The texts for the next two weeks are part of Jesus' Fourth Discourse in Matthew (18:1-35). Verses 1-14 should be included in the study of these passages. Although these earlier verse are not part of the readings in the Revised Common Lectionary, they begin this section about life together in the new community.
The fact that this section is in scriptures indicates that either Jesus anticipated a non-perfect church -- if we assume the words came from him, or -- if it assumed that these words came later -- the church from the very beginning was not perfect. Neither should we expect our congregations to be perfect. Believers sometimes don't get along with each other. They will sin against one another and that was true from the very beginning. This is a fitting expansion from last week's text where we see that sometimes Jesus and the disciples didn't always see eye to eye.
Long (Matthew, Westminster Bible Commentary") begins his comments on this section with: "Matthew has no romantic illusions about the church. He knows that the church is not all sweet thoughts, endlessly patient saints, and cloudless skies. In Matthew's church, people -- no matter how committed -- are still people, and stormy weather is always a possible forecast" [p. 209].
I have seen church members, after serving on the governing board (e.g., council, session, etc.) drop out of the church. Their work on the board gave them a dose of reality about the congregation and its problems. My brother commented that he and his wife are one of the few members who have served on their council and have remained active members of the church. Are they the norm or the exception?
Steinke's work on healthy congregations stresses the fact that problems will occur among a community of believers (or within any system). The more important issue is how the group responds to the problems when they occur.
In the larger context, there certainly is a relationship between our text and the verses just before about the shepherd searching for the one straying sheep (18:12-14). Restoration to the fold is the purpose in both texts.
Is there also a relationship between our text and 18:8-10 where we are told to remove sinful parts of the body? A possible outcome of our text is that the "sinner" will not listen and is removed from the body, which may be necessary for the salvation of the whole body. In a similar way, to save the whole body, surgeons frequently have to remove cancerous cells that are sapping the life out of the healthy cells.
I find it easier to understand the application of our text when we realize that a huge church in Matthew's day included at the most 50 members. Their gatherings were much more like small family reunions -- maybe 20-30 people. We can easily imagine how the actions or attitude of one family member could spoil the festive gathering for the rest of the family; and how this disciplinary process might be used to encourage the wayward one to "fit in" or possibly become uninvited to the gatherings. This is also supported by the use of "brother" as a term for a fellow member (whether male or female). The relationship between believers was that of a family.
Verse 15 begins with a significant variant reading, which is noted in NRSV & NIV, but not in the RSV. The words "against you (singular)" are not in some ancient manuscripts. This is significant. Do I go and point out the fault only when a fellow believer has wronged me, or whenever I think that he or she has committed a sin whether or not it affects me? The textual arguments are balanced.
I note that in this section, the sin and the sought for reconciliation is within the community rather than with God. It is about our life together as a community of believers, rather than our lives in relationship with God.
What sin (whether against an individual or the community) might have the member committed to deserve the confrontation? The Greek word harmartano has the sense of "to miss the mark" and thus "to fail." Should this only refer to the "big sins" that are worthy of prison sentences? A member who is convicted of child abuse and is unrepentant, we might discipline, especially if the abuse was against children of other members.
This word only occurs three times in Matthew: One other time in the verses for next week (18:21), and in reference to Judas betraying Jesus (27:4). Could Jesus have restored Judas to the fellowship after this sin? Would the disciples have accepted Judas back in? We'll never know. Judas, in Matthew, hangs himself.
It seems more likely to me that the "sins" members of churches commit against other members are "little failures." What about the committee chair who fails to call meetings or to adequately prepare for the meeting, or the volunteer who fails to show up to usher or be a greeter or sing in the choir, etc., or the members who don't live up to their financial pledges, a treasurer who fails to balance the books or pay the bills on time, or have a report ready for a council meeting, or the members who, with nothing to stop them, haven't worshiped with or contributed to the community for a year or more? All of these people have "missed the mark"? They have failed to live up to the expectations the church has placed on them. Are these also included in the "sin against" phrase? Should they fall under the discipline procedures of this passage?
Whatever the sin might be, the process begins with "pointing out the fault of" the sinful one. This step is not new with Jesus. The same Greek word, elegcho, is used in the LXX at Lev 19:17-18: "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."
It is characteristic of God's people, whether old or new covenant, to love one another -- and sometimes that love takes on a tough character when it is required to confront fellow believers with their sin. However, the purpose of such confrontations is always restoration. It cannot be done from an attitude of "I've better than you," because we are all sinners. It is more like a doctor telling a long-time patient that the tests for cancer came back positive.
Hare (Matthew, Interpretation Commentaries) suggests the more common, modern day approach: "We are inclined to 'forgive' sins in advance of repentance rather than have to confront the guilty parties" [p. 213]
Long (Matthew) makes a similar statement: "In contrast to the attitudes of the prevailing culture ('If somebody hassles you, forget them. It's their problem, not yours"), relationships are of precious and enduring value in the church. When a relationship is broken, it is worth going back over and over to work toward reconciliation" [p. 210]
Malina and Rohrbaugh (Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels) write:
In an honor-shame society, sin is a breach of interpersonal relations. In the Gospels the closest analogy to the forgiveness of sins is the forgiveness of debts (Matt. 6:12; see Luke 11:4), an analogy drawn from pervasive peasant experience. Debt threatened loss of land, livelihood, family. It made persons poor, that is, unable to maintain their social position. Forgiveness would thus have had the character of restoration, a return to both self-sufficiency and one's place in the community. Since the introspective, guilt-oriented outlook of industrialized societies did not exist, it is unlikely that forgiveness meant psychological healing. Instead, forgiveness by God meant being divinely restored to one's position and therefore being freed from fear of loss at the hands of God. Forgiveness by others meant restoration to the community. Given the anti-introspective attitude of Mediterranean people, "conscience" was not so much an interior voice of accusation as an external one -- what the neighbors said, hence blame from friends, neighbors, or authorities.... An accusation had the power to destroy, while forgiveness had the power to restore. [pp. 63-64]
If their understanding of the cultural situation is right, then the one sinned against had the power to destroy (through accusing the sinner) or to restore (through forgiving the sinner).
However, our text never uses the word "forgive," (but the following section we will look at next week does). While the word "forgiveness" is not used, it is clear that the primary purpose of the process is to restore the wayward one back into the family relationship (reconciliation -- which according to the above quote, is the definition of "forgiveness"). The fact that the confronter "(re)gains your brother" (v. 15b) indicates that the "brotherly" relationship between the two -- (or between the community and the one?) -- had been lost. As I noted above, the primary aim of the process is reconciliation with the community, not necessarily with God -- although we might ask if there is a difference. If one is out of fellowship with the Christian community, does that also mean being out of fellowship with God? If we believed that, would that make a difference in the way we respond to inactives in our congregations? or the unchurched in our neighborhoods? Whether we believe it or not, our actions proclaim that we don't believe participation in a Christian community is all that important in relationship to one's salvation.
This text presents a contrast to what we often do when someone has wronged us. When we have been wronged, we usually don't confront the person. Instead, we go and tell two or three or more of our friends, "Do you know what so-and-so did to me?" Jesus did not say: "Go tell everybody what that stupid jerk did to you." Jesus told us: "Go and talk to that stupid jerk about the hurtful actions s/he has done," although Jesus didn't quite use those words. We are to go and talk to the person, not to go around telling everybody else. We are to be so concerned about the breach in the relationship, that we are willing to do whatever is possible to restore it.
The hoped for response is akouo, -- that the sinner might "listen," but this word can extend beyond what the ears do, to what the mind does, "understand, comprehend." Twice in v. 17 a form of this word is used, parakouo. NRSV translates it "refuses to listen," which grows out of its more literal meanings: "to mis-hear" or "to misinterpret."
In Scott Peck's book, People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil, this psychologist writes:
It is not their sins per se that characterize evil people, rather it is the subtlety and persistence and consistency of their sins. This is because the central defect of the evil is not the sin but the refusal to acknowledge it. [p. 69]
Evil then, is most often committed in order to scapegoat, and the people I label as evil are chronic scapegoaters .... In other words, the evil attack others instead of facing their own failures. Spiritual growth requires the acknowledgment of one's need to grow. If we cannot make that acknowledgment, we have no option except to attempt to eradicate the evidence of our imperfection. [p. 74]
According to Peck, committing sins is not the same thing as being evil. We all commit sins. However, the sinners who won't listen to the one, or the two or three, or to the church, need to be removed not because they are sinners, but because they are evil -- unwilling to listen to the truth about their sins -- attacking others instead of facing their own failures. In this case, it is healthier for the body to remove the evil (cancerous) part that would destroy the whole, than to try and keep the "family" together.
This evil, however, may also be found in those who want to blame all their own and the congregation's problems on the one sinful person. "If we just got rid of that family, we'd be so much better off." Sometimes it's true and a congregation's health is restored with the removal of the "cancer". Sometimes the desire to remove another may be the scapegoating by another evil person. Unfortunately, forgiveness and reconciliation are not always our primary motives in dealing with others. Sometimes anger and revenge take over.
Why take along one or two others after the first non-listening response? First of all, Jewish law required two or three witness to uphold a complaint (Dt 19:15). Secondly, I think the witnesses need to be present, because they may conclude that the confronter may be in the wrong. His/her accusations against a fellow member may be way off-base. The one or two then may become the confronters against the original accuser. A third reason might be deduced from the last line in our text: "For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them." We don't often connect these two verses -- as well as v. 19: "if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven." Note that the word (pragma) translated "thing" in "anything," can have the more specific meaning of a legal case, litigation (see 1 Cor 6:1 where it is translated "grievance," but refers to a legal complaint). Malina and Rohrbaugh suggest the translation: "For where two or three 'convene to hear a case' in Jesus' name, Jesus is there as well." [p. 119]
I think that Matthew intends for us to see that gathering in Jesus' name, praying together, and the presence of "Emmanuel" form the context of coming together to seek reconciliation with a sinful member. Does this rule out Jesus' presence in other gathers of two or three? Such as an impromptu meeting in the parking lot to talk about the weather or hunting, or a chance meeting in the grocery store to exchange a few pleasantries, or in our own households where two or three believers are likely to live under the one roof -- does Jesus' promise apply in those situations? I'm not willing to discount Jesus' presence in any of those situations; but the context of that promise in the midst of these verses is about confronting sin and seeking forgiveness and reconciliation among fellow church members. The purpose of Jesus' presence is to bring the heavenly forgiveness and heavenly reconciliation to the earthly conflict situation in answer to the prayerful request of the two or more.
I don't think that v. 19 indicates that if you can get someone else to pray with you for a new car or to win the lottery, then God will automatically grant you that request because two of you have agreed about it.
It does indicate that when two people agree about their reconciliation, and ask God about it, God will grant their request. As I noted above, "anything" may refer specifically to legal grievances that could be taken to a judge, but should be decided within the community of believers (1 Cor 6:1).
What is meant by the phrase "Gentile and tax collector" (ethnikos & telones)?
Sometimes they are presented as people for whom Jesus and the church should have special concern. However, that is not true of the first word ethnikos. In both of its other uses in Matthew (5:47; 6:7), the Gentiles are presented as examples of ways the believers should not act. They are a group of people outside of the Christian fellowship and with whom there is no special association by Jesus.
The second word, telones is also used in this way in 5:46, (which is the only other time in Matthew that telones and ethnikos (v. 47) are used in close proximity to each other).
However, the other instances of this word indicate that they are people with whom Jesus associates with and who will enter the kingdom of God ahead of the religious authorities: (9:10, 11; 10:3; 11:19; 21:31, 32).
Perhaps it might be best to say that the Gentiles and tax collectors were people who were not Christians or at least they were "outside the fellowship" -- or, from our context, their sins had made them "non-brothers", but they are also people for whom the church had a special concern to bring them gospel so that they might repent and become part of the fellowship again.
In every church I've served, dealing inactive members has always been a dreaded chore. Why are we reluctant to be honest with people and tell them, "You are inactive," when they have absented themselves from worship for two or more years? Why do some want to keep their names on a membership roll when they are not willing to participate as a member in the organization?
Jesus' promise about the prayer of two that agree together, and the promise of his presence with two or three gathering in his name speaks against some of our individualized Christianity thinking. The Christian faith has to be lived in community. Perhaps one of the reasons that seeking reconciliation is so important is that we need one another for effective prayers. We need one another to experience the presence of Jesus in our midst. We need each other to bear our burdens and to share our joys. Especially when Christianity was illegal, when the believers were out of the mainstream of society, they needed each other to help each other keep the faith. Perhaps the closest example I can think of today is AA (or other 12-step programs). The members know that they need each other in order to walk the way of sobriety. They can't do it by themselves. Is living a Christian life in a secular society any less easy? We need each other in order to live Christianly.
A closing quote from Carter (Matthew and the Margins):
Post-70 Judaism debated several issues, including where and how God's forgiving presence and will were encountered now that the temple was destroyed. Matthew's answer is Jesus.... Further, against claims that the emperor and empire manifest the gods' presence in a hierarchical and controlled society which executes its offenders (see 16:21, 24; 17:22; 20:17-19), God's presence is found in a merciful, inclusive community committed to reconciliation and forgiveness. [p. 369]
When people have complained about the ELCA not standing for anything or always being in the middle of the road (-- people from other denominations may have heard the same complaints), I will often respond that we stand firm on the gospel of God's forgiveness for all sinners through Jesus. Anything else is secondary.
Faith Lutheran Church, 1000 D St., Marysville, CA 95901