When we arrive at our Gospel today, we have jumped over a chapter and a half of the story from where we left it last week. We haven’t moved far geographically (from the northern reaches of Israel in Caesarea Philippi to the northern side of the lake), but we continue on this inexorable journey to the passion of Jesus in Jerusalem. This eighteenth chapter – the fourth of five blocks of teaching in Matthew’s Gospel (5-7, 10, 13, 18, 23-25) – moves around teachings about life in community.
Although it is likely that Matthew has developed the original teaching of Jesus (compare Luke 17:3) to fit the particular requirements of his community, it is also clear that Jesus knew that there would be divisions and conflict within the church community. He knows our nature as humans. We – and every human being – are worthwhile and fallible. Which means that there will be times when one person gets it wrong and makes a significant mistake that will need correction, reconciliation and healing. The community is meant for the common good – not just the personal and private affairs of each individual.
In the field hospital of the church, Matthew offers us a three-stage process to reconciliation and healing – which is the clear goal of the process – not punishment. The first is when a serious dispute occurs with another person, go and talk to them about it. This presumes that it is safe to do so. Perhaps this will be enough to call the other person back into the communal life. If it is not, then take one or two others who can act as impartial guides and witnesses to offer their own experience and insights – see Deuteronomy 19:15. If the evidence of two or three witnesses is not enough, then escalate the matter before the whole community (which would still have been a house church / ecclesia / qahal at this time). If even this is not enough, then there must be consequences, so treat them as an outsider, as a tax-collector or pagan. They have placed themselves by their actions outside of the community of the church, so it is necessary to formally acknowledge this – at least for a time. During his ministry, Jesus continued to love and minister to and heal and teach the outsiders, and we must do the same. The point of this exercise is to restore the unity of the whole community and bring healing when there is hurt.
This is a deeply challenging Gospel, because it is a stark reminder of how wrong we have often been over the history of the church. We have so often ignored this teaching or only applied the bits that we liked. All through, we must remember that through all of this, Jesus is present with his community (Matthew 18:20) and we must all do our part to bring healing and restoration to all who are broken and hurting.
Sunday 23, Year A. Matthew 18:15-20