Thursday, April 19, 2018

Pagans and Tax Collectors

As Jesus continues His teaching on conflict resolution in Matthew 18, He eventually comes to how a Christian should handle a situation in which there is no resolution possible: treat the offending party as a pagan and a tax collector. 

It is worth repeating here that Jesus was speaking about those who sin against you, while we have been looking this week at those that simply fail you. But at some point, still, you may come up against someone who fails you and is not willing to make it right or to apologize for getting it wrong. (Note that if someone has failed you and cannot make it right, as in, they are not able to correct the situation, this is entirely different, for you have come into a place of human limitation and not into a corruptness of the heart or spirit.)

The principles that Jesus sets forth here, however, are good for those that refuse to do what they can to remedy the situation or even to apologize for getting it wrong. In the case that sparked this series of blogs, it is helpful also in times when someone has wronged you and attempts to place the onus on you, as though you were the one that failed them or you were the one who got it wrong or what has occurred was somehow your fault, though they were the ones who had been responsible for it all along.

These are two words that we don't use a lot in our daily vernacular any more, although they were common words in Jesus's time. We don't often say "pagans" when referring to those outside of the church, nor do we deal very much with "tax collectors" (except, ironically, that this was tax week in the United States, so there is that). But each of these words has a distinct meaning that still applies to our human interactions today.

Pagans were those outside of the faith. In other words, they were those outside of the community. Jesus, throughout His teaching, makes clear that our obligations to those in the community are quite different than our obligations to those outside the community, even as demonstrated in the passage in question when He speaks about what to do with "a brother" who has sinned against you. "Brother" indicated someone inside the community, a fellow faith-man, a member of the congregation. 

When contracting business or relationship with someone, they are brought inside the community. They become part of who we're doing life with at the time, and they deserve the treatment of a brother. After all, if they were not to be a vital part of our living, we wouldn't be dealing with them at all, and we do have options about where we take our business. So we have chosen them, and they have chosen us by entering in, and we have become community. 

But if they wrong you and refuse to make it right, if they will not apologize for getting it wrong, or even worse, if they try to twist the situation into being your fault and blame you for their own failures, and they will not listen to reason or rebuke, then they are no longer a brother; they have become a pagan. They have become one outside of the community, and we ought to treat them as such. They are no longer in the inner circle, no longer a vital part of our living, no longer one who we are doing life with at the time...or at any time. We cut them out. We don't go back there. Jesus says so. 

Not only do they become pagans, but they also become tax collectors. Tax collectors in the Roman Empire were known for their corruption. They were known for inflating the bills, for skimming off the top, for taking advantage of those who were required to pay taxes to the emperor. They were known for being cheats. 

And this is another valuable principle for dealing with a place of business that won't make it right, that won't apologize, or that blames you and shames you for their own failures - you can, and should, assume that they're cheating you in more ways that one. You should stay on your toes and keep your eyes open, always on the lookout for other things that may not be as they appear to be. And you ought to be prepared to engage in battle with them through negotiation. In other words, you have to be prepared to talk them down into something reasonable and know that you're still probably coming up on the short end.

I hate to say it, I really do, but that's the way that a disreputable place of business operates. That's just how they work. If they set up a wall and refuse to take responsibility for themselves, it's not much of a leap to discover that they have failed in their responsibility in a number of other ways. And you have to be prepared to stand at the table and call them on it. Again, Jesus says so. 

It's not really where any of us want to go. At least, it's not where I want to go. I would much rather deal with a brother in this world than with a pagan or a tax collector (or both!), but the truth is that this broken world sometimes gives us no option but to go this route. Sometimes, it's the best thing we can do - for us and for them. 

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