Matthew 18:15-20

Matthew 18:15-20     Reproving Those Who Sin

Matthew continued his theme of mutual care and responsibility within the community.  The material was not drawn from either Mark or the source he shared with Luke.  The issues may have become particularly pressing in his community, and were needing to be addressed specifically.

The concern was still with the strays, but with the strays who would not “return”, or would return only on their own terms.

15If your brother or sister sin against you,
go and challenge them, the two of you on your own.  
If they listen to you, you have won them over.

All question of effective correction within the community depended on the people involved seeing each other as brothers or sisters.  Without a prior attitude of love or respect, correction could easily go wrong.  In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus had indicated an even more important preliminary step: first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbour’s eye [7:5].

The first step, always, in correction would be to approach the actual person concerned, on your own, to discuss matters with that person.  It would not be to complain to someone else (as often happens in practice) – that would serve only to encourage criticism and lack of openness in community.

16 If they do not listen to you, take one or two companions,
so that the truth of the matter can be established
through the evidence of two or three witnesses.

If one-to-one discussion did not bring resolution, then the next step would be to bring along one or two companions, to help preserve objectivity.  The aim would be to create as little stir as possible by keeping the issue relatively private.  The presence of two or three witnesses had a clear basis in established Jewish legal practice [Leviticus 19:17-18].

17 If they refuse to listen to them, then tell the assembly.; 

Only if the previous steps proved ineffective would the issue be made public.  The word assembly signified the local community of believers, as distinct from the broader Church, referred to earlier on the occasion of Peter’s confession of Jesus as Messiah [16:16].  The suggestion would seem to suppose that the community was still small enough to meet together effectively and to discuss openly.  There was no obvious reference to the assembly as represented through leaders.

… If they refuse to listen to the assembly,
treat them like a Gentile or a tax-collector.

Given the absence of clear leadership structures during this earlier stage of the community’s development, the final “court of appeal” was the regular gathering of the community as a whole.  In a community under stress from the surrounding world, mutual influence for good or bad was strong.  With all members at different stages of conversion, community spirit was fragile.  Already [verses 8-9], Jesus had directed that people who caused the community to stumble were to be quarantined.  Again, the problem envisaged here involved more than personal disagreements.  This was behaviour that affected the integrity of the whole community.  Whilst Jesus’ own practice had been to welcome tax collectors and to work healings even for Gentiles, the words were used here, according to the normal Jewish usage, to refer to outsiders.  The offenders were to be ostracised, at least until they repented – but the whole process was to be conducted lovingly and respectfully.

18 I tell you truly, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven;
and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

The authority Jesus had previously given to Peter at Caesarea Philippi to bind or to loose was now extended to the community as a whole.  The precise nature of the power was not immediately clear, but it would seem here to refer to the power of including and excluding, certainly in regard to those issues of disagreement affecting the whole community.  The reference to in heaven was made more explicit in the comment that followed.

19 Again I tell you truly, if even two of you on earth can be in agreement about any matter at all that you ask for,
it will be granted to you by my Father in the heavens.  
20 For where two or three gather together in my name, I am there in their midst.

According to a rabbinic understanding of the time, whenever two people met to ponder the Torah, the over-shadowing presence of God was with them.  Within the Christian community, the risen Jesus would be present: there in their midst.  The process of community discernment, particularly in relation to questions of binding and loosing within the community, was to be done lovingly and prayerfully.  Gathering in his name meant coming together under the influence of Jesus’ Spirit and open to his values, particularly of mutual love, respect and shared responsibility and accountability.  Agreeing meant more than passively going along with decisions.  It involved genuine harmony, reached after an adequate process of prayerful consultation.  The comment did not refer in general to the efficacy of shared prayer, but took a more restricted meaning from the context: the community’s prayerful discernment would reflect the mind of Christ.

Next >> Matthew 18:21-35