Like a Gentile or a Tax Collector

Like a Gentile or a Tax Collector

To anyone raised in an Anglo-American legal tradition, today’s Gospel almost has a degree of what we call “due process” sound to it.  Some years back, when I was stationed in Canada and this Gospel came up, someone suggested preaching wearing a wig and holding a judge’s gavel, to which I replied that in my case a wig at least might be a good idea.


Be that as it may, this is a “due process” kind of Gospel – this procedure which Jesus outlines to deal with (and hopefully even resolve) conflicts within the community of the Church. Jesus doesn’t pretend, as religious people sometimes try to do, that there will be no conflicts. But it is a very specific sort of “due process” that Jesus proposes – religious rather than secular (obviously), but also communitarian rather than individualistic and oriented toward reconciliation rather than punishment. Nowadays, reconciliation may have become an overused word (overused, that is, as a word, not necessarily as an attitude or practice, where it is more likely underused).


Obsessed as we are in our society with individual rights, when we speak of “due process” typically what get emphasized are legal guarantees for the individuals involved. The “due process” Jesus outlines here does do some of that, but the focus is less on the individuals and their rights or sensitivities and more on the community. Maybe even more importantly it is a process aimed at reconciliation. In that regard, it reminds me of the process in Church law for dealing with problematic people in religious communities. The problematic person is warned and given a chance to change course several times before the process ends in expulsion. That’s because the goal of the process is not expulsion but rather the person’s reconciliation with the community. Expulsion may end up being necessary, but always only as a last resort – as it is in the process Jesus outlines in today’s Gospel.


Only after three tries – individually, in a small group, and finally involving the whole community – is the person excommunicated. Even so, the story doesn’t quite end there. The excommunication which Jesus outlines is specified as: If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.


Now, in the ordinary world, the meaning of that would have been perfectly clear. Devout, observant Jews avoided (as much as possible) having contact with such people, and they certainly would not admit them to their homes or eat and drink with them. That served a certain purpose on that society, as judicial proceedings and punishments do in our society.


Yet, when Jesus says treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector, he may be muddying the waters a bit, because, of course, we can all recall how Jesus himself sometimes treated Gentiles and tax collectors. Such people may indeed be outside the community, and they may in fact (as they clearly are in this case) be outside because of their own bad behavior, but they’re not forgotten. In the divided, highly conflicted North African Church of the fourth century, Saint Augustine (354-430), speaking of the heretical and schismatic Donatist Christians he had to oppose so vigorously, said: “My friends, we must grieve over these as over our brothers. Whether they like it or not, they are our brothers” [Commentary on Psalm 32 (33)].


I am a long-time fan of medieval mystery stories, like Susanna Gregory’s Matthew Bartholomew Chronicles (set in 14th-century Cambridge) and Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael Mysteries (set in 12th-century Shrewsbury). In the final Brother Cadfael book, Cadfael (who, over and above his avocation as an ersatz detective, is first and foremost a Benedictine monk) has, sadly, broken his vow of obedience. But, when, at the end of the story, he returns to the monastery and kneels before his Abbot, the Abbot simply responds: “Get up now, and come with your brothers into the choir.”


Unlike Cadfael and his brother monks, we live in a conflict-obsessed society driven by social media and what some have called “cancel culture.” Clearly, we cannot be unaffected by all the vitriolic conflict that surrounds us. But, whatever we are or do as a community of disciples, our goal can never simply be to cancel one another. Rather, it must always be to bring us all back together, so that we may eventually all be together, here and now at this altar, and forever in God’s kingdom.

Homily for the 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, NY, September 10, 2023.