Sinning against you: context

Matthew 18:15–20 15 “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.16 If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, so that ‘every fact may be established on the testimony of two or three witnesses.’17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church. If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.18 Amen, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.19 Again, (amen,) I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything for which they are to pray, it shall be granted to them by my heavenly Father.20 For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”

Liturgical Choices and Narrative Continuity. Choosing readings for liturgy while taking into account the ebb and flow of liturgical seasons is an incredible undertaking that requires study and the blessing of Wisdom. The choices made sometimes leaves unusual gaps in the narrative intended by the sacred author. The move from the 22nd to the 23rd Sunday is such a move. Consider the following flow:


We move across 1½ chapter of the text which contains important narratives that pertain to the deepening revelation of the person of Jesus to his disciples – recalling and confirming Peter’s confession – and making clear the connection of Jesus as Son of God and as the Suffering Servant who would be the means of reconciling God and God’s people. All the while pointing ahead to the Resurrection.

The previous two Sundays have focused on the gospel narrative that is set at the site of Peter’s great confession of faith: Caesarea Philippi. This is also the place where Jesus’ first passion prediction occurs which leads to Peter’s exclamation: “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you” (16:22) – in effect denying the revealed nature and role of the messiah. Jesus corrects Peter in v.24: “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” Despite his confession of faith and the blessing in response to it, Peter initially rejects the possibility that Jesus’ messiahship could involve suffering. This leads to Jesus’ instruction to the disciples about the true nature of the cross and the willingness to carry it in accordance with the will of God.

At this point in Matthew’s narrative the scene changes: “After six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. And he was transfigured before them” (17:1-2). But even after the revelation of the glory of God in the experience of the Transfiguration, the disciples are still plagued by their “little faith” and their inability to perform great signs and wonders (17:16, 19) – almost a counterpoint to the glory just witnessed. Yet in using the symbol of a mustard seed, Jesus still witnesses, that through faith, he is present to the disciples.

The relentless movement towards Jerusalem continues as the disciples gather in Galilee (17:22). This is a community gathered from the “faithless and perverse generation” (v.17). Jesus’ witness of the second passion prediction serves to announce the focal point and basis upon which this new community gathers. Nonetheless the gathered disciples are sorrowful because they as yet do not understand. The disciples have a way to go, but slowly they are becoming church.

This perhaps the subtle but often overlooked element of Matthew’s narrative. Throughout the arc of the storyline Jesus has been addressing the gathering community. “But who do you say that I am?” is addressed not the singular “you” of Simon Peter, but the plural “you” of all the disciples – Peter is simply the one who steps forward to give voice to the response of the community.

Chapter 18 is considered by most scholars as containing the 4th of the 5 discourses, often labeling this section as “Instructions to the Community.” The fourth major collection of Jesus’ teaching is concerned with relationships among Jesus’ followers, who are clearly seen as a distinct community (as 16:18 has led us to expect). Within such a community there is opportunity both to harm and to care for others, and the health and effectiveness of the group will depend on the attitudes to one another which are fostered. Matthew has brought much of the stories together in this compact form with a view to the needs of the developing church. It is not so much a ‘Manual of Discipline,’ with regulations parallel to those of the so-named document from Qumran, rather it is a guide to relationships within the community. It is only in vv.15–17 that specific procedures are set out, and those are not so much ‘disciplinary’ as pastoral.

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