Commentary on Matthew 18:15-20
The discourse on the church (cont’d):
Today’s part of the discourse shifts from the harm that we can do to others to the harm that others can do to the community and how the community and its members should respond. Clearly we are speaking here of some serious wrong which hurts the mission of the Church community.
The wrongdoer is to be tackled on three levels and this reflects what has just gone before about bringing back the sheep which is lost. Reconciliation, not punishment, is the objective.
If the wrong directly affects one person, then that person or another should go along to the wrongdoer privately and try to help him/her change his/her ways. If this works, then that is the end of the matter. However, if the wrongdoer will not listen, then one or two others who are also aware of the wrongdoing should be brought along as corroboration. This is based on a passage from Deuteronomy: “A single witness cannot suffice to convict a man of a crime or offence of any kind; whatever the misdemeanour, the evidence of two witnesses or three is required to sustain the charge.” (Deut 19:15).
If the wrongdoer remains obstinate in the face of this evidence, then the whole community is to be brought in. And, if in the face of the whole community, there is still no sign of repentance, then the person is to be expelled and treated like “a pagan or a tax collector”, in other words, as a total outsider. The tax collectors were among the most despised people in the community. They were local people employed by Roman tax contractors to collect taxes for them. Because they worked for Rome and often demanded unreasonable payments (they had to make a profit!), they gained a bad reputation and were generally hated and considered traitors to their own people and their religion.
The word Matthew uses for ‘community’ here is ‘church’, ekklesia (‘ekklhsia) or, in Hebrew, qahal, which refers to the gathering of a Christian community. As mentioned earlier, this is only one of two places (the other is Matt 16:18) where this term is used in the gospels.
Jesus now goes further in saying that all such decisions by the community have God’s full endorsement: “Whatever you bind on earth shall be considered bound in heaven (i.e. by God)” and “if two of you on earth agree about anything for which they are to pray, it shall be granted to them by my heavenly Father” and “where two or three meet in my name, I shall be there with them”. This mandate seems to be given to the community as a whole and not just to specific individuals.
It would be worth our while going carefully through this text and see how it applies to our church situation today. To what extent do we feel responsible for the wrongdoings of our
fellow-Christians? To what extent do we realise that our behaviour both as individuals and groups reflects on the overall witness that the Church is called to give as the Body of Christ? Do people clearly see the message of the Gospel from the way we live both individually and corporately?
While, on the one hand, we are told to be compassionate and non-judgmental, are we over-tolerant of what people in the community who believe that anything they do is just their own business? Every Christian community has a solemn responsibility to give witness to the vision of life that Jesus gave to us. There have then to be standards of behaviour which bind all. Moments of weakness can be and should be treated with compassion but deliberate and continued flouting of our central commitment to truth, love, justice and so on cannot be overlooked or allowed to undermine the central mission of the Christian community to be a sacrament of the Kingdom. It is not a question of image but of our integrity.
What has all this to do with the way we use the Sacrament of Reconciliation and what is the relationship of the sacrament to this passage? The passage is closely linked with what Jesus says about the problem of giving scandal, of being a stumbling block in people coming to Christ. At the same time, as tomorrow’s passage indicates the long-term aim above all is not punishment but reconciliation and healing of divisions.