First reading: Ezekiel 33:7-9.
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 94(95):1-2, 6-9.
Second reading: Romans 13:8-10.
Gospel: Matthew 18:15-20.
Link to readings.
The theme uniting today’s readings seems to be the responsibility members of a community have for the moral well-being of others. It gives some charter for what would subsequently be called “fraternal correction” — something clearly requiring much sensitivity. Religious history is rife with examples of institutionalised violence in the name of establishing and preserving righteousness.
The prophet who speaks in the First Reading, Ezek 33:7-9, sees himself set as “a sentry to the House of Israel”, with a grave responsibility to correct the wrong-doer. Rather than setting the direction for the remaining two readings, this harsh prophetic text has perhaps been chosen to act as a contrastive foil against which the very different approach they recommend stands out. Nonetheless, for all its grim tone, the prophet’s overall aim is to bring the wrongdoer to life, rather than to the punishment of (premature) death.
The Gospel, Matt 18:15-20, is a brief extract from the Fourth Discourse of Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel, the one regulating life within the community of the Church. In a way that is perhaps particularly comforting at the present time, the discourse recognises that the Church is not a community of the perfect. Allowance has to be made — and structures set in place — for dealing with moral lapses, dissensions and other failings that inevitably occur in a community still “on the way” to the perfection of the Kingdom.
The community of Israel had structures in place for correcting and disciplining errant members. The procedure enjoined here reflects those structures (esp. Lev 19:17-18 [“you shall reprove your neighbour ... you shall love your neighbour as yourself”]; Deut 19:15 [requirement of at least two witnesses]) but with the added sense of the Church as the family of God. The instruction to first try sorting a problem out in private, with a carefully staged progression of increasingly public procedures if that proves unsuccessful, is designed to preserve the dignity of the errant person. “Going public”, so to speak, is a last resort. The goal is not simply to win, but to “win back your brother or sister”, that is, to reach an outcome in a way that will enhance everyone’s sense of being a respected and valued member of the “family”.
If, despite all, the process fails, then there is nothing to be done but “to treat (the person) like a pagan or a tax collector”, that is, to regard them as outside the community (like pagans) or as in the position of those who have set themselves outside the community (tax collectors). Here is a place where Matthew’s Gospel, for all its ultimate sense of a mission to the nations and stress upon Jesus’ celebration of God’s mercy in company with tax collectors and sinners, preserves the language of the Jewish scribal community. What is provided for, as a last resort, is excommunication from the community of the Church, now of course made up of believers of both Jewish and Gentile origin. There comes a point beyond which a community can no longer tolerate members who consistently defy the core values by which it lives.
For a community to take such a step is no light matter. It needs to know that its decisions enjoy heavenly sanction. Hence Jesus’ assurance that the “binding and loosing” authority, conferred personally upon Peter in regard to interpretations of the law binding upon the whole Church (16:19), is also enjoyed by the local community (“you” [plural]) in regard to the exclusion or non-exclusion of errant members. When the church—after serious prayer and reflection— feels obliged to take such momentous step in regard to some person, it should be confident that whatever decision it has made enjoys heavenly ratification.
Once again, we see here the Church being equipped for its ongoing life beyond the death and resurrection of Jesus. The one who at his birth was called “Emmanuel, God is with us” (1:23) remains equally present as risen Lord (28:20)—not just in solemn assemblies of the entire body but also where “two or three” are gathered to pray, or to initiate the process of reconciliation as earlier laid down. No gathering or interaction between members of the community is too small or insignificant for it not to be taken seriously by God.
The Second Reading, from Rom 13:8-10 provides a fitting a complement to this instruction on community living. The redemption from sin and death which God’s love has won for us in Christ has created an inexhaustible “debt” of love. We will never be able to discharge that debt of love owed to God. God wants us to consider it owed to our fellow human beings, deserving or undeserving as they may be.
Brendan Byrne, SJ, FAHA, taught New Testament at Jesuit Theological College, Parkville, Vic., for almost forty years. He is now Emeritus Professor at the University of Divinity (Melbourne). His commentaries on the Gospels can be found at Pauline Books and Media