Regardless of the precise meaning of Jesus’ instructions on how to progressively confront the unrepentant sinner in the body of believers, we are still left with the tax-collector-gentile conundrum: what on earth does Jesus mean when he says to treat the unrepentant one as a tax collector or Gentile?
The traditional interpretation over the centuries is that Jesus is instructing his followers to shun, to have nothing to do with, the one who will not repent.
Is this what Jesus means?
Consider earlier in Matthew, as in Matthew 11.19, where Jesus is reproached, accused of being a drunk and a glutton who was a “friend to tax collectors and sinners” and in Matthew 9.10, where it is noted that “many tax collectors and sinners” came and ate with Jesus and his followers. The Pharisees objected and Jesus replied, “those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.”
Maybe treating the unrepentant has nothing to do with shunning.
It seems to have to do with expecting more rather than less from fellow believers (as we do with family).
But to treat the unrepentant as ‘tax collectors and Gentiles’ might well mean to treat them more gently rather than less. . . especially if we consider Jesus’ earlier statement that they are to be viewed as the ‘sick’ – as those with additional need for care, as those who require the help of a physician rather than the condemnation of a judge.
In practical terms, it might mean that you don’t put that person in a leadership position simply because they’re not up to the job. But at the same time, you do continue to care for them. . . for as long as it takes – just like we do with the one who suffers a serious illness.
In 12-step programs, members learn a helpful slogan: I’m not a bad person trying to get good; I’m a sick person trying to get well. Maybe Jesus is talking about going the distance with someone in great need of him – someone whose need is so great they cannot see it for themselves.
And maybe there does come a time when someone must be ejected from the fellowship with the hope that such an extreme measure will bring them to their senses, turn them around.
But I keep coming back to the witness of the desert fathers and mothers – early Christians who went into the desert and away from the cities in order to pursue more closely the life Jesus had called them to live. Their stories are stories of extreme living, extreme sacrifice, extreme love – extreme Jesus.
Consider the time when a brother who had sinned was turned out of the church by the priest. Abba Bessarion got up and went out with him, saying, "I, too, am a sinner."
In one monastery, if any committed a fault, many of the other brothers would seek the offending brother’s permission to take the matter to the abbot and to accept both the responsibility and the punishment. When the abbot found out that his disciples did this, he inflicted easier punishments, in the knowledge that the one punished was actually innocent. And he made no effort to discover the real culprit.
One brother leaves with the sinner, knowing himself to be a sinner too. Others take on the punishment for the offender – like brothers and sisters do for each other all the time.
Maybe the tax collector-Gentiles among us are not the ones kicked out, but rather the ones held all the more tightly to, the ones we walk with because we recognize ourselves in them.
Maybe they’re the ones we make room for at the table for we are them.
Maybe as Jesus sees us, so we are to see them.