Matthew tells us in his Gospel (18:15-17) that 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 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. If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.”
Many people will read this Gospel text and assume that in it Jesus is giving us instructions on how to deal with a sinner within the Church community. However that assumption is not totally accurate. Take another look at the first line in the text. That first line tells us that “Jesus said to His disciples, ‘If your brother sins against you —‘”.
Jesus isn’t talking about sinners in general within the community because, after all, we are all sinners. Rather, Jesus is talking specifically about someone who has wronged us personally. Someone who we have known and trusted has broken the bond between us by word or deed. Jesus is talking about relationship; and more specifically, a broken relationship. Jesus is making it clear that members of the Church, His followers, must not tolerate any breach in the relationship between, or among, any of its members. Jesus is giving us instructions on how to repair and restore a damaged relationship.
Jesus said, “If you love me you will keep My commandments.” And He said that the second greatest commandment is, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” So if an individual, who we have known and trusted, has violated that commandment by some offense against us personally, we have a moral responsibility to inform that person of their fault.
Saint Augustine of Hippo said it best in his comment on this passage of scripture. He said, “If someone has done you injury and you have suffered, what should be done? You have heard the answer already in this scripture: “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone.” If you fail to do so, you are worse than he is. He has done someone harm, and by doing harm he has stricken himself with a grievous wound. Will you then completely disregard your brother’s wound? Will you simply watch him stumble and fall down? Will you disregard his predicament? If so, you are worse in your silence than he in his abuse. Therefore, when any one sins against us, let us take great care, but not merely for ourselves. For it is a glorious thing to forget injuries. Just set aside your own injury, but do not neglect your brother’s wound. Therefore, “go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone,” intent upon his amendment but sparing his sense of shame. For it might happen that through defensiveness he will begin to justify his sin, and so you will have inadvertently nudged him still closer toward the very behavior you desire to amend. Therefore, “tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother,” because he might have been lost, had you not spoken with him.” [Sermon 82.7]
Therefore, if someone has wronged us personally, instead of grieving over the offense, we are to confront the individual privately, face to face, in order to give that person the opportunity to rectify the wrong they have done. If this fails, we are to enlist the help of another person or persons; not to put the offender on trial, but rather to help persuade the offender to see and rectify his or her offense. If this fails we are to seek the help of the Christian community. But if even this fails, Jesus says that we have the right to abandon the offender.
However, remember that Jesus never refused a repentant sinner. Therefore, we must always remain open and willing to forgive; and we will be held accountable if we fail to do so.