how do you forgive? I can not hold a grudge, treat someone who has not asked for repentance with respect and kindness (to do otherwise would not be correct) but how does one forgive if there is no request for forgiveness?

    • Rick Becker at 7:51 am #

      Thanks for your comment, Marybeth. You’re right, of course, that repentance is an essential part of full reconciliation, but I think we’re called to forgive (difficult as it might be) even before repentance. We can see this at work in the parable of the prodigal son, where the father rushes out to embrace his errant son even before the son has articulated his contrition. “While we were yet helpless, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly,” Paul writes to the Romans. “God shows his love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” (5.6, 8).

      In other words, we’re forgiven even before we appropriate that forgiveness by way of contrition and conversion. As challenging as it might sound, I think we’re called to forgive in the same way, regardless of whether it leads to full reconciliation. If nothing else, that allows us to let go and move on after hurts and offenses. Holding out for an “I’m sorry” that may never come only leads to frustration and bitterness.

      • Marybeth at 8:26 am #

        Thank you for your reply. I think you may have misunderstood my comment however. I was not saying that “holding back our forgiveness” is something we should do until we hear the I’m sorry. I fully understand how that can be damaging to ourselves if we feel we have been wronged. Maybe I used myself in the example and I should not have for that too can be confusing.

        What I was trying to say is there seems to be a divide in the scriptures between the forgiveness of God and those that will be judged in the end, cast into Gehenna, the un repented etc.. In addition, there seems to be a divide in how Christ instructs us to treat the un repented, in so many scripture passages. Not to judge, but how to move on with our lives.

        This by no way means that we as people should consider others to be “cast into hell” if someone does not say “I’m sorry”. That is God’s business not ours again, judgement, but in the scriptures it seems pretty clear that while we are called to forgive – no matter what, the message from God is repent (which He calls us to out of love) and thereby, forgiveness flows. The prodigal son had already repented by coming home to his father. Actions are much stronger than words.

        All the examples you give in your column are forgiveness from Christ because of repentance except for when Peter asks how often shall I forgive my brother. This tells me the issue is deeper than one blog column can address and something I will continue to study.

        I hope this makes sense.
        Thank you again,


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