Sins against

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.”

Commentary. 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 offence 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.

Notes

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 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.”


Sins against you: listening

What is at stake? Sin, of whatever form, is not to be tolerated within the disciple community, but is to be dealt with when it is noticed. But what is at stake is winning over the brother or sisters. The pastoral purpose of the approach is underlined by the verb “win,” which shows that the concern is not mainly with the safety and/or reputation of the whole community but with the spiritual welfare of the individual. “Win” suggests that the person was in danger of being lost, and has now been regained; it reflects the preceding image of the shepherd’s delight in getting his sheep back (v.12).

From our own experience as people we know that such situations must be dealt with sensitively and with a minimum of publicity. The principle set out in these verses is of minimum exposure, other people being brought in only when the more private approach has failed. The ideal solution is “you and him alone.” But it is to be explicit and robust in the telling of the sin witnessed: elenchō is not a gentle verb. It is not easy to capture the force of elenchō here in a single English word. It includes the related ideas of reprimand, of bringing the wrong to light, of trying to bring the person to recognize that they are in the wrong, and of correcting them.

Elenchō assumes, as this whole passage assumes, that the person raising the issue is in the right and that the behavior being criticized is self-evidently wrong. In practice matters are not always so straightforward, and it behooves the person taking the initiative to make sure that the “sin” is not simply a matter of personal preference; the eventual involvement of the “one or two” and then of the church should minimize that danger.

Sin and Listening. The hoped for response is akouo, — that the sinner might “listen,” but this word can extend beyond what the ears do, to what the mind does, “understand, comprehend.” Twice in v. 17 a form of this word is used, parakouo. Our NAB version translates it “refuses to listen,” which grows out of its more literal meanings: “to mis-hear” or “to misinterpret.” A good bit of advice is that if we want people to akouo to us in such situations, the words we say must be true, necessary, and helpful – so that they more than just hear the words, but open hearts and minds to receive the word.

Brian Stoffregen notes that in Scott Peck’s book, People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil [69] Peck writes it “is not their sins per se that characterize evil people, rather it is the subtlety and persistence and consistency of their sins. This is because the central defect of the evil is not the sin but the refusal to acknowledge it.” But if in the encounter instead of akouo we experience parakouo, we have no option – for the sake of the sinner and the community – but to begin to consider a more robust response. According to Peck, committing sins is not the same thing as being evil. We all commit sins. However, the sinners who won’t listen to the one, or the two or three, or to the church, need to be removed not because they are sinners, but because they are evil — unwilling to listen to the truth about their sins — attacking others instead of facing their own failures. In this case, it is healthier for the body to remove the evil (cancerous) part that would destroy the whole, than to try and keep the “family” together.

Why Witnesses? The initial one-on-one approach has not been successful, so more drastic action is needed. Again there is no suggestion that the “one or two others” hold any position of leadership, and no indication of how they should be selected. Why take along one or two others after the first non-listening response?

First of all, Jewish law required two or three witness to uphold a complaint (Dt 19:15). Secondly, the witnesses need to be present, because they may conclude that the confronter may be in the wrong. The accusations against a fellow member may be way off-base. The one or two then may become the confronters against the original accuser. A third reason might be deduced from the last line in our text: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” We don’t often connect these two verses — as well as v. 19: “if two of you agree on earth about anything for which you are to pray, it shall be granted to them by my heavenly Father.” Note that the word (pragma) translated “thing” in “anything,” can have the more specific meaning of a legal case, litigation (see 1 Cor 6:1 where it is translated “grievance,” but refers to a legal complaint). Malina and Rohrbaugh suggest the translation: “For where two or three ‘convene to hear a case’ in Jesus’ name, Jesus is there as well.” [p. 119]

Notes / Matthew 18:16 listen: akouō   listen or hear, but primarily “come to know.”


Sins against you: church

…tell the Church. We now come to the last resort, which the earlier approaches have been designed to avoid. To “tell the church” must presumably require a public statement when the community is gathered (rather than a whispering campaign). Such publicity must be avoided where possible, but may prove to be inevitable if the problem is to be solved. The object of the gathering is not to pronounce judgment but to strengthen the pastoral appeal, in the hope that the offender may yet “listen” (akouo). The offender, faced by the disapproval of the whole local disciple community, ought surely to recognize that this was not just a personal grievance on the part of the initiator. Anyone who is not willing to accept such united testimony may then properly be regarded as no longer a fit member of the community. “You” (singular, referring to the individual who raised the issue, not, at least explicitly, to the community as a whole) should then treat them as “a Gentile and a tax-collector.”

Gentile and tax collector. The two words (ethnikos and telones) have mixed usage in Matthew. Sometimes it refers to a way not to act, sometimes to a group of people who will enter heaven before the apostles, and in other ways. Perhaps it might be best to say that the Gentiles and tax collectors were people who were not Christians or at least they were “outside the fellowship,” or, from our context, their sins had made them “non-brothers”, but they are also people for whom the church had a special concern to bring them gospel so that they might repent and become part of the fellowship again.

Remember that the one seemingly charged with action is “you” (singular), presumably, the one who first raised the concern.

The Community. The commission given to Peter in 16:19 is repeated almost verbatim except that the verbs are now plural, addressed to the disciples as a group, and the introductory “Amen I say to you” gives it added weight. Here, as in 16:19, the object of the “binding” is expressed in the neuter, not the masculine: it is things, issues, actions that are tied or untied, not people—though of course, as v. 17b has made clear, the decision made in principle will have practical implications for the person involved. The individual who was at first concerned over the offender’s action has, in v. 17, found it necessary to appeal to the gathered community, and the community has endorsed that individual’s assessment that this was “sin.”

In so doing the community has exercised the same authority to declare God’s will which was given to Peter earlier, and that authority is now spelled out in exactly the same way as in that earlier saying; Peter ’s “power of the keys.” Different denominations understand this differently. Roman Catholics discuss it in terms of “ordinary” and “extraordinary” teaching authority.  Orthodox Catholics see it terms of their ecclesiology (study of being church) in which the Patriarchs operate in union with Ecumenical Councils. The Reformed churches (looking to Calvin) see it in terms of polity and democratization of authority arising from the “priesthood of all believers.” Independent Bible congregations see it only in Scripture ad the local elders.

In whatever way it is understood, it must be remembered that it is rooted in prayer. In v. 19 prayer was expressed as a direct transaction between the two on earth and God in heaven. But now a third party is introduced into the scene. The wording makes sense only as a forward look to the presence of the risen Christ among his earthly followers. Its thrust is thus similar to that of 28:20, but whereas there the presence of Jesus “with you” is expressed in relation to the new post-Easter situation, here it is, remarkably, already in the present. The perspective is thus that of Matthew’s church rather than of the disciple group during Jesus’ ministry. The saying is linked to v. 19 with a “for,” which indicates that this is the basis for expecting united prayer to be answered: it is not just the prayer of the two who agree, but also that of Jesus who is “among them” because they have come together “in his name,” that is as his disciples representing him (cf. on v. 5, and cf. 10:40–42). While Jesus is on earth his disciples are his brothers and sisters (12:49–50) but even when he is no longer on earth he remains spiritually present as the focus of their unity.

Notes

Matthew 18:17 church: Here the reference is clearly more local, so that the ekklēsia is the gathering of the brothers and sisters who are accustomed to meet in that place. No mention is made of any officers or leadership within the group; the added force of this third level of appeal derives from the greater number of people who agree in disapproving of the offender’s action, not from any defined “disciplinary” structure. The group share corporately in the pastoral concern which motivated the individual disciple to raise the issue, and in the event of a rebuff we may reasonably suppose that they would share that individual’s attitude of disapproval and even ostracism (see above), but to speak of anything so formal as “excommunication” is to import an anachronistically developed concept of ecclesiastical jurisdiction.  [R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament, 691]


Sources

  • K. Beale and D. A. Carson, Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI; Nottingham, UK: Baker Academic; Apollos, 2007)
  • Eugene Boring, The Gospel of Matthew in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VIII (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1994) 377-79
  • Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Book, 2000) 366-69
  • R.T. France, The Gospel of Matthew in the New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing, 2007) 676-99
  • R.T. France, Matthew: An Introduction and Commentary in the Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, Vol. 1, ed. Leon Morris  (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1989) 273-80
  • Daniel J. Harrington, The Gospel of Matthew, vol. 1 of Sacra Pagina, ed. Daniel J. Harrington (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1991) 263-72
  • Daniel J. Harrington, “Matthew” in The Collegeville Bible Commentary, eds. Diane Bergant and Robert J. Karris (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1989) 888-89
  • Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdman’s Publishing, 2009) 447-56
  • John P. Meier, Matthew, New Testament Message 3 (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1990) 200-06
  • Turner and D.L. Bock, Matthew and Mark in the Cornerstone Biblical Commentary, vol. 11 (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2005)

Dictionaries

  • David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1996)
  • Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich and Geoffrey William Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 1995)
  • Horst Robert Balz and Gerhard Schneider, Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1990)

Scripture: The New American Bible

 

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