Private and Public Sin and Matthew 18

What is a private sin? Well, let’s first consider what the word “private” means. It means, “not pubic.” Private property is not public property. A private beach is not a public beach. A private ceremony is not a public ceremony. But private is not secret. A couple may very well have a private moment in public, but it is nigh impossible to have a secret moment in public. Again, a private beach is not a secret beach; people do know about it. A private ceremony is announced: “This is a private ceremony.” A secret ceremony would not be announced.
So what is a private sin? It is not a public one. But this doesn’t really answer what a private sin is, it only clarifies what it is not. So to be clear: a private sin is a sin committed against an individual. If I steal my neighbor’s mail, I have commited a private sin even though it will be made public at my arraignment. If I shoot the bird to someone in the mall, it is a private sin – a sin committed agaisnt the person I shot the bird at – even though it is done in public. So a private sin can be done in public. And a public sin can be done in private.
A public sin is a sin committed againt the public. To draw an analogy, if the United States is attacked by an enemy, foreign or domestic, this is a public sin (the sin being used as an act agaisnt someone). It is a sin against the entire United States, and so the United States goes to war. But if a foreigner slaps me upside the head it is not a sin against the United States but against me. Now even if the attack is done in private (such as poisioning the water supply of major cities) it is still a public sin. But if I am slapped on national television, it is still a private sin.
Where am I going with all this? Here: Matthew 18 is dealing with public sins, not private ones. Jesus is here concerened with sins committed against the Body of Christ, public sins, not sins committed against a person, private sins.
In fact, when someone sins against us – a private sin – we are supposed to forgive immediately without them even asking for it. Thus St. Peter writes, “Love covers a multitude of sins.” If we exegete Matthew 18 to mean that when someone sins against us personally we are to go and show them their fault, what possible purpose would this serve? Rather, when we are maligned, mistreated, sinned against, we are to remain silent (1 Peter 5). We are to be as sheep to the slaughter. We are to love our enemy and so count no record of wrong against him. If we count no record of wrong, then why do we go and show him his fault?
Now someone will say, “Yes but Jesus is here speaking of our brother, not our enemy.” So much the worse! If we are to cover our enemy’s sin with our love for him, how much more are we to do this for our brother? This is what St. Paul writes to the Corinthians.
In Matthew 18, Jesus is saying to His disciples, if someone sins against you, go and show him his fault. That is, if someone sins against the Body of Christ, the disciples, namely, the ministers of reconciliation are to go and show him his fault. If the sinner repents, they have reconciled him to the Body of Christ and gained their brother. If he does not listen to them, they bring 2 or 3 witness to establish that he has sinned against the Body of Christ (not them personally). Once again, if the sinner repents, having been rebuked by many, then they have gained their brother, but if he refuses to listen again then it is told to the church. Now why in God’s name (pun intented) would Jesus say for us to tell the whole church when someone has sinned against us personally? Rather, is He not saying that in sinning agaisnt the Body and refusing to be reconciled then the Body must reject him? Again, this is what St. Paul writes to the church in Corinth about the immoral man.
So to use Matthew 18 in matters of personal sin is to misuse Matthew 18. If someone sins against you, be wronged. Better to suffer for doing good if that is God’s will (1 Peter). After all, what are you that you can be sinned against? But if someone sins against the Body, show him his fault that he may be reconciled to the Body of Christ and be saved.


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