‘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. 16But 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. 17If 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. 18Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.19Again, 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. 20For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.’
Translation: But if your brother or sister might sin against you, go refute him between you and him alone. If he hears you, you regained your brother. But if you might not be heard, take with you yet one or two so that upon two or three mouths witnessing each word might be established. But if he might be unwilling to hear them, speak to the church, and if he refuses to listen to the church, he is to you just as a gentile or a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, "Whatever you might bind on the earth, it will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose upon the earth will be loosed in heaven." Again, truly I say to you that if two out of you might agree on the earth about anything they might ask, it will come to them with my Father in heaven, for where there are two or three gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them."
Background and situation: The lection is mostly Special M with a bit of Q thrown in (see Luke 17: 3). Obviously, conflict in the church was an issue in the community around Matthew. Matthew has previously discussed care for children and "little ones" in 18:1-14. In today's lection, he shifts to care for the sinful brother or sister.
The word for "sin" is hamartia. The word came originally from the world of archery and means "missing the mark." "Sin" is not limited to morality, in other words, but involves a failure to hit the target, i.e. a failure to become the people we were created to be. Matthew gets no more specific than that.
Matthew reaches into the Hebrew tradition--Deuteronomy 19, Leviticus 19--for guidelines on how do deal with community "friction." The Qumran community had a similar procedure for dealing with conflict, also based in Deuteronomy 19. Deuteronomy 19: 15ff:
"A single witness shall not suffice to convict a person of any crime or wrongdoing...Only on the evidence of two or three witnesses shall a charge be sustained. If a malicious witness comes forward to accuse someone of wrongdoing, then both parties to the dispute shall appear before the Lord, before the priests and the judges...and the judges shall make a thorough inquiry. If the witness is a false witness...then you shall do to the false witness just as the false witness had meant to do to the other. So you shall purge the evil from your midst."
Toward reconciliation: The first step in the process is to go to the person directly. Matthew encourages honest and direct communication.
Sadly, it must be said that most of our conflicts are not handled in this way. Much of our communication is indirect, as in whispers to third parties, and dishonest, as in malicious gossip. This is a very unhealthy way to communicate and almost guarantees misunderstanding and further conflict.
Churches are especially prone to this form of social unhealthiness. People want to get word back to somebody about something or other, but don't want to face them directly, so they put their argument out to third parties who then speak to others--"...a lot of people are saying..."--and then somehow expect the pastor or the staff to make things come out right, i.e. to their way of thinking.
The issue has an amorphous and unspecified source and quite likely becomes distorted, or, more likely, further distorted, in the course of whispered parking lot conversations. This can roil a congregation, yet without anyone's fingerprints being on it.
Contrary to what some people think, Jesus did not call his followers to be children, but rather adults. Adult communication is characterized by responsibility, by having something to say and taking ownership when you say it. This is at least partly what Dietrich Bonhoeffer was talking about when he referred to "a world come of age." In "a world come of age," people act in freedom and with autonomy while also taking responsibility for their actions.
Going to a person directly does several things: The one who is sinned against will be on the turf of the offender. Meeting them on their ground treats the offender with respect. It allows them the possibility of being able to save face.
Taking the initiative and going to the offender also accepts responsibility for the condition of the relationship. Somebody has to be first, for cryin' out loud. The communication itself is likely to be more clear and direct. Misunderstandings may be worked out directly in private rather than exacerbated indirectly in public.
And yes, one is quite likely to "regain" their brother or sister. In the vast majority of cases that I have witnessed myself, reconciliation is nearly always exactly what happens, and reconciliation is the clear goal of today's lection.
On the off-chance that step one doesn't work, however, then the rest of the Deuteronomy 19 process is to be followed. Take witnesses so that "every word" might be verified. If that doesn't do it, go to the church--the ekkesia, the assembly--and, if the "poor miserable sinner" won't listen to the church, the church is perfectly justified in excommunicating that person. "Let such a one be to you as a gentile and a tax collector."
Except...except that Jesus has already expanded his mission to gentiles (15: 21-28), and tradition holds that the author of the very passage we are reading was himself once a tax collector.
Is Matthew writing tongue-in-cheek? That person may be to you, and to the church, "as a gentile and a tax collector," but then again, the assembly of Christ never gives up on anyone and Matthew himself is a good example. (This position is even clearer when seen in light of the following verses where Jesus tells Peter to forgive "seventy times times.")
Leviticus 19: 17 also lies behind this text--"You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself...you shall love your neighbor as yourself." (Our lection uses elegxo, translated as "point out the fault" in NRSV. This is the same word the Septuagint uses in Leviticus 19, translated "reprove" in the NRSV.)
Most people are afraid of conflict, and, considering the way conflict is normally handled, it's easy to see why. Unhealthy conflict, the kind characterized by indirect communication, often undermines and tears down. Healthy conflict, on the other hand, is capable of building up in such a way that relationships are not only restored, but renewed and deepened.
The goal is always reconciliation motivated by love. Each church is an "outpost" of the kingdom. The new reign of God is to be modeled in our congregations as a sign to the world of the power of Christ to heal wounds and end divisions. Christ has reconciled the world to himself, and now this "ministry of reconciliation" has been given to us, said Paul.
Bypass the priests: There is a subtle "anti-heirarchical" bent to today's lection. In the Deuteronomy passage, the second-stage appeal goes to the priests and judges. In the Matthean passage, "two or three" of unspecified rank are called to be witnesses. Score a point for egalitarianism.
Likewise, the passage exalts a high Christology. In the time of Jesus, it was believed that whenever even a few Hebrews discussed the Torah, the divine presence--the shekinah--was with them. In Matthew, the "two or three" are not gathered around Torah, but Christ himself. They are gathered "in my name." Further, the shekinah is replaced with Christ himself--"I am in the midst of them."
Lastly, the text says that "if two of you agree about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven." It goes on to say, "for where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them." Does this not anticipate the reconciliation of the wayward party?
Image: Loehe Chapel, Wartburg Seminary, Dubuque, Iowa.