Twenty-third Sunday In Ordinary Time
The context of today’s gospel is the fourth of five great sermons Matthew constructed from traditions about Jesus combined with his own command of the Old Testament and the needs of his Christian Community. That Christian Community was probably in the city of Antioch, Syria. As the Christian Communities (Churches) grew in numbers, rules became necessary to govern relationships between members. The subject for today’s catechetical instruction is fraternal correction. Matthew writes fifty years after Jesus’ departure but rightfully attributes the rules of fraternal correction to Jesus himself. Therefore he writes, “Jesus said to his disciples, ‘If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have won over your brother.’” This is the first step in fraternal correction – Christian brother or sister privately bringing notice of an offense to Christian brother or sister.
It should be pointed out that the words “against you” are in doubt as being an authentic part of the saying. If these words are omitted, the offense is not a personal offense, but an offense against the Christian Community to which the offender belongs. This approach fits better the immediately preceding context into which Matthew places the rules for fraternal correction. That context: a parable about a man who had one hundred sheep. One strays from the flock. The shepherd leaves the ninety-nine in the hills and goes in search of the stray. Thus it seems the duty of a member of the community, perhaps an elder, to attempt by private means to bring the stray back into the fold. The strayed sheep was lost from the whole community. Old Testament background to this first rule of fraternal correction may be found in Leviticus 19:17, “You shall reason with your neighbor, lest you bear sin because of him.” The “neighbor” in this case is a fellow Israelite, a member of the community, the assembly of Israel. Fraternal correction is therefore an act of love, since this passage ends with the well-known saying, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
The second step in fraternal correction: “If he does not listen, take one or two others with you, so that ‘every fact may be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses.’” This second step relies on the rules for valid testimony against someone on trial for an alleged crime. The full quote from Deuteronomy 19:15, “A single witness shall not prevail against a man for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the testimony of two witnesses, or of three witnesses, shall a charge be sustained.” The witnesses add weight to the attempt at correction. We may assume that the witnesses are members or elders of the community. Therefore the whole process stays within a particular Christian Community. In 1 Corinthians 6:1-7, St. Paul reprimands his Corinthian Christians for going to civic courts rather than settle disputes within their own Christian Community.
The third step in fraternal correction is the gravest. “If he refuses to listen to them, tell the Church.” The Greek word for Church is ekklesia, meaning an “assembly, a gathering of those called together.” The whole assembly of that particular Christian Community will make the final decision about the offending member. We may assume that the offender is either present to defend himself or is being judged in absentia. In 1 Corinthians 5:3-5, St. Paul handles a case of a public offense against the Church at Corinth. Paul notes that he himself has already passed
judgment on the offender. Then continues, “When you are assembled, and my spirit is present, with the power of the Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.” Matthew adds to the third step: “If he refuses to listen even to the Church, let him be to you as a Gentile or tax collector. Here Matthew adopts a standard phrase used by Christians to exclude a member of the community.
A power or authority earlier given to Simon Peter seems to be extended to the assembled Christian Community under the form of a mild oath, “Amen, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you unbind on earth shall be unbound in heaven.” Is this the same authority as that of Simon Peter? No way! The context tells us that this action of the assembled Christian Community gives the group as a whole the authority to include or exclude a member. In the case of exclusion, does Matthew intend it to be permanent? Not likely, since he almost immediately attaches a question of Simon Peter, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me and I forgive him?” Jesus’ answer implies unlimited forgiveness.
A final statement: “Amen, I say to you, “If two of you agree on earth about anything for which they are to pray, it will be granted by my heavenly Father. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” The original context of this Jesus-saying would have applied to the power of prayer in common. Since Matthew places it in the context of community decisions, he seems to apply it to community decisions. Therefore even just a few Christians assembled for decision-making about inclusion or exclusion would have tremendous power. Whether such procedures ever worked in practice, they surely did not when Christian Communities grew beyond Matthew’s expectations. Better to stay with what was probably the original meaning of this saying, “Where Christians gather in prayer, Jesus gathers with them.” It is his presence that moves his heavenly Father to grant their petition.