Human and Divine

Twenty-Third Sunday Scripture Readings

Today’s gospel is an effort on the part of the primitive Jewish Christian community to define itself. We shouldn’t be surprised that these early Christians at times put concerns of the community into the mouth of Jesus. After all, because of the Resurrection and Pentecost, the Christian community recognized the continuing presence of Jesus in their midst through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. Even if Jesus had never uttered the words as Matthew reported them, they were spoken in his name.

Although their focus was primarily spiritual, the primitive community had to deal with very practical matters as well. We see this especially in the Acts of the Apostles and the letters of Saint Paul. Here’s the question: Since membership in the Body of Christ is a matter of spiritual life or death, what can be done with members who commit serious offenses? The Gospel as we read it today says, “If your brother sins against you…” However, my sources tell me that the phrase “against you” is a gloss on the original text and shouldn’t be considered as a genuine part of this sentence. Omitting that phrase makes much better sense in relation to the rest of the passage. It should read, “If a brother sins…” It refers to offensive behavior in the context of the community of brothers and sisters—the Church—and not to any offense against an individual. Notice that the offense is committed by a “brother,” that is, a member of the community, and not an outsider.

What kinds of offenses is the gospel referring to? Saint Paul had to deal with a similar case that he writes about in his First Letter to the Corinthians [5:1]. There, he deals with the case of a man sleeping with his father’s wife. It’s at least legally and morally incest, even if it wasn’t the man’s biological mother. That’s a tough situation for the young community to have to deal with, but Paul says they must deal with it even to the point of expelling the man from the community if he refuses to change. Paul goes on then to list some of the offenses that would be incompatible with membership in the Christian community [5:11]: he includes members who are “immoral,” greedy, idolaters, slanderers, drunkards, and robbers. We can imagine that these are the kinds of patterns of behavior that Matthew had in mind when he composed this gospel passage.

The remedies that the gospel suggests aren’t harsh but are gentle and kind. There’s no hint of threats or punishment. The brother or sister is not personally condemned. If the person is unwilling or unable to accept the advice given to them in person, his or her behavior then becomes an issue for the community to deal with. If the behavior is allowed to continue, it could be detrimental to the community as a whole. Therefore, the person is asked to come before the assembly to continue the dialogue. For its own good, the community has the final say whether it can tolerate the behavior in question or not. The resulting decision is either that the person may no longer be considered part of the community—they are bound—or the community accepts them as they are or as they have agreed to be—they are loosed.

One phrase in this passage needs some extra attention. It’s this one: “…treat them as you would a Gentile or tax collector.” Obviously, Jesus came to call the outcasts to come into the kingdom. That includes the Gentiles and tax collectors, with whom Jesus personally interacted. The phrase comes from the Jewish Christian community. Observant Jews didn’t shun Gentiles and tax collectors—they dealt with them daily. However, they didn’t enter into close fellowship with them. The phrase sounds harsh to us but made sense to the Jewish Christian ear.

The gospel passage ends with a definition of the Christian assembly—the Church—and a comment on the nature and power of the Church. For the Jewish people, to be able to celebrate their ritual prayers as a community, they needed a minyan—that is, a minimum of ten men. In our case, for the Christian community, it only took two for their communal prayer to be heard. Not only that, but any two followers of Christ who come together in his’s name constitute the Body of Christ, the Church, the real and effective presence of Christ in the world.

Because of its origins and the way it was composed, there are not many lessons we can take away from today’s gospel. At least, we’re able to see the Body of Christ, the Church, in both its humanity and its divinity. The Church—the assembly of Christ’s followers—is a human institution. It has the right to establish procedures to maintain order and to assure that the love of God in Christ remains visible in it. Sadly, from the outset, this has often not been done well. The image of Christ in the Church has too often suffered from a heavy-handed and legalistic approach to discipline under the guise of maintaining order. The “institutional Church” has very often failed to reflect the love of Christ in its treatment of outsiders or those not considered orthodox enough. Even so, when two or three of his followers gather in Christ’s name, miracles of love still do occur and always have.

If we would present the face of the loving Christ to the world and become instruments of the miracles of God’s grace, we would do well as Church to follow in the footsteps of Christ our head. We would do well to live in acceptance of life as God has granted it to us, in surrender to the will of God as we discover it as the result of our prayer and meditation; and in gratitude for all that our God has done and continues to do in and through us. We express our gratitude when we share God’s gifts to us with others. In acceptance, we are Church; in surrender, we are the Body of Christ; in gratitude we are Eucharist.

Readings & Homily Video

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