Today’s gospel passage is taken from the fourth section (13:54-18:35) of Matthew’s gospel in which he explains the relation of Christ to the church. In the passage Jesus addresses the problem of sin in a local church. Commentators on the text point out that the three-stage procedure for church-discipline is developed from Lev 19:17-18 and Dt 19:15.
First, any member of the community may talk to the one who is sinning in the hope that the behavior will be corrected. If the sinner refuses to listen, one or two other additional persons should talk with the person who is causing the problem. If even then the correction is rejected, an assembly of the local church hears the case and makes a judgment. This may include excommunication if the sinner still refuses to amend (also read 1 Cor 5:1-8).
Jesus then gives the same assurance to the local church as he gave to Peter for the universal church (Mt 16:19). The authority to “bind and loose” in regard to the member who is sinning derives from Christ, to whom “all power in heaven and on earth has been given” (Mt 28:18). If the members of the community have gathered in his name, Christ is present with them in their deliberations and judgment.
The basic faith-affirmation in whose perspective Matthew composed his gospel is the concluding climax. Jesus, now the Risen Lord, said: “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations . . . And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age” (28:18-20). In this perspective, confident that the Lord is present to guide his own community (A.D. 80-90), Matthew adapts sayings of the historical Jesus to address the new situation of an established local church in need of due process to handle difficult problems.
Just as there is no exact correspondence between the church at the time of Matthew’s gospel and the time when disciples began to follow Jesus, so there is no exact correspondence between the situation of our church today and the church of Matthew’s time. Nevertheless, it is essentially the same church because the Risen Lord is with us to help us adapt the gospel to our own circumstances in a creative way that is in fidelity to his original teaching.
What are the life implications for a local church today — a parish, and by extension, a school, a hospital, a religious community, even a family? In the spirit of today’s gospel, it may be possible for someone to talk privately with another member of a community whose behavior is destructive. The Lord knows how difficult this is in our American culture of rugged moral individualism and relativism. Yet at times it may be that Christ’s healing truth will touch someone in need only through one of us.
Even though these days civil law and canon law deal with unacceptable behavior in society and the church, at times a local community must resolve internal problems in a more formal manner. Jesus’ admonition to convoke the church assembly to address a serious problem seems to indicate that great care must be taken to follow appropriate due process. The gospel thus warns us of an arbitrary or vindictive use of power in any community. Such an abuse of power cannot be an extension of Christ’s authority in loving service to the community. When we abuse power, we can be certain that Christ is not present in our midst; we have not gathered in his name.
Campion P. Gavaler, O.S.B.