An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Twenty-Third Sunday of Year A, Matt 18:15-20, September 4, 2011
Like illicit drugs, kidnappings break the order of society. What is to be done to the people behind them? It is interesting to recall that at a anti-kidnapping summit during the administration of former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo who launched a high-profile crackdown on kidnappings, ordering the Philippine the Philippine National Police to neutralize all kidnap-for-ransom gangs, government officials and private-sector representatives recommended the creation of one anti-kidnap body to handle all kidnap cases. But one speaker at the summit, Rodrigo Duterte of Davao City, declared that summary execution of criminals was the most effective way to stop kidnapping and illicit drugs. A newspaper quoted him as saying that “the intention of the criminals is to instill fear in their victims and kill them. What should we do, but kill them also.” According to the report, some Filipino-Chinese businessmen welcomed Duterte’s hardline stance against members of kidnap-for-ransom gangs—that is, liquidate them.
One wonders whether such instance could be adopted in a Christian community. Should someone who causes destruction be purged from, if not liquidated in, the community? How, indeed, should the community deal with a member whose life or behavior is destructive of the community? Normally, human wisdom demands that the community must be saved from a destructive member. In the name of discipline, for example, we expel from the school students who disregard rules and regulations. The honor of the school must be maintained. It is probably for the same reason that some lay people would wish priests who commit pedophilia be defrocked—they are a disgrace to the Church. Some clamor for zero tolerance. But it seems that the Gospel today does not share that outlook. What matters is not to maintain the purity or honor of the community, but to win back the erring brother. It seems that the gospel says nothing about protecting the community from the wayward member; it is more concerned with bringing back the erring brother to the fellowship: “you have won your brother over” (Matt 18:15b).
How is this done? The Gospel outlines a three-step procedure in reinstating the brother to the fellowship. The first step: “If your brother should commit some wrong against you, go and point out his fault, but keep it between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over” (Matt 18:15). It may be noted that the erring brother is to be informed of his fault. This is an important detail, because many times people are judged without even knowing the wrong they have done—they are simply not aware of it. In addition, confidentiality is emphasized. There is really nothing to be gained by embarrassing an errant brother before the community—it merely deepens the rift, and places him on the defensive to protect his name. The atmosphere of fellowship is protected when the peccant brother is not shamed before the community. On the other hand, by discussing the matter privately, one respects the ego needs and honor of the brother who sins. That way, his reputation is saved and scandal is avoided.
If the private admonition fails to make him realize his sin and bring him to repentance, then the help of one or two other brothers are invoked: “If he does not listen, summon someone, so that every case may stand on the word of two or three witnesses” (Matt 18:16). Obviously, this is an echo of an Old Testament procedure on criminal offense (“a judicial fact shall be established only on the testimony of two or more witnesses”[Deut 19:15]) and of a practice among the Qumranites (1QS 5:25-6:2). One surmises that the purpose of summoning witnesses is, negatively, to avoid serious misjudgment, for the demands may be more than what is necessary, for which reason the erring brother might resist, and, positively, to establish the full truth, which is made possible by the different ways of looking at the problem by the other witnesses. If this fails, the community is convoked: “If he ignores them, refer it to the church” (Matt 18:17). It is the totality of the community members that gives the last word, assured as it is of Christ’s presence: “When two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in their midst” (Matt 18:20). Some scholars think the assurance “that whatever you declare bound on earth shall be held bound in heaven and whatever you declared loosed on earth shall be held loosed in heaven” (Matt 18:18) has reference to God’s ratification at the last judgment. But the sense of the text seems to be that the decision of the community has the authority and sanction in heaven.
“If he ignores even the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector” (Matt 18:17). This last step is usually taken to mean that if the erring brother refuses to listen even to the Church, he must be expelled. It is argued that the thought behind treating the sinful brother like a Gentile or tax collector is this—just as an observant Jew would avoid their company, so a Christian must separate himself from the sinful member who refuses to acknowledge his sin and repent. This finds support in St Paul who says that ties with a peccant brother is severed: “If anyone will not obey our injunction, delivered through this letter, single him out to be ostracized that he may be ashamed of his conduct” (2 Thess 3:14). But this seems not to be the only way of understanding the saying. For one thing, the fundamental question that must be asked is what would this text mean to a community like Matthew’s, that is composed of Jews and Gentiles. It cannot be doubted that the Church of Matthew was a mixed Jewish-Gentile community. For another, Matthew presents Jesus as someone interested in preaching the good news to the Gentiles (Matt 28:19). Also, he invited a tax collector to join the group of disciples (Matt 9:9). In light of this, the injunction can only mean that the erring brother who refuses to listen to the Church must, according to Raymond Brown, “be the subject of outreach and concern in imitation of a Jesus who was so interested in searching out tax collectors that he was accused of being their friend (11:19).” This means “that the community is far from finished with brothers and sisters against whom it has had to invoke authority.”