And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a gentile and a tax collector. -Matthew 18:17
Church discipline. That’s what I was told this text was about. The explanation was satisfactory for a while because it appealed to something within me. I liked being justified, being proven that I am right. I liked those who did not listen to me to suffer the consequences. This text sounded like a perverted promise to my base instincts. People get what they deserve, being sent out into the wilderness so to speak because they refused to change. However, times have changed and I have changed. Now we are in the wilderness. We discovered that this text isn’t about discipline but about love. The wilderness where the Gentiles and tax collectors lived is not a place of abandonment. It is where Jesus dwelt. It is a place of discovery.
Gentiles and Tax collectors. Jesus was known to be a friend of the tax collectors. He sought them out. He had dinners at their homes. The religious authorities said that he drank too much with them. They did not like his association with them. They thought that tax collectors should be ignored and despised so that they could learn the errors of their ways. Jesus thought differently. He thought that tax collectors were to be treated more delicately and with much grace.
The religious authorities thought that the Gentiles were excluded from the promises of redemption. They were irrelevant as far as the Kingdom of God was concerned. Jesus hardly said anything about Gentiles. He had sufficient interactions with them to reveal His true attitude towards them. He sought a lonely man who lived in a cemetery in a Gentile territory. This strange fellow liked cutting himself with rocks and was violent and terrifying. The people preferred to chain him in the land of the dead. This is where he belonged, they thought. Jesus went despite the fact that this was a land where pigs dwelled. It was not a place for any religious Jewish leader of His time. Jesus thought it was important to go to this unclean land to heal this abandoned young man. The fact that he was a Gentile did not hinder him. There was another Gentile that Jesus praised, he was a centurion. A military officer of a people who oppressed the Jewish people. He was the enemy and yet, Jesus commended his faith. It was greater than anyone He met among His own religious people. There was another despised Gentile woman who won an argument with Him. She showed Jesus that faith is able to overcome boundaries. Strangely, the gospel never talks about bad Gentiles.
The gospel text tells us that we are to consider those who refuse to change as Gentiles and tax collectors. We are to treat them as Jesus did and not as the religious authorities did. To these, Jesus’ attitude towards the Gentiles and tax collector doesn’t seem to be much of a punishment or discipline. Today, some might even say that Jesus was basically enabling them to be bad if our goal was to punish the obstinate sinner. Perhaps it is not about punishing but about understanding where this person is spiritually. He is yet to understand what it means to be a child of God. He is still blind to God’s love. This is the primary difference between those who are “in Christ” and those who are “outside”. They are not out because they don’t deserve to be “in”. Neither should we think that we are “in” because we are deserving. It is all about grace and one understands grace enough to know how to walk in grace. Others still believe that grace is something you purchase with your merits.
There are many homeless teens and children where we minister but only a few spend quality time with us. These are the ones that are “in”. They understand something that the others have yet to perceive. They know that they are loved and with this comes a certain responsibility. It is something natural and we have never demanded anything from them. Whenever we go to the streets, we sit in a little square close to where the children and teens hang out during the day. Some of them will see us and ignore us. Felipe, Gabriel, Ruan, Bruna and some of those with whom we have a strong bond will come come up to us. Sometimes one of them will pass by and will assure us that someone will come to us and spend time with us. It is always the same everyday. There are times when their minds are fuzzy due to drug use and they apologize for not giving us any attention. We assure them that they don’t need do anything with them and they know this. However, they know that they are loved and they want to be in a place where they are surrounded by love. The others come occasionally to us but they have yet to understand. It doesn’t matter, We are always here for them. One day they will understand and most likely they will come to this stage through the examples of those who understand. In the meantime, we are open to receiving everyone but we recognize that some are “in” because they understand. The rest are “out” but the door is always open.