“If another member of the church sins against you go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others . . .” (Matt 18)
Thus, starts the lectionary reading for this week. It is amazing how a couple of verses can cause so much harm — yet that is just what has happened with this text. It has often been interpreted to be discussing church discipline, which in turn is often interpreted as punishment even though the root word of each is very different. A full discussion of the differences between punishment and discipline can be found in our book Welcoming Strangers.
Often there is a judgmental quality and a harshness accompanying these ideas. They have been used to justify spiritual abuse and patriarchy where men seek to control the behaviour of women.
I have known of situations where the “elders” of particular churches — all men— go to talk to young women. I have talked with and prayed for victims of this sort of control and intimidation. I wasn’t planning to give details, but on further reflection I will cite one example as it serves to show how ludicrous and abusive this sort of interpretation can be.
A single mother was visited by the “elders” — she was told that her bra was not supportive enough and that her breasts bouncing around under her high-neck sweater may distract some of the male members. I can only imagine how threatening that must have felt.
A glance back over history shows that this isn’t only a contemporary issue. And, I know that it is not only women abused by this interpretation of “church discipline”. Others too have suffered much at the hands of this short passage.
Interpreting the scriptures in a way that makes them instruments of control, intimidation, judgment and abuse runs counter to the overarching themes of the New Testament — love, kindness, gentleness, preferring the other, care for the poor and marginalized, etc.
Therefore, I want to re-image this passage in the light of those values.
First, I’ll make a quick comment on the use of the word for church in this text. The word is ecclesia (gathering) which is used only twice in the Gospel of Matthew. The first time is in chapter 16. Actually, the English word for church is derived from Kuriakos a possessive word roughly meaning house of God. In English we do not have these two as separate words, both are translated church, which unfortunately does give us preconceived ideas when today’s text is read.
To re-image the reading for today I find it helpful to go back to the first appearance of the word ecclesia (chapter 16). A couple of weeks ago I wrote about this passage and suggested that the ecclesia is built on rocky ground — imperfect humanity with all the wonder and variety that entails.
I like to remind myself that at this point ecclesia is a fledgling idea, a hint of what may become, an inkling of possibility for the future. Therefore, when ecclesia is used for the second (and final) time in this gospel to read into the text an understanding of church as an established, fomalised structure with “elders” visiting errant members is surely something never intended by the author of the gospel.
So back to Peter, I wonder how he reacted to this new fledgling idea of ecclesia. I’m sure he never imagined that in the twenty-first century it would still be being discussed! But what did he think? Of course, there is no way really to know, but I can imagine that he would let the idea sit, ponder it now and then, be amazed by it, feel the responsibility of it, wonder if Jesus would mention it again and give hints of what it would be like.
A few things happen between the two mentions of the word and I think they help with the understanding of the text for today. I don’t think any of the gospels are a chronological list of events — different placing of the same stories in the books show that can’t really be the case. However, I do think the stories are carefully place by the various authors, so they reveal the heart of the individual gospel. So, I suspect that the stories placed between the two mentions of ecclesia are not random.
I want to briefly look at those stories to see how they inform today’s text. I think they firstly seek to establish Peter as rocky ground — all the wonderfulness of humanity that gives us all hope. (16: 21, 17: 4) The ecclesiais not for perfect people everyone can be included
Next there is talk of commitment (16: 24-25), faith (17:20), healing (17:18), interaction with the contemporary culture (17: 27), humility (18:5) and not causing offense (18:6). Then immediately preceding the second mention of ecclesia is a parable. I think this is perhaps the most significant placing of all.
It is the parable of the lost sheep (18:12-14). The story is a familiar a man has a hundred sheep, one goes missing. He leaves the 99 to seek the lost one. It paints a lovely picture of love, kindness, care and concern.
I think it is teaching the way to understand the text for today. The words are not an instrument of control, intimidation, judgment and abuse. They are hints of how it will be in this new, fledgling ecclesia. If someone is struggling or having a hard time make the effort to go and talk to them, have a cup of tea with them, be the friend they need. In the picture of the parable gently lay them across our shoulders and welcome them home.
And just in case Peter missed the point immediately following this verse is a parable about forgiveness — but that is for another day!