“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 17:3-4: “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.”
See also something similar in John 20:23: “Those whose sins you forgive etc”
Reconciliation is a crucial part of human existence. It becomes a very real and immediate issue in community life. Matthew’s audience would also have been aware of the instruction of the Torah: “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: “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 Matthew 16:18. We should not allow subsequent developments of hierarchical institutional structures to determine our reading of this text. 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).
The trap of moralism can easily distract us from the essence of the Good News, all the time deluding us that it is the Good News we are living. Moralism is not good news! Moralism sees Jesus as primarily a moral teacher and the Gospels primarily as a moral map. Moralism is an ego project masked in the language of the Gospel. It demands a wilful enactment of the moral vision of the Good News. The critical missing element is the very heart of the Good News – the presence of God at work in and through Jesus. One text that commonly draws us into moralism is the parable of the Good Samaritan. The trap is to treat the parable as primarily a moral story, one that calls us to behave like the Good Samaritan. The issue is not the behaviour but what – or rather who – moves us to behave like the Good Samaritan.
The trap of moralism awaits the unwary in today’s Gospel – Matthew 18:15-20. The trap is that we may move too quickly to draw a moral lesson out of the text: “Work for reconciliation! Engage in open and honest communication! Forgive one another and so on”. Again, the issue is not those moral lessons, injunctions or ideals and the behaviour they encourage. It is rather the grounding of these and the life force that drives and shapes them. The call, for example, to work for reconciliation, can, in the end, prove to be very hollow, even counter-productive, if it is not well grounded and driven by the grace of God. Recall the parable of the Treasure in the Field. Before the man “buys” he must “sell” and before he “sells” he must “find”. And the finding is always also a being found. It is the encounter with the Lord that is the ground of all our moral behaviour, the whole of the Christ life.
Thus, the key to the grounding of the call to reconciliation, is, “I am there”. “I live now, not but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:19). To the extent that the truth of God’s Presence in Jesus Christ permeates and shapes our consciousness, so our presence and our behaviour will follow. In the family, at work, with friends, while shopping, when driving ….. “I am there”. When we feel “up” and when we feel “down”, when we feel motivated and when we feel bored, when we feel distressed and when we feel at peace, when we feel loved and when we feel unloved ….. “I am there”.
This truth is the heart of the whole of divine revelation. It is the reason for the most oft-repeated message: “Do not be afraid!” The Presence of God in Jesus Christ now is the source of our hope, our love and our faith. It is also the fount of Christian virtue and the Mystery we bear to the world. Reconciliation is another name for the Presence of God.
A video presentation of the Reflection may be found on YouTube via https://stpatschurchhill.org/