On the Gospel of Matthew 18:15-20
23rd Sunday of Ordinary Time
We often hear somebody praised as a ‘self-made man’, somebody who pulled themselves up by the bootstraps and made something of their life, with minimal outside assistance. Likewise, we idolise individual geniuses: writers, sportsmen and others who achieve brilliance by single-minded dedication. The ‘great individual’ is a major figure on our cultural scene. On the flipside is another major figure (and far more common): the ‘lonely individual’. This is the character who lives in a city, surrounded by crowds, but does not know his own neighbours, although facebook might provide the illusion of community. Our society both exalts and produces ‘individuals’, and this Sunday’s Gospel has a lot to say about this problem.
Sometimes Jesus’ teachings might seem idealistic. ‘Turning the other cheek’ and ‘loving your enemy’ are wonderful ideals, but they can seem far removed from real life experience. In this Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus instead starts with a situation that is immediately familiar: conflict in a community. ‘If your brother does something wrong, go and have it out with him alone, between your two selves. If he listens to you, you have won back your brother. If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you: the evidence of two or three witnesses is required to sustain any charge. But if he refuses to listen to these, report it to the community; and if he refuses to listen to the community, treat him like a pagan or a tax collector’. The principle is clear: if a fellow disciple fails to listen to your advice, back yourself up with the opinions of others, and eventually of the whole Church. Rather than encouraging instant division, such a process is community-based, and demands humility on the part of the accuser as he seeks the advice of others. As for the one accused, as the opinion of the community mounts against them, it is assumed that a genuine disciple will bow to the will of the community. Anyone who refuses to submit to the community has made a ‘pagan or a tax collector’ of themselves.
What we have here is a vision of humanity based not on the individual will, but on solidarity. It is not in the solitude of our own heads that we disciples should discern our destinies, but in the communion of the Church, where believers are bound by ‘the debt of mutual love’ (Rom 13:8). This truth has largely been forgotten by our age, and it requires a truly humble spirit to live it. Deep down, though, we know that the ‘individual’ is an illusion, that we rely on each other, indeed, that we are made for each other. The story of Adam and Eve teaches us that ‘it is not good for man to be alone’ (Gen 2:18), and this holds true for the Christian believer. We should always seek out living forms of this community: in parishes, prayer groups, and charitable organisations. In the communion of the Church we share in wisdom, charity and prayer that is beyond our ordinary reach, and we avoid becoming ‘dried-out’ for want of fellowship.
But this communion with each other in the Church is not simply a pooling of resources. It is not mere collaboration. What makes this community different from others is the fact that it is based on Christ’s promise, also found in this Sunday’s Gospel: ‘where two or three meet in my name, I shall be there with them’. Our communion with each other in the Universal Church is able to transcend time, language, culture and race because it is simultaneously a communion with the Lord of all.
Jesus said to his disciples: “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. 16 But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector. “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. “Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”
– Matthew 18:15-20