Jesus has a few choice words to say about what you should do when other people cause bad things to happen to you. His way of handling these situations is sometimes called “the Matthew 18 approach,” because that’s where he tells his followers what to do.
Friends, relatives, neighbors, and even enemies can hurt us in lots of different ways. They may even be well intentioned and do something to help us that has the opposite effect. They may not even notice, going along their own way so fast they unaware of who they hurt going by. They may take something we have when they don’t think we value or deserve it. Or, for some reason of their own, they may really want to cause us trouble.
When we’re hurt by someone else, regardless of their reasons, we still need to deal with it. We need to repair the damage done to ourselves, and we need to deal with the damage done to our relationship with the perpetrator. Jesus grew up among ordinary sinful human beings, and he had plenty of experience with people who do harm to others, especially to the vulnerable. His advice on how to handle these things when we’re the victim is very practical.
What kind of perpetrator is Jesus talking about? In the NRSV and some other translations of the Bible, Jesus says,
If another member of the church sins against you (Matthew 18:15)
Now really. There weren’t any churches, in the days Jesus was teaching, to be a member of. The original word in Greek that Jesus uses is ἀδελφός which literally means “brother,” although in contexts that imply men and women, the word is typically translated as “brothers and sisters.” It can be used for any community based on family, nationality, common interests, or common faith.
In the New Testament after the time of Jesus, “brothers” is used to refer to those in a close community relationship, usually followers of Jesus in a particular place. In our time, with so much more exposure to many people of diverse interests, it could apply to any close group where members of the group know each other pretty well.
The first step, not necessarily the most fun when we’ve been hurt, is to go directly to the other person involved. Jesus says,
If another member of [your community] sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. (Matthew 18:15)
This conversation is meant to be friendly, not angry, vengeful, whining, or even self-righteous. Talk, listen, and explain, so that the other person can understand the impact of their action on you. If they sympathize, apologize, and even make amends if needed, wonderful! You have saved your friendship, short-circuited a potential feud, and prevented disruption in the community that you share.
If talking directly doesn’t work, it’s time to move to plan B. Jesus says,
But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. (Matthew 18:16)
This time bring to the conversation with the one who hurt you some folks who can independently verify what you have to say. Hopefully these witnesses can be objective and believable to the person who caused the problem. They may also be able to calm hard feelings, depersonalize the issues, and help find an resolution where all can agree.
If this conversation doesn’t come to a resolution, then it’s time to move to plan C. Jesus says,
If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; (Matthew 18:17)
We all know that there wasn’t something called a “church” when Jesus was talking. The original word in Greek that Jesus uses is ἐκκλησίᾳ which literally means “assembly.” For centuries before Jesus, it was common practice for Greeks to refer to any group of people with a well-defined membership as an assembly. After Jesus, “assembly” in the rest of the New Testament usually implies “an assembly of God’s people.”
Plan C brings the problem directly to the whole community. In our time, this most likely means the community that you share with the perpetrator, whether it’s a church, a bible study group, a fraternal organization, a club, or even a group that comes together around exercise, hobbies, or any common interest. In the community, both you and the person who hurt you are likely to find supportive friends, and there are probably active leaders who encourage solutions that keep the community together.
If all these approaches fail, then Jesus says,
if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. (Matthew 18:17)
This last resort is often misinterpreted to say that this perpetrator should be shunned or driven out of the community. This is not what Jesus is saying.
In the days of Jesus, Jews needed to be able to interact with Gentiles and tax collectors. People didn’t have to like those who collected their taxes, but they did need to be courteous and businesslike. A Jew might be hired to work on a farm owned by a Gentile or hire a Gentile to do the family laundry. You might be polite to a Gentile or a tax collector, but you didn’t invite them into your home or your private life.
You give them the same treatment you were expected to give a stranger: courtesy and help in a crisis, but not the kind of trust that would put your life in their hands. These days, the equivalent kind behavior toward a perpetrator is the treatment you would give a person with whom you have no history, good or bad.
What we have that people in the first century did not is access to reasonably effective and fair law enforcement. Calling 911 is still our first action when someone is violent or breaking the law. Of course the law doesn’t cover all of the ways we can be hurt, especially by those close to us, and this is when the Matthew 18 approach can help. A person doesn’t need to be a Christian or the member of a church to use the steps Jesus suggests. Using his steps we have our best chance to resolve a hurt without losing our relationships with those around us.