If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. If he refuses to listen to the church, treat him like a Gentile or a tax collector. – Matthew 18:17 (NET)
Stern words from Jesus. The context, of course, is relationships between covenant brethren. Jesus has said “If your brother sins, go and show him his fault when the two of you are alone. If he listens to you, you have regained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others with you, so that at the testimony of two or three witnesses, every matter may be established” (Matthew 18:15-16). The introductory verse to this study follows from this statement, presenting something resembling a system for dealing with intra-Jesus-community conflicts.
So how are these words generally interpreted? Upon first reading, is there a thought of something along the lines of “Yes. That’s right. If the necessary efforts have been made, and if the response is not correct (meaning, the response is not that which the community wishes to see), then that individual is to be marginalized and ostracized---treated as a Gentile (or a pagan) or a tax collector, for he is unrepentant and beyond reach”?
One could venture to say that, instinctively, especially in light of an often all too parsed reading of Scripture, that such thoughts do indeed tend to present themselves. In general there is a custom, especially within the church world, to the creation of an “us vs. them” mentality, with the “us” being those inside the church, and the “them” being the pagans, heathens, and veritable Gentiles and tax collectors that stand outside of and presumably opposed to the church and its claims on behalf of the Christ and His cosmic and unquestioned Lordship of all. This treatment, though probably stemming from a customary reading of the text, would also and unfortunately be patently incorrect.
Without going into too much detail, it is worth recounting that the Jews, in recognizing their role as the Creator God’s elect and chosen covenant people, and according to the prescriptions of the Mosaic law and the rather large assortment of traditions grafted on to that law, kept themselves separate from Gentiles. Purity laws, and especially those encouraged by the strictest of the orthodox in the days of Jesus the Matthean community, demanded that there be no mixing with Gentiles. For them, and painting with an extraordinarily broad brush, Gentiles were those people that stood against the claims of their Creator God, while also functioning in an ongoing role of oppressors (very much an us vs. them mentality).
Tax collectors, of course, were the hated group (often of their fellow countrymen) that collaborated with their Roman oppressors to continue their ongoing exile from the place and situation that it was believed their God had promised to them. This disdain went well beyond the general disgust that is almost universally felt towards those that collect taxes, as their presence and their role were constant reminders of Israel’s covenant failures, and their God’s ongoing punishment of them as His covenant people.
If these basic facts are taken into consideration, then it would seem rather odd to say that an assessment of Jesus’ statement that affirms an isolation and ostracizing of unrepentant individuals through treating them as Gentiles or tax collectors is an incorrect statement. Still, that statement stands, and this study resolutely denies that Jesus came anywhere near to implying that an unrepentant individual should be isolated, ostracized, or condemned. At the same time, His statement is unquestionably affirmed, and said individual should absolutely be treated like a Gentile or a tax collector.