Preliminary sermon thoughts on Matthew 18.15-20

This passage is the gospel for this coming Sunday and is the passage I will probably preach on. Here are some of the thoughts that have come to me as I have been exploring it. This is not a sermon (that will come later); just some preliminary mediations. I am now going to turn to the commentaries to see what they have to say. If you have any thoughts to add, please feel free to do so in the comments.

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. (New Revised Standard Version)

The NRSV translation of this passage suffers severely under the NRSV’s policy of using ‘inclusive language’ and avoiding gender-specific pronouns.

First, what Jesus actually says in Matthew’s account is ‘If your brother sins against you…’. The NRSV wishes to avoid the ‘exclusive’ use of the term ‘brother’, but it replaces it with the unfortunate term ‘member of the church’. No doubt it is true that it is in fact a Christian brother or sister that Jesus is referring to here (the rest of the passage makes it clear that this process takes place within the Christian community), but to replace ‘brother’ with ‘member of the church’ is to replace a family metaphor with a phrase that sounds far too institutional, as if the early church had a membership list and a church envelope system! Second, the grammar in this passage is impossibly tortured. ‘If the member listens to you, you have regained that one… 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.’ No one talks like this except politically correct Bible translators!

The NIV 2011 does a far better job, so here it is:

15 “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. 16 But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses’. 17 If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or 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 that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them”.

The first thing we have to deal with is a manuscript issue. The NIV 2011 has:

“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you”.

But the NRSV has:

“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone”.

Note the difference. The NRSV envisions an instance where my sister or brother has sinned specifically against me, and I am then given instructions on how to deal with this. But the NIV envisions a wider application: if I see my sister or brother caught up in some sin, whether it concerns me or not, I am to take them aside privately and point it out to them.

Obviously these are very different situations! The different translations reflect a difference in Greek manuscripts; some early manuscripts include the phrase ‘against you’, some do not. Which is right?

Many biblical scholars follow a ‘criterion of difficulty’; if one of the renderings is more difficult, it is more likely to be the original rendering, because it is easier to envision a later copyist toning down a difficult saying than it is to envision them making an easier saying more difficult. If this is the case here, then the NIV is correct and what Jesus had in mind was not just a specific situation where my brother or sister in Christ has sinned against me, but a more general situation where I see them caught up in some sin.

However, the overwhelming majority of Bible translations follow the NRSV rendering and have some variant on ‘Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee’ (KJV). Versions that follow this textual tradition include Tyndale, King James Version, ASV, RSV, Phillips, NIV 1978 and 1984, TEV, ESV, NLT, HCSB and CEB. Versions that simply follow the ‘If your brother sins’ rendering are the NEB, REB, JB, NJB, NAB (with ‘against you’ included in brackets), TNIV and NIV 2011. The reasoning behind the majority translation is something I will have to research as it obviously affects the interpretation of the passage in a major way.

15 “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over.

Whichever interpretation we follow, this is not a particularly common way of dealing with the problem. Usually if I believe that someone has sinned against me, my first step is not to go and have it out with them. I do not like conflict and I would much rather avoid it. So my more usual step is to go and blacken the name of the other person by telling my wife and family and friends about it (from my point of view, of course). As I do so, I am more likely to modify the story somewhat, omitting any mitigating circumstances in order to paint the ‘offender’ in the worst possible light and paint myself as being squeaky clean.

This is even more the case if it is a more general situation of seeing a sister or brother indulging in sinful behaviour. Nowadays in the world of the Internet, tweets, cell-phone cameras and the ever-present media, the first mention of the ‘sin;’ is likely to be on someone’s blog site, twitter feed, or on the front page of a tabloid.

I ask myself, how am I likely to treat someone who sins against me – or who I perceive as having sinned against me? Some people will blow up, lose their temper, yell and scream at the person. Others will clam up, keep it all inside, just let it fester and turn into hatred, bitterness and resentment. Others will spread slander and gossip around about the person.

The problem with all of these approaches is that there is no possibility of resolution. The offender is an object of hatred, and the approach is to defeat them in some way. Jesus’ approach, on the other hand, is meant to lead to reconciliation. The object is restoration – to restore the person to the relationship between the two of you and to the fellowship of the church.

The minority reading raises alarm bells in many people’s minds. We live in a culture that values privacy and ‘mind your own business’ is the eleventh commandment. I have known people leave churches and join new ones because other members of the congregation have ‘interfered’ in their private affairs.

We need to face the fact that the New Testament takes a different view. Paul in several places tells his readers to ‘admonish one another’. The New Testament view is that sin is a deadly serious business. If you see a sister or brother with their eyes closed walking straight toward a cliff and you do not try to stop them, you are guilty of lack of love. The consequences of sin are far more destructive, and so it is our Christian responsibility to speak the truth to each other and encourage each other to be faithful to Christ.

I myself have on two or three occasions been on the receiving end of this sort of godly admonition. In every case it has been very difficult to hear and my first reaction was resentment. However, in every case, after I have gone away and thought about it, I have realized that my sister or brother was correct in what they said, and I have had cause to thank them for it.

Note a couple more things about this verse. First, ‘just between the two of you’. No one else is involved at this point: not my wife, not my friends, not my blog readers. This is a private encounter in which no one is going to lose face before the public. Privacy, of course, makes it far more likely that there will be a sympathetic hearing; it looks far less like an attack. Second, ‘If they listen to you, you have won them over’. This is the object of the whole exercise: not scoring points or winning arguments, but restoring a relationship.

Moving along…

16 But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses’. 17 If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

Things are now becoming a little more formal. Jesus is quoting from the legislation in Deuteronomy 19, which deals with possible false testimony and malicious witnesses. Deuteronomy 19:15 says, ‘One witness is not enough to convict anyone accused of any crime or offence they may have committed. A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses’ (NIV 2011).

This is the procedure that Jesus recommends here. My Christian brother has done something to injure me; I am suffering as a result of it, and I want to address the issue so that there can be repentance, restoration, and reconciliation. So I went to see him alone, but he refused to listen to me, dismissing what I had to say. What happens next? What happens next is that I go again, but this time I take a couple of fellow-Christians along with me, people who I trust and who are trusted by the congregation. This has the effect of introducing a new level of seriousness to the conversation. The offender is not as likely to dismiss the matter out of hand; he will perhaps try to offer a word of explanation, and the witnesses will then weigh the matter – is his explanation more likely than mine? Their presence will also be more likely to keep the conversation on an even keel; the offender and I might be more inclined to lose our tempers if it was just the two of us, but in the presence of others we will probably make more of an effort to keep the lid on things.

Hopefully this works, but if it doesn’t, the next step is to ‘tell it to the church’. What is in view here appears to be a formal meeting of the congregation in which the offender can be confronted; I tell my story, the offender gives his side, the witnesses offer their observations, and the congregation then weighs the matter. It is in this context that Jesus gives the promise of verse 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”. ‘Binding’ and ‘loosing’ were terms used by rabbis who were being consulted to give a legal opinion about a course of action: is this the right thing to do or not? So a formal meeting of the church takes place and the community as a whole is asked to make a ruling (a ‘binding’ or ‘loosing’ on the matter). Is my complaint justified, or is my brother the one who is in the right? The congregation will make a decision and call one or both of us to repentance and reconciliation.

Again, hopefully this leads to a positive resolution, but there is the chance that it will not (especially these days, when many people will simply change churches!). So Jesus’ final instruction is,

“…and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector”.

Coming from Jesus this sounds rather harsh, as he was well known for being kind to pagans and tax collectors. But in this instance, attractive as it is to presume that it is gentle treatment that he is recommending, I do not think this is a likely interpretation of the passage. I think it is more likely that Jesus is making observations about the way pagans and tax collectors were treated in the Israel of his day – they were excluded from the synagogues.

What Jesus is saying is, “If the guilty party has refused to repent of their sin all through this process – when they were confronted individually, when they were confronted again in the presence of one or two witnesses, and when they were confronted before the whole congregation – then they are refusing the counsel of Christ and his church and they need to know that there are consequences to this. They cannot refuse to repent of their sins without putting their souls in jeopardy. They must therefore be removed from the congregation, in hopes that this will bring them to their senses”.

This seems harsh to us, but we do not realize how captivated our churches are today to the ‘mind your own business’ culture. It was not harsh to our Anglican forebears; the Canadian Book of Common Prayer of 1959 lays out a careful process by which the parish priest may bar someone from communion if he sees that they are living in grievous sin or if they are refusing to be reconciled to someone else in the congregation; this process has been on record in the Anglican prayer book tradition since 1549. This is certainly the way the early Christians dealt with the situation; Paul assumes such a process in 1 Corinthians 5, and testifies to its successful completion in 2 Corinthians 7.

19 “Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them”.

Taken out of context this can be a heartbreaking verse. It can be heartbreaking because it just does not seem to be true. How many times have we Christians heard of situations (or participated in them ourselves) when someone has received a diagnosis of a terminal illness, and their friends have ‘claimed this promise’ for them? They have prayed together and ‘agreed on earth’ about the outcome they want; they have stormed the gates of heaven and prayed without ceasing; they have been persistent and have exercised all the faith they could muster up – and still their loved one has died.

I have the same questions about this as any other Christian. However, in this case I do not think we can ignore the context. Jesus is not making a general statement about prayer here. ‘For where two or three gather in my name’, taken in the context of the whole passage, is unquestionably about the congregational meeting he has been envisioning in verse 17. When the congregation gathers to consider this serious matter, they do so in the presence of Christ. The wisdom of Christ will be with them. And this will also temper their conduct; they will be less likely to be harsh or dishonest if they remember that Jesus is there in the midst of them. And in this context, the prayers of the congregation for the reconciliation of the offender will be heard.

That’s it for now; time to turn to my favourite commentaries on Matthew.

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Published by

Tim Chesterton

Family man; pastor of St. Margaret's Anglican Church on Ellerslie Road, Edmonton; storyteller; traditional folk musician and occasional songwriter. Email me at timchesterton at outlook dot com.

One thought on “Preliminary sermon thoughts on Matthew 18.15-20”

  1. I agree that the assurances of 18:19-20 relate back to the immediate context, especially to the two or three witnesses in 18:16. As they lead the congregation in deciding to “bind or loose” (to retain or exclude the one accused of sinning), they need assurance of Jesus’ presence. Jesus assures them he is with them–giving them strength to confront sin, and answering their prayers for forgiveness (if the one sinning repents) or for deliverance (from the sinner, who is excluded).

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