There Am I

Ordinary 23A

Matthew 18: 15 20

Introduction

It is helpful to recall for a moment what our Lord covered in the earlier part of this training session with his small band of disciples.

In verses 1 4 there was the enquiry from the disciples "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" Jesus called over a child and explained that all those who trust and display an unpretentious attitude like that of this child; they are the greatest in the kingdom of heaven!

He continued to say that anyone who receives such a person, and honours them, receives and honours him (verse 5). Then in verse 10, as if to drive home a key attitude for his disciples, Jesus makes a very strong statement (verse 10):

"See that you do not despise one of these little ones (the insignificant and lowly people of society); for I tell you, their angels in heaven always behold the face of my Father in heaven."

Explaining the full impact of this bold statement by Jesus, we have the following scholarly commentary" 

Though the general ministry of angels to those who are heirs of salvation is generally assumed in the NT. (Heb 1: 14, etc.), only this passage and Ac 12: 15 teach that a special guardian angel is assigned to each individual. It is implied that the angels entrusted with this ministry are of the highest rank, because in an Oriental court only the highest officials see the king's face: cp. 2 K 25: 19.

(From Commentary On the Holy Bible, Ed. J. Dummellow,
 Macmillan & Co. 1946)

Then in verses 11 14, Jesus tells the parable of the lost sheep and concludes it with the most emphatic statement:

"It is not the will of your Father in heaven that a single one of these little ones should perish."

This early portion of chapter 18 contains critically essential information for us to understand the short discourse on fraternal correction (verses 15 20). His preparation has highlighted the value his Father places on each humble person, no matter how unimportant they may be in general society. The people God values are for that reason, "the greatest". When anyone honours them, Jesus adds, they will enjoy his presence also. Be careful, he warns, not to let superior attitudes develop within you, for those humble people are very well connected. Angels of the highest ranks constantly look upon the glory of God.

It is in this context that Jesus now demonstrates how the Church and its members are to continue to uphold this view of the value of each individual person. In doing so they will reflect on earth the very practice and presence of the heavenly court, which he gives his assurance will enfold the faithful in the Holy Shekinah, the Abiding Presence of the Lord God.

Some notes On the Text

Verse 15

Now, extending this same teaching to the day-to-day life of the Church on earth, Jesus declares:

"If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over."

In other words, sort it out between you! This teaching is directly related to Leviticus 19: 17 and 18 which ends with "Love your neighbour as you love yourself." What follows is actually parallelled in the rule of the community of the Essenes at Qumran. Jesus therefore lays this down as the first step of love in the Biblical sense, following the very best Jewish religious practice. Recall that verses 15 17 are in the singular, formerly translated, "if thy brother sin against thee." (Although the words "against thee" were not in the original text, they probably help convey Jesus' meaning.)

The emphasis is not on punishment, but on the rescue of a brother (particularly a fellow believer) whose sins put him in danger. This then becomes a practical guide to initiating the Father's love and concern for those who wander or are misled.

Here again there is the common theme of God bringing his loved ones back to himself, back into communion with him; back into his presence.

Verse 16

Our Lord covers the practical possibility that the offender may be slow to respond, and says:

"But if he will not listen take one or two others along so that: every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses" (Deut 19: 15)."

The whole point of multiple testimony is to win the offender over.

Verse 17

Ever the pragmatist, Jesus continues:

"If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church (Greek: ecclesia; Hebrew: kenesset); and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector."

Our Lord declares his requirement that every possible means must be employed to win the offender over. Only if he rejects all of these is he to be treated as a non-member, in which case his refusal will lead, sadly, to his own self-exclusion. Jesus calls for frankness and honesty. If he doesn't co-operate, don't keep up any pretence. He's out!

Verse 18

"I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven."

Some commentators disagree as to whether this declaration was to be applied to the Church at large or just to a specific local congregation. We consider the Jerome Commentary to be most consistent in its explanation:

"In this context the words clearly have a force of 'condemn' or 'acquit'. The whole assembly of the Church has the power that is given to Peter in 16: 19; and it should be noticed that the acts of the Church in Acts are always the acts of the whole Church, not of its officers. The apostolic Church was a true assembly."

Verse 19 and 20

The session is rounded off by Jesus, true to his style, with a beautiful reminder of the central truth in his teaching that the Church in action, faithfully carrying out his commands, will enjoy the fullest possible communion with the courts of Heaven. His teaching is well grounded: he draws on rabbinic teaching based on Psalm 82: 1 and Malachi 3: 16.

Rabbi Samuel Tobias Lachs in his "Rabbinic Commentary On the New Testament" )Ktav Publishing House, New Jersey, 1987) writes, of verses 19 and 20:

19 If two of you agree, etc. This must have reference to the decision of the petit court of three judges where the decision is arrived at by the agreement of at least two of the judges. There is a tradition that when a court renders a just decision God himself (the Shekhinah) abides with them.

20 For where two or three are gathered in my name. This concept is well attested to in rabbinic literature.

R. Hananya, the son of Teradyon said: "If two sit together and interchange no words of Torah, they are a meeting of scoffers, concerning whom it is said, The godly man sits not in the seat of the scoffers; but if two sit together and interchange the words of the Torah, the Shekhinah abides between them, as it is said, Then that they feared the Lord spoke one with the other, and the Lord hearkened and heard, and a book of remembrance was written before Him, for them that feared the Lord, and that thought upon His name.

R.Halafta the son of Dosa of the village of Hananya said: "When ten people sit together and occupy themselves with the Torah, the Shekhinah abides among them…. And whence can it be shown that the same applies to three? Because it is said He judgeth among the judges (the minimum number of judges being three), hence can it be shown that the same applies to two? Because it is said, Then they that feared the Lord, etc."

To sum up the points made in the final section of our Lord's discourse we list the following"

  • Jesus is the centre of the religious life of his followers. However, he recognises that they will nevertheless have major differences of opinion amongst them.
  • Just as judicial decisions of the Church will be ratified in heaven, so will the prayers of the faithful, united in prayer, be heard.
  • Why will the Father grant such prayers? The power and efficiency of their prayers comes from the Church, which is the mystical Body of Christ; our Lord himself prays through and in union with his members!
  • In Matthew 6 Jesus teaches the importance of individual prayer. Here he teaches community prayer.
  • Christians cannot, however, carelessly take this for granted. There are very real conditions. They must pray with the mind and heart of Jesus and inspired by the Holy Spirit (see 1 Cor 2: 16).
  • Archbishop Gore taught:
    "The Gospel of Matthew records little of the Lord's teaching about the Holy Spirit; but much that is found in John 14 to 16 is, in substance, contained in these verses."
  • There is therefore a very solemn obligation binding on all who would call themselves members of Christ's body, the Church, to pray in unity with one another, and to pray with the mind and heart of Jesus under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Conclusion

This text of Mt 18: 15 20 is normally referred to in one way or another as dealing with fraternal correction; and of course it does. We have placed it in its wider setting and focused on the presence of God-with-us, our Emmanuel. The passage is about restoring unity among one another so that our collective unity with God is both strengthened and manifested to the world.

A Final Thought

If this is such an important theme in our Lord's teaching with regard to individuals, must it not be equally pressing that his Body the Church likewise be restored. For 500 Years it has been disintegrating with increasing momentum. Today it is looked on as weak and sickly and inflicted with self-administered poison. Despite the collapse on many fronts, there are so-called Christians who care little for trying to address this. Publicly they continue to run down certain selected Churches at every opportunity, and project such attitudes out into their mission fields. In the mind of Jesus, this is in direct opposition to his Gospel teaching, which it can only mean, they have never even begun to understand. This is a very serious situation. If we believe what Jesus taught in this passage, then we must play a part in reversing the tragic dismantling of the Body of Christ.

We can, by truly listening to Jesus in these Gospel reflections, restore mutual respect among different Christian's traditions. Unless we do so, the world about us will continue to abandon Christian culture and allow atheistic and materialistic "values" to flood the vacuum we perpetuate.

If we can take the intended teaching of Jesus in this short passage, and apply it carefully to our fractured situation, the Church could again be seen for what it is meant to be, the presence of God and his rule on earth, and thus become a blessing to the whole world.

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