Year A: Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time

If your brother listens to you, you have won him over.

Matthew 18: 15-20

Jesus said to his disciples: “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. 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.’ 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. 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. 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. For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”

Discussion Questions:

  1. Have you ever had a “faith based” sit down over some offense and tried to reconcile the relationship. What happened? Were you able to reconcile or did it escalate?
  2. For you, does reconciliation have to mean someone is proven right in the situation? Or, are you able to reconcile with people when reaching agreement is impossible? What’s your experience here? 
  3. Do you view your freedom to forgive others as gift from God, or is it a necessary burden you carry as a Christian? Have you experienced transformation by forgiving another? Tell the story
  4. The last line of the passage seems to reveal God’s intense drive for relationship, for us to be together so God can be among us. Where you struggle with keeping “God’s restorative love and relationships whole” as the primary focus of your interactions with others?

Biblical Context

Matthew 18: 15-20
Sr. Mary McGlone CSJ

The Lectionary cycle skips over a good amount of Matthew’s Gospel between last week and today. When we approach today’s Gospel it helps to see it in its context.

The section beginning at Chapter 18 opens with disciples asking Jesus who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. They were certainly not expecting him to put a little child in the middle of their debate circle, making her or him the center of attention. Perhaps it was the child’s amazement at being singled out by the area’s most famous adult that made Jesus say that anyone who wants to understand the kingdom has to be ready to be just that surprised. From there, Jesus went on to warn the disciples never to lead one of the innocents into sin. He added that they should detach themselves completely from causes of sin — even if it required an amputation! (Matthew 18:8-9). Then, in a quick turn-around, he went on to say that, if one in the community started to drift, they should do everything possible to seek and bring him or her back, just like a shepherd would search for a lost lamb.

Having broached the topic of community, he talked about how to settle the problems that would inevitably arise among them. With this, Jesus touches back into the idea of prophecy, but he’s brought it directly home to the little group closest to him and to one another.

Jesus wasn’t simply presenting a problem-solving technique, although it is a good methodology even before we understand its theology. For step one, Jesus starts out by setting the stage like this: “If your brother sins against you. . .” The situation is clear, one person in the community feels injured and thinks that the other has done something wrong. A lot of people in that situation will start out by complaining, not to the person with whom they have a grievance, but with anybody they think will listen and agree with them.

The approach Jesus counsels feels much riskier because it requires honest dialogue and avoids amassing a team of supporters who will have been swayed by one side of the story. Following Jesus’ methodology, the more serious the grievance, the more the injured party will be acting like a good shepherd trying to bring back one who is deviating from promoting the common good.

Step Two: If an honest attempt to dialogue comes to an impasse, the person who has taken on the role of shepherd needs to engage companions to help in the process. Now, the two or three who go together must remember that their goal is to win over the other, to restore the community.

Step Three: If the efforts of a few are unsuccessful, the case needs to be brought to the community as a whole. Remembering the goal is crucial in this process. The aim is always to restore the offender to integrity in the community. Throughout the process, all the participants will be called upon to examine their own integrity and commitment to the common good. Thus, in Jesus’ methodology, seeking the lost becomes an intense exercise in deepening communal bonds.

Finally, Jesus says that if the community cannot bring someone back into union, they are to treat that one as “a Gentile or a tax collector.” Note that he didn’t say to treat the person as an adversary, but rather as one who has not yet received the message of the kingdom.

That understanding gives a context to Jesus’ final saying. Who are the two or three of whom he speaks? They are the ones who are seeking the common good. The risen Christ promises that they never need do that alone.

Bound to Forgive

Sr. Verna Holyhead SGS

We all have the responsibility for the pastoral care that requires us to deal with one another’s sinfulness, especially when this threatens the cohesion of the community of disciples. The offering of forgiveness to a sister or brother is one of the painful ways that we take up our cross and follow Jesus, whether in Matthew’s first-century community or in today’s church. Jesus tells his disciples how this painful, but healing process of forgiveness is to be conducted. The authority of “binding and loosing” that was given to Peter to exercise in a particular way (Matt 16:19) is here extended to the whole church because it is not only the leaders who must accept responsibility for reconciliation within the community. The model that Jesus presents to the disciples is one of “gospel subsidiarity” not a pyramid model. Subsidiarity means that we do not do something at a higher level when it can be done at a lower, in contrast to starting at the top of the pyramid with the highest authority. So the first approach in reconciliation is to be between the offended and the offender. It is the former who is to seek out the latter, in courage and loving humility and with no intention of a judgmental confrontation, hard as this may be. For Matthew’s Jewish Christians, this would be no surprising advice if they remembered the Torah tradition about reproving someone with love and loving one’s neighbor as oneself (Lev 19:17-18).

Paul echoes the gospel concern for love and respect in the community when he writes that the only debt that we should owe one another is “the debt of mutual love” (Jerusalem Bible). We are all debtors to Christ because of the inexhaustible love of God that he has shown us by dying for us, even when we are sinners. How can we, therefore, withhold love from anyone else?

In a lighter and different genre, the temptation and folly of repaying evil with evil is spoken by another Jew in the closing scene of the musical Fiddler on the Roof. Dismayed at the prospect of their immediate banishment from their village, one of the villager’s shouts: “We should defend ourselves an ‘eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth!” The wise old Tevye replies with kindly and sad irony: “That’s very good. And the whole world will be blind and toothless.

Sr. Verna Holyhead SGS (Sisters of The Good Samaritan) 1933-2011, was a teacher of scripture and engaged in biblical and liturgical ministry, which found expression in writing books, retreat-giving and in the leadership of pilgrimages to Israel.