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"Where 2 or 3 are gathered"

You’ve probably heard the phrase from the end of this passage – “wherever 2 or 3 are gathered …” – usually to indicate that even small groups have value.

[1] "Reconciliation” by Josefina de Vasconcellos, at Coventry Cathedral
[1] "Reconciliation” by Josefina de Vasconcellos, at Coventry Cathedral

Matthew 18:15-20

September 10, 2023

Dr. Todd R. Wright

You’ve probably heard the phrase from the end of this passage – “wherever 2 or 3 are gathered …” – usually to indicate that even small groups have value.

So you would expect it to be part of a passage where Jesus is encouraging the 12 not to worry about their limited numbers. It isn’t.

Instead, this passage is Jesus teaching his followers about how to deal with conflict.


Perhaps we should start by reflecting on how people usually deal with conflict.

One scholar lists the well-worn path with depressing honesty:

“First, we’re tempted to avoid [conflict].

Second, we’re tempted to gossip: to tell other people about the person or behavior that’s offended us, rather than addressing our concerns directly to the person or people involved.

Third, we’re tempted to gang up on each other, to recruit like-minded people to our side and create echo chambers of grievance.

Fourth, we’re tempted to air our grievances only in such echo-chambers, or in front of overwhelmingly friendly audiences where accountability or alternative perspectives are minimal.

And fifth, we’re tempted to regard our opponents as if they are unwelcome or better off elsewhere, outside our community entirely.”[2]

Those flawed ways of dealing with conflict have left us with a deeply divided society – over abortion or educational policies, over immigration or homelessness, over global warming or the rights of LGBTQ people, over whether Black lives matter or the wearing masks (again?)

And, sadly, the church reflects the broken state of the world, rather than setting an example as a community as dedicated to reconciliation as our God is.


So what would this community of reconciliation look like? Jesus is clear … and the SALT project’s comments on this text make them more clear:[3]

1. If another member of the church sins against you, speak to them directly.

Don’t put it off. Conflict is like a toothache – it’ll only get worse if you ignore it.

Do it when the two of you are alone. The SALT project advises, “This respectfully allows the person to clear up any misunderstanding, or to apologize and make amends — and to save face. This approach implicitly says: I respect you enough to give you space to rectify this, without embarrassing you in front of others; and I’m humble enough to recognize that I may have misunderstood something, or may have something to learn.”

2. If that doesn’t work, Jesus says, take one or two others with you. and try again.

You are not aiming to gang up on them. SALT elaborates: “This communicates the same respect and humility [as] the “one-on-one” approach, while at the same time adding the wisdom and experience one or two others might provide. In some situations, a third-party perspective can help two parties in conflict find common ground and a way forward.”

3. If that doesn’t work, don’t give up. Tell the whole church.

“Not the part of the community that will likely agree with you,” warns SALT, “or the part that will likely agree with the person who’s offended you; but the whole community. [Make sure you include] the person who’s offended you! This ‘whole group’ approach does at least two things. First, it keeps you accountable, since with diverse listeners, you’ll be less likely to exaggerate, omit key details, or deny either how you’ve contributed to the problem or how you can help rectify it. And the alleged offender will be similarly accountable. This step can act as a kind of ‘sunlight’ strategy: problems can fester and multiply in the dark, and in certain cases, letting sunlight in can help — and keep all of us on our best behavior.”

4. And if that fails, treat them like a Gentile or a tax collector!

I’ll bet Jesus saying that caught everyone by surprise!

Jews had a long history of viewing non-Jews as a threat to their survival or a temptation to turn away from holiness. That meant giving in to fear and cutting off relationships.

Likewise occupied Israel saw tax collectors working for Rome as traitors, worthy of scorn.

So treating people within the faith community who had sinned against them like Gentiles or tax collectors was, essentially, excommunicating them.

Was that what Jesus was recommending?

Not exactly, says SALT: “Jesus qualifies this recommendation in at least three ways: first, by preceding and following this teaching with two parables of mercy and inclusion [– the parable of the lost sheep in which a good shepherd leaves behind 99 sheep to seek one that has become lost, and the parable of the unforgiving servant (which we’ll dig into next week,) which places a premium on grace and forgiveness]. “Second, by clearly positioning exclusion as a last resort, to be taken only after three other intentional, constructive steps. And third, we all know what happens in Jesus’ ministry to “Gentiles” and “tax collectors”!”

I wonder if Matthew, a former tax collector, found himself chuckling as he recorded this line. He knew that if the community treated the offending party like a tax collector it would mean a refusal to give up on them, an audacious belief in their continued worth, and a reckless willingness to trust them as brothers and sisters despite their faults!


So I wonder, has this passage transformed the way you deal with conflict? Could it?

Does it give you hope that those in conflict can reconcile? Does it inspire you to do better?

Is this a gift we can give to our community, or maybe a gift we can give ourselves?

What are you going to do with this passage?

May God use it like yeast in our midst! Wherever 2 or 3 are gathered! Amen

[1] "Reconciliation” by Josefina de Vasconcellos, at Coventry Cathedral
[2] See
[3] Ibid, here and throughout

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