Matthew 18:15-20

If your Brother Sins Against You
by Rev. Robert Wagner
Reprinted with permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"

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Matthew wrote to show that Christ was the
Messiah and fulfilled the Jewish prophecies.

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 along 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.  Amen, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.  Again, I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything for which they are to pray, it shall be granted to them by my heavenly Father.  For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them."

When someone sins against us, what is the proper Christian response? Throughout the Gospels, Jesus teaches us the importance of forgiveness as both a reflection of God's mercy and a means for healing and unity among all people. He speaks to us of turning the other cheek, praying for our enemies and showing mercy to our persecutors.

In His darkest hour on Calvary, Jesus offers us an extraordinary example of mercy when He prayed, “Father, forgive them, they do not know what they do,” (Lk 23:34). Jesus offers mercy to those who sentenced Him to death and nailed Him to the cross. When we find it challenging to forgive another person, praying with this Scripture passage is a powerful and fruitful source of healing and motivation.

Jesus also teaches us that our salvation is directly related to our ability to forgive. “If you forgive others their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you,” He says. “But if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions,” (Mt 6:14-15).

Forgiveness requires great virtue, including the exercise of humility, courage and compassion. It is in forgiving others that we grow in holiness and allow God's grace to heal bonds that are so easily broken through our sinfulness and the sinfulness of others. Over and over again, we will have the opportunity to grow in holiness through the practice of forgiveness as Peter found out when He tried to find a limit to how often a Christian needs to forgive a person who sins against them: “As many as seven times?” Peter asked. “Not seven, but seventy-seven,” Jesus replied (cf. Mt 18:21-22).

We must realize, however, that Jesus is not telling us to confront the sinful party out of vengeance or righteousness. It is not an action to help us cope with and heal from the wounds the other has inflicted on us (although that may be a result). No, the reason for the interaction is not for us at all. We are called to forgive. We are called to love. We are called to compassion.

Jesus asks us to tell the sinner his fault for his sake — for his conversion, for his self-awareness. Perhaps he does not know the damage he has done. Perhaps he will be moved by seeing the pain he has caused us or react to the forgiveness we offer in our explanation. Perhaps we are giving him the opportunity to apologize and find healing. By approaching him, we allow God an opportunity to touch the soul of a sinner. We perform an act of charity for someone who has sinned against us.

Too often, when we are hurt by another, the last person we tell about the sin is the person who committed it against us. Rather, our first reaction is to find sympathy by complaining to others or to spread the news of a sinful act that will damage the other's reputation. Unlike confronting someone out of care for their soul, this kind of response is selfish and sinful. It does not bring healing but instead brings more division and pain.

It is difficult to confront people who have hurt us. They have injured us, diminished the trust we have for them, and left a wound that requires forgiveness to be healed. May God give us the grace to recognize the people we have yet to forgive, the people we have forgiven but still need to offer the opportunity to apologize to us and the people to whom we need to apologize. Christ calls us to be one body in Him (Jn 17:21-23). Let us be instruments of that Christian unity in our lives and the lives of others.

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