We are in a section of Matthew’s gospel in which Jesus is doing community building. So, today’s passage must be seen in the light of its larger context. Ever since chapter 14, Jesus has been instructing his disciples. In chapter 18, his teaching emphasizes and focuses on the community of believers, the church.
At the time Matthew wrote, the church was on its own, no longer a part of the Jewish community and so no longer observing the daily norms and customs of that religious tradition. The community needed guidelines for its life together and in chapter 18 Matthew emphasizes the important ones. Faith in Jesus and his teachings are the basis for this new community and believers will have to live in a way that reflects their founder. Since Jesus revealed a forgiving and compassionate God, the life of the community must do the same, if they are to witness to Jesus resurrected and living in their midst. Forgiveness must be the hallmark of the church. (Next week Peter will ask, "...how often must I forgive?" Jesus’ response--- in effect, a limitless number of times.)
When someone offends us we can say, "It’s a big world, I’ll just go my own way and ignore him or her." The early church was a very small community surrounded by non-believers. Members of the assemblies were easily recognizable and so was how they behaved towards one another. It’s something like a family in a small town, the neighbors quickly learn when there is conflict among family members. So too in the tiny early church; people within and outside the community would know of divisions among the believers. Conflicting members could not go their own way, the whole community would know and suffer the consequences of their behavior. The injuries had to be dealt with through forgiveness and, if it that were done, all would benefit. Outsiders would also notice the community’s behavior and be drawn to it. Today our larger communities might make it possible for conflict to continue, or be ignored, without too much fuss. But an unseen wound is a wound nevertheless and the unity and life of the believers are affected by offenses done by members against one another.
The teaching in today’s gospel sets out a rather elaborate and specific process for how forgiveness and reconciliation are to happen. At first just two people are involved, "If your brother [or sisters] sins against you go and tell...." Notice that the one sinned against must attempt a personal exchange with the offending party. At this stage of the process the privacy of the two is being respected. The directions don’t include explicit formulas or directions how the conversation is to go. It is hoped the parties can converse reasonably that members can be trusted to know how to behave and what to say. But life doesn’t always work out according to ideals.
If the first step fails, the conversation is to include just one or two more persons. We might jump ahead at this point to the closing verse of today’s passage. "For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them." We most commonly apply this passage to when two or more believers pray together – Jesus will be in their midst. True enough. But back to the context. The verse is in the setting of reconciliation in the community; when "two or three" come together to settle an offense against a member. When a believing community works to settle disputes, Christ is in our midst working to achieve the same goal. That is what makes this teaching more than an "ideal" and keeps it from being dismissed as not practical in "the real world."
Or, put it another way. Where shall we find the true presence of Christ? In today’s example, he is in our midst when we work together to right wrongs. Forgiveness and justice should characterize the community; if it does, others will recognize something unique about the church and might even recognize Christ alive and active in our midst doing what isn’t "do-able" without him. We believe he is truly with us at this eucharistic celebration. We reflect on divisions in our local and universal church, as well as between churches, resulting from offenses and misunderstandings done over the centuries. We invite Christ to be with us as we consciously and deliberately set about righting both large and small wrongs.
Jesus’ instructions continue. If the offender is hardened and refuses to acknowledge the wrong the process moves to another level. "If he/she refuses to listen to them, tell the church." Here Jesus gives the whole community the power to "bind and loosen"; the power to welcome back a repentant member, but also to discipline an unrepentant offender. The latter is an unfortunate but, it seems, necessary move. Actually, it isn’t so much that the church excludes someone from the community, but that the person guilty of sin against a member has turned his/ her back on the community. Since they are obstinate in their sin, they have sentenced themselves to exclusion. If they won’t mend the breech they have caused, the community is forced to state the obvious. The offender must be treated as "a Gentile or a tax collector" – a catch-all phrase used at that time by the Jewish community to mean anyone considered unclean and outside the faith. But remember that Jesus welcomed Gentiles and tax collectors into his company and offered them God’s forgiveness and acceptance. I think that leaves his comment ambiguous.
We sense from this passage and all of chapter 18, that unity and faithful adherence to Jesus’ teachings are important values for Matthew. Christians are not to live as individuals, but as members of a witnessing and supportive community. When a member has been "sinned" against, others are there for support and to see that rights are wronged.
But what’s the spirit of today’s gospel? Is Jesus just talking about individual offenses and sins? Suppose a race is sinned against, what are we to do? Suppose the poor on the other side of town are being ignored or deprived of their needs and rights? Suppose a group in our parish is treated as second class members just because they are new arrivals? Suppose women’s voices are ignored? Or, the elderly patronized? Suppose young people never hear their lives or issues mentioned in the preaching and public worship? Well...you get the idea.
Fifteen years ago there was an editorial in the New York Times that I think reflects the surprising nature of today’s gospel message. The title suggests the editorial writer might have seen more than the surface of things. I will quote it in full below for your prayer and reflection.
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"Love is the fulfillment of the Law."
To love, can it be that simple to solve the problems of the world? Today’s readings show us that we are responsible for and to one another, in all our actions. In St. John Paul II’s Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, "Reconciliation and Penance," he writes: "Every sin has repercussions on the entire ecclesial body and the whole human family. . .every sin can undoubtedly be considered as social sin" (16). The personal choices we make have social consequences. Visualize dropping the proverbial pebble in a pool of water. The resulting ripples are the after-effects of our action. During the Season of Creation, we unite as one family in Christ, celebrating the bonds we share with each other and with "every living creature on Earth" (Genesis 9:10). Let us examine how a selfish action reverberates and becomes a social sin.
A developer comes on a piece of property and, in order to make the greatest financial profit, he clear cuts the entire land of its forest.
Now, let’s take the viewpoint of the tree in this Aesop’s Fable, "The Plane Tree": "Two travelers, walking in the hot sun, sought the shade of a large tree to rest. As they lay looking up among the pleasant leaves, they saw that it was a plane tree. ‘How useless is the Plane!’ said one of them, ‘it bears no fruit whatever, and only serves to litter the ground with leaves.’ The plane tree interrupted him with quiet dignity, ‘Shame on you, ungrateful creatures. You come and take shelter under me from the scorching sun, and then, in the very act of enjoying the cool shade of my foliage, you call me good for nothing!’"
The developer is the two travelers in that he sees no worth to the trees on his property. By clear-cutting he has increased the heat of the earth and jeopardized life for all by contributing to the warming of the planet.
Climate change is a result of the intersection of greed, inequality and destruction of God’s Earth. The 2020 theme of Jubilee for the Earth is chosen for this year’s Season of Creation as it reflects those three interlocking themes. Jubilee is a time to renounce overconsumption and economic systems based on constant economic growth at the cost of the Earth and those who are poor. As we live into a post-COVID-19 world, can we imagine a new, just, sustainable, and more loving way of living?
Barbara Molinari Quinby, MPS, Director
Office of Human Life, Dignity, and Justice Ministries
Holy Name of Jesus Cathedral, Raleigh, NC
Mini-reflections on the Sunday scripture readings designed for persons on the run. "Faith Book" is also brief enough to be posted in the Sunday parish bulletins people take home.
From today’s Gospel reading:
Jesus said to his disciples, "If your sister or brother sins against you, go and tell them their fault between you and them alone. If they listen to you, you have won over your brother or sister.
As Jesus’ disciples we are to be a people who reflect his presence in our midst.
Since forgiveness is such a rare commodity among individuals, communities, religions, tribes, races and nations, a community that is characterized by forgiveness would certainly be a way of announcing Jesus Christ to the world. If forgiveness were the hallmark of our Christian community, we would be what Jesus hoped for us to be – "a city built on a hilltop," a " light to the nations."
So, we ask ourselves:
"One has to strongly affirm that condemnation to the death penalty is an inhuman measure that humiliates personal dignity, in whatever form it is carried out."
This is a particularly vulnerable time for state and federal prisoners. Conditions, even without the pandemic, are awful in our prisons. Imagine what it is like now with the virus spreading through the close and unhealthy prison settings. I invite you to write a postcard to one or more of the inmates listed below to let them know we have not forgotten them. If the inmate responds you might consider becoming pen pals.
Please write to:
----Central Prison, 4285 Mail Service Center, Raleigh, NC 27699-4285
For more information on the Catholic position on the death penalty go to the Catholic Mobilizing Network:http://catholicsmobilizing.org/resources/cacp/
On this page you can sign "The National Catholic Pledge to End the Death Penalty." Also, check the interfaith page for People of Faith Against the Death Penalty:http://www.pfadp.org/
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