Twenty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time

Lectionary: 127

Ezekiel 33:7-9

Psalm 95:1-2, 6-9

Romans 13:8-10

Matthew 18:15-20

Today’s readings from Ezekiel, Romans, and Matthew speak to our obligations to one another as a Christian community and, in a way, offer an affirmative reply to the question that Cain gave–“Am I my brother’s keeper?”–in response to God’s asking about Abel’s whereabouts (Genesis 4:9). Yes, we are responsible for one another, and this involves love for one another, which is the fulfillment of the law–but such love is also a truthful love, one that honestly names wrongdoing by our sisters and brothers in the community with the aim of reconciliation and restoration.

In the Gospel reading, Jesus offers a process for dealing with conflict in the church (ekklesia, here and in Matthew 16, which are the only two places in the Gospels where this word appears), when a Christian sins. Although many Bible translations add “against you” here, the five Greek letters for this phrase are neither in the oldest manuscripts we have of Matthew nor in the parallel to this passage in Luke 17:3. So the offense here is not necessarily a personal one–that is, where one Christian harms another, with Jesus then instructing the latter to go to the offender. As the Mennonite theologian John Howard Yoder notes in his brief book, Body Politics: Five Practices of the Christian Community before the Watching World (Nashville: Discipleship Resources, 1992), to limit

this reconciling process to cases of personal offense…misdirects attention away from concern for the restoration of the offender and toward the feelings of the offended one…. If I am not the one sinned against, this fact may make it more difficult for me to recognize my responsibility to intervene, but it may also make it easier for me to be forgiving and evenhanded. The person offended is not excused from the responsibility to reconcile; yet neither is anyone else who knows about it (3-4).

In this way, each one of us is, to paraphrase from the Ezekiel passage, a watcher. Moreover, when Jesus said, “What you bind on earth is bound in heaven,” he was, as Yoder notes, instructing “his disciples that when they would carry out this particular practice, following these simple instructions, their activity would at the same time be the activity of God” (1). For the Matthean community, with its Jewish background and context, this rabbinical phrasing of binding and loosing entailed moral discernment and reconciliation in and as a community.

The intention is restorative, not punitive. As Yoder adds, “The intention is not to protect the church’s reputation or to teach onlookers the seriousness of sin, but only to serve the offender’s own well-being by restoring her or him to the community” (3). In this way, this ecclesial process, “the way God wants believers to live together,” according to Yoder, “should be a model as well for other social relationships” (11). Here he highlights beyond the church the emergence of conflict resolution programs and studies in the social sciences, along with growing attention to restorative justice programs, including Victim Offender Reconciliation Programs (VORP).

After the three-step process that Jesus laid out is folllowed, what if the Christian offender, however, refuses to recognize and admit the error of his or her ways? What if he or she refuses to change and continues to sin? Well, Jesus said to treat him or her “as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.” Still, this may not mean what we automatically might think. After all, how did Jesus himself treat Gentiles and tax collectors? With love, of course, and the invitation was always open to come and be a part of this community, imperfect as it is, on its journey to practice and embody the ways of God. But this will be dealt with in next Sunday’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew (as students observe me often saying in class, “Stay tuned…”).