PS 95:1-2, 6-7, 8-9
Here we go with love again in our readings for this week. “Owe nothing to one another,” Paul says in our second reading from Romans, “except to love one another, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law.” The command to love is central to the gospel, but this week’s readings call us to question how we are to love when our brother or sister is a sinner. In other words, how do we deal with discipline in the church?
In our gospel reading from Matthew, Jesus starts to answer this question by laying out some pragmatic advice rooted in Old Testament practices of justice. If a brother or sister sins, reason with them first (Lev 19:17) and if she continues to sin against you, bring two or three witnesses to confront her (Deut 19:15). But then Jesus’ advice becomes, at least seemingly, somewhat harsh: “If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church. If he refuses to listen even to the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.” The terms “gentile” and “tax collector” in such a context are largely derogatory. Such are the people “we” don’t associate with. In some recent Protestant circles, this verse has been the basis both of splitting a church to separate the true believers from the false as well as harsh church discipline for individual members.
It is true that Jesus’ advice here seems to be the basis of something along the lines of excommunication. If a person is a persistent, unrepentant sinner, the only solution seems to be strict separation. However, earlier in Matthew’s gospel we see multiple examples of “gentiles” and “tax collectors” showing great faith in Jesus and being the recipients of his love and mercy. There is the centurion in Matthew 9, the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15, and of course, Matthew himself who is a tax collector. So this passage seems to be calling us to something more dynamic than simple separation from one who is sinful.
The passage is followed by Jesus giving the power to bind and loose to all the disciples at large. The power to forgive sins, previously granted to Peter (Matthew 16:19), is now given to all the disciples. What Jesus seems to be saying here is something like, “yes, seek out justice pragmatically. Don’t let a brother or sister persist in sin if you can help it. But remember, I am giving you my power to forgive sins. Just as you yourself were sinners and through my mercy were called into discipleship, so you too can offer that same mercy to the sinners that are among you.”
The thrust of the passage is unity, as indicated by the pericope that follows on forgiveness. Even sin should not be able to destroy unity. As the late Dan Harrington writes in his masterful commentary, “[T]he parable [of the unforgiving servant] illustrates not the quantity of forgiveness (how often?) but the quality by giving the reason for ‘no limits’: If God places no limits, humans cannot place a limit. On the other hand, those who place limits on forgiving others will have limits placed on their forgiveness by God.”
Discipline in the church is necessary if the church is to be a just institution, but our readings for this week and especially our gospel call us always to place discipline in the service of love, which means that the goal, even for the most egregious sinner, is reconciliation with the church body. Thus we see also that the quality of the church is something more than the sum of the righteousness of her members. The goodness of the church does not stand and fall on the goodness of those individuals who are her members. Rather, the goodness and power of the church is grounded in Christ, who continues to offer mercy, forgiveness, and reconciliation to the sinner.