23rd SUNDAY(A) September 6, 2020
Ezekiel 33: 7-9; Psalm 95; Romans 13: 8-10; Matthew 18: 15-20
by Jude Siciliano, OP
We are in a section of Matthew’s gospel in which Jesus is doing community building. So, today’s passage must be seen in the light of its larger context. Ever since chapter 14, Jesus has been instructing his disciples. In chapter 18, his teaching emphasizes and focuses on the community of believers, the church.
At the time Matthew wrote, the church was on its own, no longer a part of the Jewish community and so no longer observing the daily norms and customs of that religious tradition. The community needed guidelines for its life together and in chapter 18 Matthew emphasizes the important ones. Faith in Jesus and his teachings are the basis for this new community and believers will have to live in a way that reflects their founder. Since Jesus revealed a forgiving and compassionate God, the life of the community must do the same, if they are to witness to Jesus resurrected and living in their midst. Forgiveness must be the hallmark of the church. (Next week Peter will ask, "...how often must I forgive?" Jesus’ response--- in effect, a limitless number of times.)
When someone offends us we can say, "It’s a big world, I’ll just go my own way and ignore him or her." The early church was a very small community surrounded by non-believers. Members of the assemblies were easily recognizable and so was how they behaved towards one another. It’s something like a family in a small town, the neighbors quickly learn when there is conflict among family members. So too in the tiny early church; people within and outside the community would know of divisions among the believers. Conflicting members could not go their own way, the whole community would know and suffer the consequences of their behavior. The injuries had to be dealt with through forgiveness and, if it that were done, all would benefit. Outsiders would also notice the community’s behavior and be drawn to it. Today our larger communities might make it possible for conflict to continue, or be ignored, without too much fuss. But an unseen wound is a wound nevertheless and the unity and life of the believers are affected by offenses done by members against one another.
The teaching in today’s gospel sets out a rather elaborate and specific process for how forgiveness and reconciliation are to happen. At first just two people are involved, "If your brother [or sisters] sins against you go and tell...." Notice that the one sinned against must attempt a personal exchange with the offending party. At this stage of the process the privacy of the two is being respected. The directions don’t include explicit formulas or directions how the conversation is to go. It is hoped the parties can converse reasonably that members can be trusted to know how to behave and what to say. But life doesn’t always work out according to ideals.
If the first step fails, the conversation is to include just one or two more persons. We might jump ahead at this point to the closing verse of today’s passage. "For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them." We most commonly apply this passage to when two or more believers pray together – Jesus will be in their midst. True enough. But back to the context. The verse is in the setting of reconciliation in the community; when "two or three" come together to settle an offense against a member. When a believing community works to settle disputes, Christ is in our midst working to achieve the same goal. That is what makes this teaching more than an "ideal" and keeps it from being dismissed as not practical in "the real world."
Or, put it another way. Where shall we find the true presence of Christ? In today’s example, he is in our midst when we work together to right wrongs. Forgiveness and justice should characterize the community; if it does, others will recognize something unique about the church and might even recognize Christ alive and active in our midst doing what isn’t "do-able" without him. We believe he is truly with us at this eucharistic celebration. We reflect on divisions in our local and universal church, as well as between churches, resulting from offenses and misunderstandings done over the centuries. We invite Christ to be with us as we consciously and deliberately set about righting both large and small wrongs.
Jesus’ instructions continue. If the offender is hardened and refuses to acknowledge the wrong the process moves to another level. "If he/she refuses to listen to them, tell the church." Here Jesus gives the whole community the power to "bind and loosen"; the power to welcome back a repentant member, but also to discipline an unrepentant offender. The latter is an unfortunate but, it seems, necessary move. Actually, it isn’t so much that the church excludes someone from the community, but that the person guilty of sin against a member has turned his/ her back on the community. Since they are obstinate in their sin, they have sentenced themselves to exclusion. If they won’t mend the breech they have caused, the community is forced to state the obvious. The offender must be treated as "a Gentile or a tax collector" – a catch-all phrase used at that time by the Jewish community to mean anyone considered unclean and outside the faith. But remember that Jesus welcomed Gentiles and tax collectors into his company and offered them God’s forgiveness and acceptance. I think that leaves his comment ambiguous.
We sense from this passage and all of chapter 18, that unity and faithful adherence to Jesus’ teachings are important values for Matthew. Christians are not to live as individuals, but as members of a witnessing and supportive community. When a member has been "sinned" against, others are there for support and to see that rights are wronged.
But what’s the spirit of today’s gospel? Is Jesus just talking about individual offenses and sins? Suppose a race is sinned against, what are we to do? Suppose the poor on the other side of town are being ignored or deprived of their needs and rights? Suppose a group in our parish is treated as second class members just because they are new arrivals? Suppose women’s voices are ignored? Or, the elderly patronized? Suppose young people never hear their lives or issues mentioned in the preaching and public worship? Well...you get the idea.
Fifteen years ago there was an editorial in the New York Times that I think reflects the surprising nature of today’s gospel message. The title suggests the editorial writer might have seen more than the surface of things. I will quote it in full below for your prayer and reflection.
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