GOSPEL, FIRST READING & PSALM TRANSCRIPT (Subscribe or Login for Full Transcript):
Matthew 18 is a very important chapter because it's the fourth of Jesus' major discourses.
If you recall, Matthew's Gospel has these five major speeches: the sermon on the mount in Matthew 5-7, the missionary discourse in Matthew 10, the parables discourse in Matthew 13, and — now what some scholars call — the discourse on the church in Matthew 18.
The reason it's called that is because this is the second time, it's one of only two times in the Gospel that Jesus uses the word ekklēsia,
the Greek word for church or assembly.
So this is a very important passage for understanding the nature of the Church as is given to us in the Gospel.
So for this Sunday the reading is from Matthew 18:15-20, it is the famous story of Jesus giving the disciples instructions on what to do when one of their brothers sins against him.
So let's read the Gospel together and we will try to unpack it and put it in its first century context.
In Matthew 18:15 we read:
If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.
But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.
Truly, 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.
Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven.
For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them."
So just a couple of points about this Gospel text before we move into a more in-depth discussion of it.
First, just the context.
It's really important to know that although the lectionary skips ahead to the 15th verse of Matthew chapter 18, it's important to read this passage in light of the whole chapter.
The whole chapter is a discourse of Jesus to his disciples.
So he is speaking in particular to his students, to his disciples, to the men who have left their former lives behind and have become his followers, his students who travel with him every day to learn from him.
He is speaking to the apostles in other words, and that's clear if you look at the earlier verses in the Gospel of Matthew 18.
So in Matthew 18:15, when Jesus says “if your brother sins against you,” he's not talking about two siblings in a family.
He's talking about a brother within the community of his disciples.
He is talking about conflicts between his followers, and in particular between the disciples themselves within the circle of the apostles.
So whenever we read those words of his, what he's describing then is a process of fraternal correction within the Church.
So with that overarching context in mind, we see that Jesus gives, first and foremost, a three-step process for dealing with conflict, or with sin, within the Church, within the community of brothers.
The first step, he says there, is that “if your brother sins against you,” you should “go and tell him his fault, you and him alone.”
That is very important.
The first step is what we might call individual fraternal correction.
Before you broadcast your brother’s sin to everyone in the community or you make it public, the first thing you actually should do is go one on one to speak to him alone and bring to his attention what he has done to sin against you.
Now we could pause right there and do a whole discussion about how frequently Christians and disciples, followers of Jesus, fail to heed his first instruction.
It is very common for us when someone sins against us or hurts someone, to immediately go and trumpet that fault or trumpet that sin to other people, to tell other people about it rather than confront the person who has actually hurt us or who has sinned against us.
Jesus makes very clear here, though, that authentic fraternal correction within the Church and amongst his disciples, the first step, always should be one on one correction.
The point being not to shame your brother in front of everyone, but rather to let him know the wrong that he has done, with the hope of him turning away from that or repenting or asking for forgiveness, or something like that.
So the first step there, step one, is individual fraternal correction — and fraternal just means brotherly correction.
However, as you probably know, it does not always happen that people repent, or that people think they have done wrong, or that people admit fault.
So the second step in this process of fraternal correction that Jesus gives, is that if the one-on-one fraternal correction fails, then you shall “take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses.”
Now here we get into something very interesting.
Again, the context is very clear here that when Jesus talks about not just individual correction, but group correction, he's talking about within the context of his disciples, within the context of the Church.
It's almost quasi or somewhat legal language because when he says “the evidence of two or three witnesses,” he's actually alluding to the Old Testament.
So if you go back to the Old Testament for just a second, in Deuteronomy 19 — this isn't the first reading for the day, but it is the background of Jesus's statement — in Deuteronomy 19:15 it says this:
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 evidence of two witnesses, or of three witnesses, shall a charge be sustained.
So pause there.
What is that about?
Basically this was the law of ancient Israelite courts, that if you were going to bring a charge of a crime against someone, especially a capital crime like murder for example, you could not be convicted on the testimony of one single witness, you had to have at least two or three witnesses for a capital case.
So what Jesus here is doing is he's drawing on the law of relationships within ancient Israel in the Old Testament, and he's making them normative as well for within the Church amongst his disciples.
So although you can try to correct one of your brothers one-on-one, if that doesn't work and the brother refuses to repent of his sin, then you go and you bring two or three others in order to verify that he's unwilling to repent.
If he refuses to listen, you bring the evidence of two or three witnesses.
Now sometimes even with group correction a person will remain recalcitrant or impenitent, they will refuse to repent.
So Jesus says then, if he refuses even to listen to a group of disciples, then “tell it to the church.”
So pause there, what does it mean to “tell it to the church”?
Well, unfortunately, when we English speakers read the Bible and we see the word “the church,” we can sometimes think of a church building.
That's the most common reference that people used today when they say “the church over there” or “the church on the corner,” they are usually referring to the structure, the building, in which the people of God — what we call the church — will gather.
Obviously that's not what Jesus is talking about here in context.
He clearly means a group of believers that he's referring to as the Church.
What would that have meant in a first century Jewish context?
Well the Greek word there, ekklēsia,
literally means assembly or those who are called out. Ek
meaning out, kaleó
meaning to call, so those who have been called out for assembly.
It's a word that's found many times in the Greek Old Testament just to refer to the people of Israel, the chosen people of God, the covenant community, especially when they are gathered together as one to worship God in the Temple.
So even in the Old Testament there was a kind of connection between the church as people and then the church and the Temple building, because that's where they would gather together to worship and to hear the word of God.
So when Jesus says “tell it to the church” here, he is referring to the assembly of believers, and not just to the assembly of believers, but in particular to the assembly of authoritative leaders of those believers, because you can see here what he says is “if he refuses to listen even to the church,” then what's the penalty?
“Let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
What does that mean? Well effectively what it means is you treat him as cut off from the community of disciples.
It is a first century Jewish way of saying you treat him as if he is excommunicated, cut off from communion with the body of disciples.
And that's a very Jewish way to say it, because in ancient Judaism there were two people who were cut off from communion with the body of worshiping believers, especially in the Temple.
That would be Gentiles, who couldn't enter the Temple because they were unclean, and tax collectors, who couldn’t enter into the Temple because they were seen as in a perpetual state of uncleanness for working with gentiles, but also they were known to be sinners for extorting the Jewish people, stealing from them, overtaxing them, and then using the money to fund the Roman Empire and the Roman oppressors of the Jewish people.
So both Gentiles and tax collectors were excluded, they were kind of considered publicly excommunicated from the Jewish people because of their sinfulness.
So what Jesus says is if within the community of disciples, if within the church someone refuses to repent of a grave sin, then you treat them like a Gentile or tax collector.
They are now cut off from the Church.
They are cut off from the body of believers.
They are cut off from the body of Jesus' disciples, from the community of Jesus’ disciples.
Now some people might think “well wow, that sounds harsh on Jesus’ part.
I thought Jesus was inclusive?
I thought Jesus was loving?
I thought his message was one of reconciliation?
And it is, but it's also one of repentance from sin.
Jesus knows better than anyone else that sin is a barrier to real communion, it is a barrier to love.
It damages relationships.
It damages community.
So he not only has a message of acceptance and love, but he also has a message of repentance.
So if a person has harmed someone else, they need to recognize that they have sinned, turn from that sin, ask for forgiveness and then reestablish that relationship.
You see this everywhere in the Gospels.
Like in Matthew 5, earlier in the gospel, when Jesus says “if you remember you have something against your brother, put down your sacrifice before the altar and then go and be reconciled with your brother.
Then come and bring your gift at the altar.”
So repentance from sin is just a staple of Jesus’ message.
It is no way in tension with his message of inclusivity.
In fact, as some scholars have pointed out, if you say treat the person like a Gentile or a tax collector, there is both a negative and a positive dimension.
The negative dimension is that that person is excommunicated, they are cut off from the Church, they are cut off from the body of believers.
The positive dimension though is how do you treat gentiles and tax collectors?
How did Jesus and the apostles treat them?
Well they evangelized them,
they shared the good news with them.
So it doesn't mean that person necessarily is permanently cut off, what it means is that they need to be evangelized again.
They need the gospel to be re-presented to them so that they can be called to repentance and then re-integrated into the community.
That would be a second implication of his use of the language of gentile and tax collector in this particular context.
SECOND READING TRANSCRIPT (Subscribe or Login for Full Transcript):
So what that reveals is that the first tablet, those first commandments are about love of God. And it follows—you can infer from that—that the rest of the commandments, which are focused on neighbor, are also about love...but they’re about the love of neighbor. So the commandment to honor one’s parents, the commandment against murder, the commandment against adultery, the commandment against theft, the commandment against false witness, and the commandments against coveting one’s neighbor’s wife—or coveting one’s neighbor’s property...the last set of commandments, the second tablet so to speak, is all about love of neighbor.
So from a first century Jewish perspective, there was a very distinct awareness of the fact that the two tablets of the Mosaic commandments, the two tablets of the law in Exodus 20, were focused on two kinds of love. The first three commandments are about how to rightly love God, and then the last seven commandments are about how to rightly love one’s neighbor.
And this is actually clear from the Gospels, because when one of the scribes asks Jesus, “What is the first and greatest commandment?” you might think He would say, “You shall not commit idolatry”...following the Decalogue. But what He actually says is:
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:37, 39-40)
He basically says these sum it all up. That’s not a new thing on Jesus’ part; that’s actually part of Jewish tradition. And at the risk of giving too much information, it is interesting that Josephus, the first century Jewish historian, says something similar about the Decalogue. You have to kind of infer this, but it’s clear in his writings that he considers the first commandments to be about what he calls piety, eusebeia
in Greek. And then the second set of commandments is about righteousness or dikaiosynē
This is a very clear distinction in the minds of first century Jews, about the love of God and about the love of neighbor—about piety toward God and justice or righteousness toward your neighbor—being the kind of the summary or essence of the Ten Commandments. So when Paul’s writing Romans—to get back to Romans—and he says:
Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. (Romans 13:8)
He’s reflecting a very Jewish understanding of morality, that obedience to the commandments is not purely an issue of legalistic formalism, like following the rules. Obedience to the commandments is how you love God and how you love your neighbor. That’s why he can say...you’ll notice when Paul keeps going, what does he do?
The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not kill, You shall not steal, You shall not covet..”
Those are all the ones focused on love of neighbor, second tablet. He says:
...[they} are summed up in this sentence, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
And again, sometimes Christian readers of the Bible will think, oh, he’s quoting Jesus there, because Jesus said that in the Gospel about love of neighbor. And he is, except that Jesus Himself is quoting Leviticus, because that is a quotation directly from Leviticus 19:18:
...you shall love your neighbor as yourself…
So that’s one of the commandments of Moses given in the book of Leviticus to the people of Israel. So this is a very Jewish—very deeply Jewish—understanding of morality. And it’s important that Paul is emphasizing this, for two reasons. First, even in his own day, Paul was sometimes accused of being an antinomian. What antinomian is, is somebody against the law. You could say Paul was accused of being lawless.
Why would someone say that about Paul? Well, because remember, he’s going around the Mediterranean and baptizing pagans, bringing them into the new covenant with Christ and not requiring that they be circumcised. It’s one of the controversies that Paul got into. It’s mentioned in the letter to the Galatians. Paul says you are…
...justified by faith in Christ, and not by works of the law…
And so some people were saying, “Aha! Paul is lawless. He’s a breaker of the law, because he’s not requiring his Gentile converts to keep the law of Moses. He’s not requiring them to be circumcised.” And while it’s definitely true that Paul has a whole series of arguments about why circumcision is not necessary for salvation, at the same time, not all laws are created equal in the Jewish Scriptures. In fact, the Jewish Scriptures themselves make that very clear. There are different levels of legal authority.
Ezekiel 20 talks about how God gave the Israelites laws by which they might have life, namely the Ten Commandments. And on the other hand, laws that were, he says, not good. So there were some laws actually in the Old Testament that are concessions to Israel’s sinfulness. The best example of this is...Jesus talks about the permission to divorce in Deuteronomy 24. Jesus says in Matthew 19:
For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives…
It wasn’t meant to be permanent. He says:
...from the beginning it was not so.
It was a concession to Israel’s hardheartedness and sinfulness. But from the beginning, God made them male and female:
What therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder. (Matthew 19:6b)
Classic teaching on the indissolubility of marriage. So the point is, not all laws are created equal. And although Paul does not require Gentiles to be circumcised to be saved, that doesn’t mean he’s abandoning all of the laws of the Old Testament. In fact, there are certain laws that he says must be followed by Christians. And the example he gives here in Romans 13 are the Ten Commandments.
So the second reason this is important to emphasize is because to this day, there are some Christian groups that will argue that if all a person has to do is believe in Jesus as Savior, to have faith in Jesus and it doesn’t matter what they do. They don’t necessarily have to keep the law anymore, like they don’t have to keep the law against stealing or the law against adultery or the law against theft.
Now in practice, most groups will say you shouldn’t do those things, but you’re not obligated to do it, and you won’t lose your salvation if you do...if you do happen to break one of the Ten Commandments. Well, that’s not Paul’s view, as I’ve mentioned in earlier lectures. Paul says in Galatians 5:
...do not gratify the desires of the flesh. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. (Galatians 5:16b, 21b)
He talks about sexual immorality and envy (covetousness, breaking the 9th and 10th commandments) or idolatry (breaking the first commandment). These are grave sins. These are violations of the law. And people who do them won’t inherit the kingdom of God.
But in Romans 13, he’s trying to articulate here a positive understanding of the law. And he’s telling Christians, you don’t have to do anything except love your neighbor. Love of neighbor fulfills the law. But of course by saying that, which commandments is he pointing to? Keeping the Decalogue, keeping the Ten Commandments. So even though Christians aren’t under the law—all the laws of Moses, like circumcision in the covenant—they still have to keep the Decalogue, because the Christian vocation is to love, and the Decalogue is all about love. It’s about how to love God and how to love neighbor correctly. And so he says:
...and any other commandment, are summed up in this sentence, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor…
Ah, see, notice that. Love does
no wrong. It’s not about an emotion; it’s about an act. It’s about a choice. So if love does no wrong, then for Paul, love (agape
) means to choose the good rather than the evil for one’s neighbor. To do good to one’s neighbor is the essence of love.
...therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. (Romans 13:10b)
So see what he’s doing here is he’s (in a sense) defending himself against the criticism of being lawless, by saying, “No, no no...as a disciple of Jesus, as a believer, you have to follow the law. But the only law you have to follow is the law of love, because it fulfills all the rest.”
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