“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” (Matthew 18:15-20 – NRSV)
There is a similar text in Luke 17:3.
It will come as no surprise to the readers of this text that reconciliation is a crucial part of community life. Reference is made to the Jewish tradition: “You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD” (Leviticus 19:17-18). And, as to the process, there are some laws that apply. For example: “A single witness shall not suffice to convict a person of any crime or wrongdoing in connection with any offense that may be committed. Only on the evidence of two or three witnesses shall a charge be sustained” (Deuteronomy 19:15).
member of the church: This phrase is used by the NRSV to render the Greek word adelphos which literally means “brother”.
against you: Scholars generally agree that this phrase was probably not in the original text of Mathew. “This phrase is absent from many important manuscripts. It was probably a scribal addition under the influence of Matt 18:21. Thus in the original Matthean text the offense was unspecified but most likely had implications for the entire community as the three-step process implies.” (Daniel J Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2007, 268.)
point out: The Greek verb is elegxon and it is generally translated as “expose”, “reprove” or “convict”. The Jerusalem Bible translates it as “have it out with him”. The whole thrust of this interaction seems to be towards an honest and transparent interaction: “We are in this together, and we need to sort it out together”. Refer again to the Leviticus text cited above: “You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove (the Greek verb elegxon is used in the Septuagint) your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself . . .”
take one or two others along with you: If the first step fails, then move to the second step. This seems to be based on Deuteronomy 19:15 cited above.
tell it to the church: This third step might be necessary if the first two have not led to reconciliation. The Greek noun ekklesia – meaning literally “gathering” – is also used in 16:18. We should not allow subsequent developments of hierarchical institutional structures to determine our reading here. Ekklesia refers to a very basic reality here. It is interesting to note that “the Qumran community had a similar threefold procedure: ‘let him rebuke him on the very same day lest he incur guilt because of him. And furthermore, let no man accuse his companion before the Congregation without having first admonished him in the presence of witnesses” (Leon Morris, The Gospel according to Matthew, Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: W.B. Eerdmans; Inter-Varsity Press, 1992, 468.)
let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector: This suggests that the ekklesia had to face some tough decisions in a very tough environment. Daniel Harrington writes: “The expression presupposes a largely Jewish-Christian milieu (see Matt 5:46–47; 6:7) in which such people are looked down upon. Nevertheless, earlier in the Gospel such persons have shown great faith in Jesus (8:1–11; 9:9–13; 11:19; 15:21–28). The sentence sounds like a decree of excommunication. For shunning erring Christians, see 1 Cor 5:1–5; 2 Thess 3:6–15; 2 John 10.” (Daniel Harrington, op cit, 269.) It is worth noting the phrase, “be to you”. It is not “be to the church”.
whatever you bind …. loose: “The power to bind and loose, previously bestowed on Peter in 16:19, is now given to the disciples at large. Taken in context with 18:15–17, that power would seem to concern either the imposing (and lifting) of decrees of excommunication or the forgiving (and not forgiving) of sins.” (Daniel J Harrington, op cit, 269.)
In the 1980s, Paul Kelly and Kev Carmody wrote their memorable song, “From little things big things grow”. The lyrics tell the inspiring story of the Gurindji people’s struggle for equality and land rights after their ‘walk off’ at the Wave Hill property in 1966. Kelly and Carmody had picked up on a fundamental truth concerning life in general and reconciliation in particular. “Little things” can become “big things” – for better and for worse.
Today’s Gospel picks up on the same truth. In a word, Jesus urges us: Address the little things so that they give rise to good big things. In a healthy relationship it is expected that the participants will address what needs to be addressed. In unhealthy relationships too much is let pass because it is too much trouble or because we fear to speak what should be spoken or because we do not want to upset the person or because it is just such a “little thing” . . .
Alcoholics Anonymous was the first to tell us that the alcoholic was not the only sick person in his/her system. There will typically be a number of people who actually enable the alcoholic to be drunk and dysfunctional by their unwillingness or inability to hold him/her to account. No, they are not to be blamed for the alcoholic’s alcoholism. And the alcoholism might well continue long after those (unwitting) enablers have separated themselves from him/her. It is however a harsh fact of life that, when we are unwilling or unable to “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15) to our brother or sister, that person may thereby be enabled to behave in some very destructive behaviours.
Today’s Gospel is not a call for judgmental behaviours which, as Oscar Wilde observed, are invariably autobiographical. Nor is it just a matter of speaking “true things”. Before anything else, this is a matter of love. We will not be able to speak the truth in love unless we are in love. Concretely, this will mean that those who endeavour to speak the truth in love are very aware of their own brokenness. The will approach the other from a disposition of care.
This applies in all systems – including the Church. And it is reasonable to say we have not been good at this in the Church. Sometimes it may be a matter of our being too intent on compassion and forgetting that prudence and common sense are part of the moral life too; sometimes we have idealized people – like bishops, priests and religious – and that has led us to overlook or simply not see what should be addressed; sometimes we simply did not care enough.
“From little things big things grow”. Indeed they do! We would be well advised to address the “little things” to make sure the “big things” are good and life-giving.