Long (Matthew, Westminster Bible Commentary) begins his comments on this section with: “Matthew has no romantic illusions about the church. He knows that the church is not all sweet thoughts, endlessly patient saints, and cloudless skies. In Matthew’s church, people – no matter how committed – are still people, and stormy weather is always a possible forecast” [p. 209]. Our own practical experience with such things often leads us to sometimes see 18:15-29 as a guide to church leaders on disciplinary action. But vv. 15–17 are addressed to ‘you’ (singular), the individual disciple, and their concern is not with the punishment of an offense but with the attempt to rescue a ‘brother’ whose sin has put him in danger. The passage is thus a practical guide to how a disciple can imitate his Father’s concern for the wandering sheep (vv. 10–14).
Textual Variations. Many people assume there is one Bible manuscript that is the “original.” There is not. There are many manuscripts that exist, available to scholars, that agree in very, very high detail, but there are textual variations. The question becomes “are those variations important?” The variations are normally indicated by parentheses – in the vase of v.15, “(against you)”
“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.
But the nature of the concern is also important in this regard. Verse 15 begins with a significant variant reading; the words “against you (singular)” are not in some ancient manuscripts. This is significant and raises the question. Do I go and point out the fault only when a fellow believer has wronged me, or whenever I think that he or she has committed a sin whether or not it affects me? The scholars’ arguments are balanced and divided on this. Take a look at the note of Mt 18:15 in the Notes section for some of the technical issues Scripture scholars face. In these particular notes I will take the avenue that “against you” is a later addition and thus the concern is for the spiritual welfare of a person, even absent sin against you personally. This is one way in which Jesus begins to delineate the role of discipleship in a way that expresses the interrelationships of all members of the community.
How serious a sin? One should note that in this section, the sin and the sought for reconciliation is within the community rather than with God. At one level our text is about life together as a community of believers, rather than our lives in relationship with God (although the two should not be separated.)
Whether the sin is against an individual or the community, what sin would result in the member being confronted? The Greek word harmartano (sin) has the sense of “to miss the mark” and thus “to fail.” Should this only refer to the “big sins” that are worthy of prison sentences? Would this be a member who steals from the community or leads a life wholly against the gospel values? This word harmartano only occurs three times in Matthew: One other time in the verses for next week (18:21), and in reference to Judas betraying Jesus (27:4). Could Jesus have restored Judas to the fellowship after this sin? Would the disciples have accepted Judas back in? We’ll never know. Judas, in Matthew, hangs himself.
Whatever the sin might be, the process begins with going to the sinful one and beginning a dialogue. This step is not new with Jesus. The same Greek word, elegcho, is used in the LXX (Greek version of OT): “You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD.” Lev 19:17-18.
Brian Stoffergen writes: “It is characteristic of God’s people, whether old or new covenant, to love one another — and sometimes that love takes on a tough character when it is required to confront fellow believers with their sin. However, the purpose of such confrontations is always restoration. It cannot be done from an attitude of ‘I’ve better than you,’ because we are all sinners.”
Hare (Matthew, Interpretation Commentaries) suggests the more common, modern day approach: “We are inclined to ‘forgive’ sins in advance of repentance rather than have to confront the guilty parties” [p. 213]
Long (Matthew) makes a similar statement: “In contrast to the attitudes of the prevailing culture (‘If somebody hassles you, forget them. It’s their problem, not yours”), relationships are of precious and enduring value in the church. When a relationship is broken, it is worth going back over and over to work toward reconciliation” [p. 210]
Malina and Rohrbaugh (Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels) write:
In an honor-shame society, sin is a breach of interpersonal relations. In the Gospels the closest analogy to the forgiveness of sins is the forgiveness of debts (Matt. 6:12; see Luke 11:4), an analogy drawn from pervasive peasant experience. Debt threatened loss of land, livelihood, family. It made persons poor, that is, unable to maintain their social position. Forgiveness would thus have had the character of restoration, a return to both self-sufficiency and one’s place in the community. Since the introspective, guilt-oriented outlook of industrialized societies did not exist, it is unlikely that forgiveness meant psychological healing. Instead, forgiveness by God meant being divinely restored to one’s position and therefore being freed from fear of loss at the hands of God. Forgiveness by others meant restoration to the community. Given the anti-introspective attitude of Mediterranean people, “conscience” was not so much an interior voice of accusation as an external one — what the neighbors said, hence blame from friends, neighbors, or authorities…. An accusation had the power to destroy, while forgiveness had the power to restore. [pp. 63-64]
If their understanding of the cultural situation is right, then the one sinned against had the power to destroy (through accusing the sinner) or to restore (through forgiving the sinner).
However, our immediate text never uses the word “forgive.,” While the word “forgiveness” is not used, it is clear that the primary purpose of the process is to restore the wayward one back into the family relationship (reconciliation — which according to the above quote, is the definition of “forgiveness”). The fact that the sinner is won over (v. 15b) indicates that the brotherly relationship between the two or between the community and the one had been lost.
Matthew 18:15 brother: The person at risk is described as adelphos. This family language imports a note of personal care rather than objective censure. It has been used already in the gospel to refer to a fellow-disciple; see 5:22–24, 47; 7:3–5, and especially Jesus’ designation of those who follow him as “my brothers” in 12:49–50 (cf. also 25:40; 28:10), who are therefore also brothers to each other. The same usage will recur within this discourse at vv. 21 and 35 and later at 23:8. The language is more indicative of a “horizontal” peer relationship than of a hierarchical discipline relationship.
Matthew 18:15 against you: The addition of εἰς σέ, “against you,” at this point in the majority of manuscripts, but some of the oldest manuscripts do not have “against you.” The net effect is that it changes an altruistic concern about a another’s spiritual danger into a personal grievance. The latter concern will be well treated in just a few verses (v.21) but is it appropriate here? Is it original or a later insertion? One group of scholars believes into be a later addition – and they offer an interesting possibility of how it might have happened. In the course of creating a copy, it was sometimes the habit to have a reader with multiple scribes. The scholars suggest the possibility of a mishearing, since the additional εἰς σέ (against you) would probably sound very like the final two syllables of |μαρτήσῃ, “sins;” this could work either way, either (as many commentators believe) causing the omission of an original εἰς σέ because it sounded like a repetition of -ησῃ or causing the insertion of the extra words because someone thought they heard εἰς σέ.
Matthew 18:16 listen: akouō listen or hear, but primarily “come to know.”