A four-step trial? Wednesday, 19th week in ordinary time – Matthew 18:15-20

We are now in the fourth of the five great discourses of Matthew. Chapter 18 is the community discourse addressed to Peter and the disciples and broadly deals with community relations. Since we celebrated the Solemnity of the Assumption of Our Blessed Mother yesterday, verses 1-15 of this text were omitted. So we need to look at these verses first to understand clearly the text of today.

Chapter 18 opens with the disciples asking Jesus who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. The entire pericope must now be seen based on this question and not through a modern-day application of issues or our interpretation.

This question asked by the disciples is a bit of an oddity. You won’t be asking this question when twice before this; in rapid succession (Matthew 16:21-23 and 17:22-23) Jesus has declared his passion, death and resurrection.  Perhaps what was bogging the minds of the disciples was the primacy of Peter, for Jesus in Chapter 16: 16- 19 had declared him to be ‘the rock’ and now the others wanted to know where they stood on the charts of power.

Jesus places a child in their presence as an answer to their question. They were driven by the desire to be given status and Jesus clearly demands that they change their mindset. Using a double negative he insists they will never enter the kingdom of heaven if they are driven by such earthly titles and honours.

The community discourse was thus meant to be a guidepost to the leaders of the Church. It was their duty to ensure that their very behaviour would shine ‘like a light’ for the rest of the community and not scandalize the little ones. These little ones were not to be despised but to be protected and defended from the forces of evil within and without.

With this larger framework, we now look at the text of today. This text (15-20) has often been seen as some sort of a handbook for resolving matters rather than what it was meant to be; concern for others. In its context, this text is sandwiched between the parable of the lost sheep and the mandate to forgive seventy times seven. If you are surrounded by the message of love, it is improbable that the core of your learning turns out to be rotten. This text is cushioned with love. If the shepherd left the ninety-nine sheep in search of the one lost would he bring him back only to put him on trial?

The point of this text in dealing with a sinful brother is not to haul him over the coals but to restore a wounded relationship. Matthew is asking his community to settle matters of dispute by tapping into the resources of the community and not to seek recourse in some external judicial kangaroo court. However, the disputes taken to the community are not meant to be trivial matters but those grave in nature and that gravity was highlighted by the word ‘sinful’.

A community of believers is not insulated from disagreements. The words of Jesus seem to indicate a hypothetical situation highlighted by the word IF, which is repeated five times in the text. But this hypothetical situation is more than just a hypothesis for we know that sparks fly when people live in a community. The Lord, mindful of such possible conflicts, wanted them to be addressed, for conflicts that are not addressed only fester.

Having said that, this is not a four-step trial with the sole desire to get to point four, which is the expulsion of the member. That sadly is the goal for many Christians who hide behind the letter of this text forgetting the spirit of it entirely. The point of the text is to win a member back.

The sensitivity in this text oozes over. The member in question is ‘sinful’, there is a grievous wound caused due to the action of the person. Individual sins of a member hurt the community at large. There is no sin, no matter how personal, that does not injure the community. The Confiteor or the I confess is said as a public admittance of our individual sins and while it does not sacramentally absolve us of our sins it is an appropriate way to prepare ourselves to celebrate the sacred mysteries, admitting our sins which wound the body of Christ.

Hence the sin of a sinful brother needs to be dealt with and done so sensitively. The temptation would be to gloss over the sin, after all addressing such a matter is embarrassing for all. All the same, it must be ‘pointed out’ and be done privately or ‘alone’ to avoid embarrassing the person thus allowing the member to begin with a clean slate.

But then again, the perception of sinfulness may have not permeated into the consciousness of the errant member and in that case may warrant the intervention of a few more members. The idea is not to call in the cavalry and browbeat the person. Jesus is emphatic, these are witnesses to fraternal correction and not lawyers for the prosecution. Should even this fail, then the ‘church’ or the assembly should intervene and if all fails then the brother or sister should be treated like an outsider for, they choose not to live as members of this community. In all this, the sole aim is to win the member over and not conduct a trial with a battery of church lawyers baying for someone’s blood.

Matthew is the only Gospel that uses the word Church. (Ecclesia, meaning a calling out or an assembly) In this text, you will find the word used thrice. It is to this Church, that is granted the gift of ‘binding and loosening,’ a gift that was given to St Peter in Chapter 16:19. This is incredible power and with great power comes great responsibility.

The text must therefore always be seen as a responsibility that is thrust on the shoulders of the Church to make every effort to heal the wounds of division. Jesus will back this text with his response to Peter’s question; you MUST forgive seventy times seven.

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