Chapter 18 of Matthew’s gospel focuses on life in the early Christian community. The chapter begins with Jesus’ response to the disciples’ question about who was the greatest in God’s kingdom, and goes on to show how the early church handled disputes between members.
Today’s passage reflects a church at a more advanced stage of development than would have existed during the historical Jesus’ ministry. The church didn’t exist before Pentecost, and wasn’t a recognizable institution for many decades after that. In Matthew’s time, toward the end of the 1st century, the church was struggling to survive in scattered communities separated from the synagogues.
This is one of the most difficult passages to interpret in all of Matthew’s gospel. What’s significant is the realism of the passage. Disputes do arise among Christian believers and it’s vitally important that these disagreements be addressed directly, as privately as possible, always with care and respect. Its difficulty is that it doesn’t sound like Jesus but sounds more like the work of a church disciplinary committee.
The process described in today’s Gospel emphasizes the need to do everything possible to maintain unity within the community, avoid schisms, and win back anyone who might have gone astray. It’s based on an honest expectation of good will between both the offended party and the offending party.
Here’s what’s supposed to happen: three steps are to be followed when one member of the community offends another.
First, the offended party should take the initiative to restore the broken relationship by going to the person and explaining the offense. If both parties desire to end the quarrel, the brother or sister has been won back, the relationship and unity of the community restored.
But sometimes such a conversation doesn’t work. The offender (or the offended) may be more concerned with self-justification than reconciliation and overtures for peace are rejected. The offended must take action to protect the entire community.
The second step is to call one or two members to witness to the fact that the offended one has sought concord. Perhaps this will move the offender toward agreement and reconciliation will take place. If the offender continues the behavior, it becomes more than a private grievance and must be taken before the community as a whole.
The third step is to take the matter before the whole assembly, all in the hopes that the one who has gone astray will engage in conversation, listen and return to the fold. If the offender refuses to yield for the good of the community, then the final alternative may be exclusion from the community. Such a person becomes an outsider, to be treated “as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
But wait! Wasn’t Jesus all about inclusion? Hadn’t Jesus called for us to love our enemies and didn’t he say that God’s sun shines and rain falls on the unjust as well as the just? Hadn’t Jesus been crystal clear that sinners should not judge sinners? Wasn’t Jesus frequently found in the company of the most disreputable characters, including notorious sinners and tax collectors?
The tone of the passage is that there is a limit to forgiveness, that there may be a time when a person may be abandoned as beyond hope. We know from the witness of the entirety of the Gospels that Jesus would not have given this counsel.
So how does the Jesus community get off by claiming the right to excommunicate flagrant sinners? A good question that should always be examined with care. The history of this procedure is not one of unambiguous success. It often results in a case of pulling up the wheat with the tares.
M. Scott Peck cautioned in ‘The Road Less Traveled,’ “Whenever we confront someone, we are in essence saying, ‘You are wrong; I am right.’ Such action always carries with it an implied arrogance, ‘I know what’s best for you; do things my way, and you’ll be OK.’”
Done insensitively, as it is so often, this way of confronting creates more conflict rather than reconciliation. Done with humility, with a clear view of one’s own fallibility, such reaching out can be the beginning of healing.
Having said all this, I do believe that Matthew’s deep concern in this passage is the well-being of the Christian community. And there are a couple of things we need to acknowledge about community: we all say we want it, but we usually have no idea how difficult it is to achieve and maintain it. Authentic community is hard to come by. It’s hard work. When you find it, it’s like discovering a little bit of heaven on earth.
The really difficult thing about community is that it’s made up of people! And people, not you and me of course, but most people can sometimes be difficult, challenging, selfish and unreliable. It’s into this reality that Jesus, according to Matthew, speaks.
Without question, the church today is struggling to maintain community during this time of a Covid-pandemic and social, political and economic upheaval. And, if this wasn’t enough, this parish is in the midst of a transition between permanent priests, adding to our anxieties.
The path to healing and hope always begins with acknowledging reality. Let’s be gentle and kind with one another as we deal with the anger, grief and pain of the loss of “what was” while the “what will be” is unclear.
As fallible human beings, we will always struggle to be together in community. But the God who formed us, and the Christ who calls us into community, is here in our midst. Jesus promises that when we come together in community, listen to one another, address our disagreements, and repair relationships, he is here, supporting, encouraging, and blessing our efforts.
And that is Good News. Thanks be to God!
Resources: David Lose, 2011, 2020; William Barclay, 1975; Fred Craddock, et.al., 1987; Jude Siciliano, 2011.