Matthew 18: 15-20
15 “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. 16 But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19 Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
This short passage, unique to Matthew’s gospel, has exercised a powerful influence on the shaping of church practices and understandings. In five short verses we have the background of the church’s practice of excommunication, a second reiteration of the ability to bind and loose, and the promise of Christ’s presence where two or three are gathered. Our understanding of these verses is often locked into our understanding of church as it exists two thousand years after Jesus’ life with all its accumulated traditions and practices. Every act of interpretation is an act of imagining the context in which these words were spoken to an early community of disciples attempting to enact the assembly that Jesus calls into being with his words and presence. Yet, for Matthew more than any other gospel, the formation of a community that can embody Jesus’ vision for the kingdom of heaven in their proclamation and life together is an important feature.
When we use the term church to translate the Greek ekklesia it ensures that most readers will bring to this reading their concrete experiences of church and their intellectual and emotional baggage that the term may carry. Ekklessia in the Greco-Roman environment is typically an, “assembly, as a regularly summoned political body” or when used in the Septuagint to talk about the gathered community of the Israelites is typically the “congregation” of the Israelites. (BAGD, p.241) Matthew’s understanding of the ekklesia taking on the role of Israel on behalf of the world probably leads to ‘congregation’ being a better term, but that is also associated in modern times with the experience of church. Ultimately for the purposes of this I would translate this as the ‘congregation of Christ’ or ‘the assembly of Christ’ hopefully calling attention to the unique nature of this community in relation to the world around it and its distinction from our experience and understanding of ‘church.’
In the church the historical practice of excommunication was used to enforce the boundaries of the church, to exclude those who by beliefs or practices were felt to be a danger to the right worship of Christ. Unfortunately, the manner in which it has often been practiced in the life of the church was centered upon exclusion rather than reconciliation which is the direction of Matthew 18. The congregation of Christ that Matthew speaks to does have the difficult task of holding a brother or sister accountable for their actions towards an individual or the community. The imperative to act is placed upon the one who perceives they have been sinned against. Here the action is against a one person, and the initial response is for the individual to point out the fault while they are alone.
The action of bringing the action of the brother or sister to light in a way that encourages reconciliation and forgiveness is countercultural in our society of shame and blame. This is a courageous action which hopes for healing, rather than an identification of faults for the sake of exercising power over the individual or to justify their exclusion. The entire direction of this fourth block of teaching is directed towards forgiveness and reconciliation, the hope that the lost sheep might be rejoined to the flock. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer would say as he tried to re-imagine a community of Christ in Life Together:
Nothing can be more cruel than that leniency which abandons others to their sin. Nothing can be more compassionate than that severe reprimand which calls another Christian in one’s community back from the path of sin. (DBWE 5: 105)
This community called into existence by Christ is called to practice a way of life that can hold another brother or sister accountable for their actions and let them know that by their actions they are walking outside the way of the community of Christ in the hope of repentance and reconciliation between the one whose sin has placed a stumbling block before others in the community.
The one who is sinned against had the responsibility to bring the action to light, but this also requires a community that supports this practice of accountability. Just like the owner of the sheep who realizes that one of their flock has gone astray, so the individual who realizes a brother or sister has sinned goes to seek them and to try to heal the brokenness. Yet, just as there is the possibility that a sheep may not be found, there is the possibility that a sinner will not change; but the community bears responsibility for providing them every opportunity for repentance and reconciliation. If one on one the reproving is not received, then they are to go as a group of two or three. This parallels the requirements in Deuteronomy 17:6 and 19:15 where the evidence of two or three witnesses is required to sustain the punishment or exclusion from the community (by death in Deuteronomy 17). Matthew’s community may not practice the death penalty, but it is attempting to figure out how it can model a society based upon a merciful reading of the law. If even in the presence of witnesses the person refuses to hear reproving, then the matter is brought before the congregation for an additional opportunity at public reconciliation. It is now the congregation of Christ that bears the power to receive or release the individual from the community, they can declare that one is no longer living in accordance with the congregation and are therefore an outsider who would need to be evangelized and repent before being considered a brother or sister once more. The congregation bears this authority because of Christ’s presence among the congregation.
As I argued in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew is trying to articulate a community of Jesus followers who can live and hand on Jesus’ teaching. As Richard B. Hays can state: “There can be no question here of a purely individualized spiritual formation. Matthew is strongly ecclesially oriented.” (Hays, 1996, p. 97) This community is always oriented towards forgiveness. Yet, it is a community that cares enough to declare some actions as inappropriate and scandalous towards the little ones of the community of Christ. It is a place that is an alternative to the practices of the kingdoms of the world and provides a place where forgiveness can be learned, and courage is practiced as sins are named and sinners have an opportunity for reconciliation.
The gospel of Matthew begins and ends by referring to Jesus as Emmanuel, ‘God with us’ and here within the guidance about life in the community of Christ the reference to Jesus’ presence among the gathered community is highlighted once more. In Matthew 1:23 the narrator uses the name Emmanuel to introduce Jesus’ coming birth and here in this passage we have Jesus promising for the first time his continued presence among the congregation of Christ (this theme returns at the end of the gospel). There is an oft noted parallel teachings in the Rabbinical Jewish tradition where the rabbis state: “But if two sit together and the words between them are of Torah, then the Shekinah is in their midst.” (m. Aboth 3:2) The community of Christ gathered around Jesus’ words experiences the presence of God in the way the rabbis expected of observant Jews gathered around Torah. This is heightened when one anticipates Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 24:35 where, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” and that passage’s connection to Isaiah 40:7-8,
The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.
There is a theological boldness to the claiming in a manner parallel to God’s words not fading, Christ’s words will not fade, and that as God’s Shekinah is present in the gathering around Torah, the community gathered around Jesus’ words for discernment shares the presence of Jesus in their midst. The formation of a community of Christ that can both name sins that are committed and practice reconciliation is a community that will later be called to make disciples of not only the little ones of Israel, but all nations, handing on all that they have been commanded. Yet, they go in the presence of the Jesus who is with them always.
 The Shekinah is from the Jewish word for ‘settle’ or ‘dwell’ and while not mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures is an idea in rabbinic writing that refers to the presence of God among God’s people. It can refer to the presence of God in the temple, but also as here to God’s presence in the midst of the studying of Torah, also in prayer, in judging, in relationships and in times of need.