Matthew 18:15 “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.”
Talking about someone else’s sins is at one and the same time an easy and a difficult thing to do. Talking about them to someone other than the person who committed the sin is relatively easy. Then we don’t have to risk an unpleasant confrontation. We have no worry that the guilty party will become upset at us and accuse us of judging. We avoid the drawn out debate in which we have to defend and explain what the Bible really says on the matter. We are spared an uncomfortable and awkward scene in which the offender completely comes apart and blubbers their apologies.
Instead, we can talk to friends and neighbors for whom it is none of their business. We might even win their sympathy. It gives a little boost to our self-esteem as they affirm our innocence, praise us for our superior morals, and share in our outrage over the injustice we have suffered. Taking this road is easy because it is so painless. Even more, it is satisfying to hear how right I am.
Of course, this is the sin the Bible condemns as gossip, and it serves no one. Not only is it a loveless thing to do to the brother or sister who sins, but it also reinforces the most dangerous features of our own sinful natures: pride and self-righteousness. Since it fills us full of ourselves, it leads us further and further away from faith and our Savior.
The difficult thing to do is also the loving thing to do: “Go and show him his fault just between the two of you.” The purpose of such a meeting is not to extract vengeance by making the other person feel uncomfortable. We do not go for the sake of venting our own anger. Then we undercut the loving purpose of Jesus’ command. About 130 years ago a pastor in Germany wrote, “It is no help to an unrepentant one to be annoyed with him; what he needs is seeking love.” That is exactly what Jesus proposes here: not angry annoyance, but seeking love. “If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.”
That phrase is the key to understanding everything Jesus asks in these verses. When someone sins, our goal is to win them, not be rid of them. Though he doesn’t lay out the details of our response, we know that he wants us to share the three little words that are arguably the three most important words in Christianity: “I forgive you.” That is why we confess our sins together on Sunday morning–not so that we can embarrass ourselves in front of each other, or lead our non-Lutheran guests and visitors to wonder, “What kind of people are these, anyway?” It is so that we can hear the pastor speak Jesus’ words of promise and reconciliation: “I forgive you.”
That is why Jesus gave his life on the cross–not to prove his dedication to his cause, or inspire us to a greater dedication to our own. It was the payment for our sin, the only payment that would make it possible for him to say to a world of sinners, “I forgive you.” That’s why he wants us to receive his Supper–not because there is great nutritional value in a little bite of bread and sip of wine, but because it is his true body and true blood given for you “for the forgiveness of your sins.” Again he is saying, “I forgive you.” He wants to win us over. He wants to keep us as his own.
Once Jesus has us, he fills us with the same kind of concern for each other. That is why we go and talk to the brother or sister who has sinned against us. Confronting sin and forgiving it is an expression of our love for each other.