Jesus is speaking here to his disciples about correction within the community of believers. The manner of this correction is aimed at preserving communion even if, ultimately, the offender refuses correction and shows himself to be outside the communion of the Church.
It is important to note immediately that Jesus is not just giving advice. Jesus well understands that even in the Christian community there can be individuals or groups who threaten communion, and since communion is the hallmark of the Christian community it must be dealt with sensitively, justly and firmly.
If your brother does something wrong go and have it out with him, alone, between your two selves.
This would appear to be an exceptionally simple and self-evidently sound instruction. I imagine there would not be a single person in this congregation who would disagree with it. And yet, I also wonder if it is not the least listened to instruction Jesus ever gave?
Remember that this counsel is aimed at only one thing – preserving communion – the larger communion of believers (which can easily be fractured by poorly handled disputes) and the ‘re-entry’ of the offending brother into that communion through repentance.
Therefore Jesus desires that we first of all approach our brother: and have it out with him, alone, between your two selves. Notice Jesus’ insistence: Go (to him)… alone … between your two selves?
This ‘going’ is not always easy to do but we must remember it is our brother. We are going to speak with one who shares with us in the loving communion of the Church. He is family.
We have all experienced those who go stomping off to have it out with someone they are angry with; perhaps we have done it ourselves. Going to a brother is a very different kind of going than that. We go to present our difficulty to him in an honest, loving way and we listen with great openness to his response. We are alone and his dignity is respected (and should we prove to be the one in error then our dignity is respected too).
To do otherwise than follow this teaching of Jesus is fraught with dangers for our brother, the community, and for ourselves. Our brother has a right to dignity, to proper correction and to the opportunity to reform himself. When we act hastily in anger, or fear, or even self-righteousness we run the risk of depriving him of all this and of ourselves becoming even more guilty than he is.
Jesus is aware of the dangers of a false step in the very beginning of this process of correction and so, I repeat, he insists that we should go alone and speak with our brother.
Naturally this requires a certain degree of personal maturity and a great deal of true Christian love. The temptation is always to tell ‘others’; to get it out of our system. Unfortunately, what we tell others goes into the system and soon extraordinary damage can be done out of all proportion to the initial wrong.
Only when individual communication with our brother bears no fruit despite our best efforts should we ask that others become involved, and only when this, too, fails should we tell the community. It will then become clear to our brother that he has placed himself outside of the communion of the Church. We have then ‘had it out with him’ in the way that Jesus commands and in the way, which preserves our innocence.
The practical implication of all this for us as individual Christians here today is the duty we all have to bring our behavior into line with the gospel. All of us, including myself, have failed and still do fail from time to time in this matter of correction. If we are looking for some area of our lives in which we can improve we should take today’s instruction from Jesus very seriously. There would be a lot less gossip in our community and there would be many more deeper friendships because the truth is that we often build the strongest and best friendships with those who have corrected us in a proper way.
Lately, the readings have been speaking of the difference between God’s way of thinking and man’s way of thinking. The gospel does to us today what God is asking us to do to the sinner. The Word of God is coming to us very powerfully and privately, having it out with us alone as we sit in the pew today, just the Word and us, between our two selves, showing us a whole nasty cluster of evils we commit by not going to our brother. Let us listen to this loving Word and allow ourselves to be won back from our bad habits of gossip and slander. That would please God so much.