Restoring Fellowship in the Church -- Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 13A
Matthew 18:15-20 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
15 “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. 16 But 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. 17 If 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. 18 Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19 Again, 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. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
What responsibility do we have for each other? If someone sins against us (does something to harm us or another) do we have a responsibility to pursue a resolution, and what is it we should pursue? Justice (whatever that means) or reconciliation or something else? Do we have a responsibility to correct a brother or sister, if we see they are taking a spiritually dangerous path? Questions like these ask us to consider the nature of our relationships within the church. In essence they are similar to the question that Cain asked about Abel – Am I my brother’s keeper? What would Jesus say?
It is wise to read this week’s passage in light of the parable that precedes it. The lectionary doesn’t include the parable of the Lost sheep (Matthew 18:10-14), but they an important key to understanding what Jesus is calling on us to do. In this parable a shepherd leaves the ninety-nine to find the one that was lost. To do so involved taking a major risk. After all, isn’t the safety of the ninety-nine worth more than the safety of the one that got away? That seems like the prudent choice, but according to Jesus, “it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost” (vs. 14).
The parable of the lost sheep gives way to a set of instructions about how the church should engage in what seems to be a form of church discipline. If a church member sins against another, there should be a process by which the broken relationship can be restored and healed. You start with a one-on-one engagement. If that doesn’t work, take two or three witnesses, and if that doesn’t work, then take the issue before the whole church. If none of this works, then this person should be like the “Gentile and a tax collector.” At one level, this looks as if it is a counsel toward exclusion, but didn’t Jesus love Gentiles and tax collectors? How we implement this counsel has important implications for the way in which we as the church live together. Surely the goal is reconciliation and restoration and not exclusion. But could exclusion be necessary? This process of correction and restoration is, it would seem, fraught with danger, especially if things escalate to the point that the whole church is brought into the conversation.
In our day most churches refrain from engaging in church discipline. We see threats of excommunication, and usually the discipliners are seen as harsh and self-righteous. So, in many ways engaging in disciplinary actions (beyond dealing with misbehaving clergy) is not only dangerous, it’s probably fruitless. There are so many religious options in our culture that confrontation likely will lead the person being confronted to simply walk away and go somewhere else or simply walk away from faith completely. Besides, in this litigious society of ours, it’s likely that someone will sue for defamation of character. So, it seems better to ignore the situation. It’s an understandable strategy. I’ve used it. Better to just let it go than get entangled in a rather messy web. But what happens to the person who has offended and the one who has been offended? And what about the one who offends? If the shepherd cares about the lost sheep, what about us, do we care about its welfare? As we answer the question it is good to remember that both the one offended/hurt and the one doing the offending/hurting are people God loves?
The church today faces a dilemma. We want to be places of welcome, where all will find a place. At the same time, if there are no boundaries, no expectations, then people get hurt. When it comes to our children, many churches have instituted safe-church policies. They have followed the lead of other groups, such as the Scouts, but requiring that two adults be present when working with children. This is intended to prevent sexual/physical abuse. But, what about adult relationships? How do we keep them safe? As Nathan Jennings puts it: “Refusing to set solid and proper boundaries in the name of ‘the gospel of being nice’ allows bullies to stay in control and vulnerable people to be hurt” (Feasting on the Gospels--Matthew, Volume 2: A Feasting on the Word Commentary, p. 95). On the other side of the coin, there are congregations that might be over-eager in their implementation of the process. It will take great wisdom and discernment to decide how to implement such a process, especially when congregations might feel like the idea of confrontation to be off-putting. This is especially true of taking steps toward excommunication/ban. Still, there is the need for safety.
As we look at the process of confrontation, it’s important to note that the desired effect is the restoration of the person to a proper relationship. It is not intended to exclude for the purpose of keeping the community pure, but rather recognizing that like the lost sheep, we need to be aware of those who wander off, who engage in unhealthy behaviors, or who have broken fellowship. Restoration isn’t easy, and we may find that when push comes to shove we will need to let people go. But there at least needs to be an effort to restore the person. Having said this, I must face the fact that I am not one given to confrontation. I dislike conflict. I would rather “switch than fight.” But Jesus seems intent on engagement.
As we ponder this process, the image of “two or three” stands out. If you go alone to the person, and this doesn’t work, then Jesus says take two or three. Later in the passage he returns to this numerical element suggesting that “if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done in heaven.” Whether it is a matter of binding or loosing, if two or more agree it is done. This is an interesting idea, because it suggests that decision-making is community oriented. It’s not a dictatorship. But more importantly, when two or three ask in Jesus’ name, God will fulfill the request. But not only that, “where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (vs. 20).
This phrase – “where two or three are gathered . . .” – is often used as a way of defining what it means to be church. It only takes two or more to be church. But, this phrase appears in the context of a conversation about church discipline. It seems to me, that Jesus saying that when we engage in this process of restoration, then he is present in it and with us. It is not simply a human/institutional act. It is a spiritual one, in which Jesus plays an active role.
The reading from Matthew chosen for the lectionary is unique to this gospel, but this passage is surrounded by the parable of the lost sheep and a conversation about forgiveness. These are not unique to Matthew, but they provide a context for understanding what Matthew is presenting to us. If we act out this process of church discipline without the concern for the welfare of the one who wanders off and without the commitment to forgiveness, then the process will destroy and not restore. And I don’t think that’s what Jesus has in mind for the church. There is need for boundaries, for the sake of safety. Those boundaries, however, are not meant to exclude but to bring healing to the brokenness that is often present in our communities. The good news in all of this is that Jesus is present with us.