Thought for the day
Our Gospel reading today has some harsh dimensions and most likely it reflects not the teaching of Jesus directly but the practices in the church for which Matthew was writing. People who refuse to acknowledge their failures are to be treated as pagans and tax collectors! But just how are pagans and tax collectors treated by Jesus and in the Gospel of Matthew? They are welcomed and forgiven! Any permanent exclusion is to be resisted on the example and teaching of Jesus himself.
We believe your word to us that where two or three are gathered in your name you are in our midst. Help us to recognise you in all our brothers and sisters, whatever their failures or sins. Help us to recognise you in ourselves, whatever our faults.
Matt 18:15 “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. 16 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. 17 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.
Matt 18:18 “I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever you release on earth will have been released in heaven. 19 Again, I tell you the truth, if two of you on earth agree about whatever you ask, my Father in heaven will do it for you. 20 For where two or three are assembled in my name, I am there among them.”
(i) A text similar to this, but much shorter and less repelling, may be found in Luke 17:3-4: “Be on your guard! If another disciple sins, you must rebuke the offender, and if there is repentance, you must forgive. And if the same person sins against you seven times a day, and turns back to you seven times and says, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive.”” The elaborate procedural instructions are unique to Matthew and seem to reflect the practice of the community for which he was writing.
(ii) There is a bit of a problem with the NRSV translation at this point. The Greek original does not use language like “member” and “church”, which can make the text reflect a much later institutional development. Instead, the Greek says (as in traditional versions) “brother”, bearing in mind that in Greek “brother” in this context means a disciple, whether male or female.
Likewise, instead of “church” the Greek uses “assembly”, a very ordinary word meaning any kind of official gathering of a group. That is why, for instance, Paul always says “the church of God”, lit. the “assembly of God” to make it clear we are dealing with a gathering of believers and not just any gathering. So, Matthew did not write “member of the church”, simply “brother”. Neither did he write “church”, but simply “assembly”—the NJB gets is right, although it does not succeed in inclusive language. “Member of the family of God” would be correct but perhaps cumbersome.
(iii) It is not historically probable that Jesus instructed the disciples to treat fellow-believers as tax collectors and sinners, with the meaning of excommunication. Jesus’ practice is precisely the opposite, to include tax collectors and sinners. It would seem, therefore, that here we have a local development designed to deal with a new situation—hardened, unrepentant sinners within the community—with appropriate procedures, expressed unfortunately in language which takes us back to attitudes which pre-date the ministry of Jesus. Where there Holy Spirit is in all this is anyone’s guess!!!
(iii) As regards forgiveness and excommunication, there is a similar text in John 20:22-23: “When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.””
Kind of writing
This is a combination of moral instruction, community procedure and spirituality.
Old Testament background
So you, mortal, I have made a sentinel for the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked, “O wicked ones, you shall surely die,” and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but their blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the wicked to turn from their ways, and they do not turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but you will have saved your life. (Ezekiel 33:7–9)
New Testament foreground
(i) The practice of expulsion (excommunication, shunning) may be noticed in all types of voluntary associations which have to deal with non-compliant members. Later on, in the developed penitential practice of the patristic church, sinners were expelled (lit. excommunicated) for a temporary period (often Lent), a penance was imposed and upon successful completion the sinner was re-admitted, usually at the Easter Vigil (originally penance came before absolution). Today’s text shows us the early development of this practice. Behind it lies a theology of community which gives great theological status to the decisions of the community. This equating of the community’s decisions with God’s—always risky—is also reflected in John 20:22-23 and even, when we read it carefully, in the Lord’s Prayer: “And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.” (Luke 11:4)
(ii) Being reconciled before prayer is a teaching of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5:21-26), which provides the important counterpart to our passage today.
(iii) The presence of Christ in the community—reflected in the much-loved v.20—is a theme in this Gospel. At the very start, Jesus is identified as Emmanuel, God-with-us (Matt 1:23) and at the end, the Risen Lord promises “to be with you always to the end of time” (Matt 28:20).
(iv) The practice of “mutual confession” is also in James 5:16 “Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.”
For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honour. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. (Romans 12:3–13)
Most of what I have to say is found in the remarks above, but the following may help.
Verse 15 A brother/sister i.e. fellow-believer is meant. The sin is against you, i.e. some break-down between the two of you. The first step is discreet “between you and him/her alone”. This is to avoid embarrassment. Naturally, it would take courage.
Verse 16 This follows a well-recognised judicial practice from the Deuteronomy: On the evidence of two or three witnesses the death sentence shall be executed; a person must not be put to death on the evidence of only one witness. The hands of the witnesses shall be the first raised against the person to execute the death penalty, and afterward the hands of all the people. So you shall purge the evil from your midst. (Deuteronomy 17:6–7). The second step is also relatively confined.
Verse 17 It is only at this stage that the whole business becomes public. Three times the brother/sister has been given the opportunity to be reconciled—only then is the drastic action of exclusion considered.
Verse 18 I.e. admitting into or removing people from the community of salvation.
Verse 19 Matthew says nothing about the likelihood of two or three agreeing!
Verse 20 A justly famous verse, giving great comfort and consolation.
Pointers for prayer
1. At the time Matthew was writing his gospel local church communities would have numbered no more than fifty people. They would be known to one another. Matthew presents the instructions of Jesus for dealing with people whose behaviour disrupted and harmed the community. Note the steps suggested. Simple directions but many of us do otherwise. We avoid difficult confrontations. We talk about the faults of others to everyone but themselves. We go over the head of someone who displeases us and make complaints. In your experience, which approach is life-giving for you and for others?
2. While Jesus is referring to a group situation, the advice can be applied also to personal difficulties and problems with others. What lessons has life taught you about constructive ways of dealing with conflict?
3. Jesus also recognises that there are limits to what we can do in resolving conflicts. We may reach out, but if the other person does not respond the matter is out of our control. Let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector suggests having nothing more to do with that person. But that is not the last word because Gentiles and tax collectors were precisely the kind of people to whom Jesus reached out. So while for the moment we may have nothing more to do with a person who has hurt us, we leave the door open for the future.
4. As individuals and communities we have the power to bind and to loose, to exclude people from relationship, or to open up and include others in relationship. When have you found it important to acknowledge this power in your own life?
5. There is great assurance in the promise of Jesus in v. 19, but he seems to promise more than we experience. What has been your experience of praying with others for something you wanted God to grant?
6. Jesus also promises to be with his followers when they gather together. What does that mean to you? How have you experienced the presence of Jesus in his followers gathered together?
Confirm, O God, in unity and truth the Church you gather in Christ.
Encourage the fervent, enlighten the doubtful, and bring back the wayward.
Bind us together in mutual love, that our prayer in Christ’s name may be pleasing to you.
Grant this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God for ever and ever. Amen