Church life in the last six months has been dominated by shameful actions of some of its priests and hierarchy, and is now preoccupied (although belatedly) with protecting its most vulnerable members. The fourth of the great discourses of Jesus in Matthew (Ch. 18), called the Sermon on the Church, addresses similar issues: concern for the vulnerable, confronting sin and forgiveness.
The chapter begins with a typical dispute among Jesus’ disciples over “who is the greatest” (18:1-9). Jesus calls a child, sets the child down in the middle of them and says that unless they become like this child, they will not enter the kingdom of heaven; for whoever humbles himself like the child will be “the greatest.” You can hear the gasp of the disciples across the centuries. Children were not symbols of innocence nor the endearing nucleus of a family, but symbols of powerlessness that requires the care and protection of others. Jesus then continues with dire warnings against those who become stumbling blocks to one of “these little ones who believe in me.” The ground has shifted a bit, since such little ones are also the vulnerable members of the community who have “little faith.” Rather than become a snare for such people, he says, a person should choose self-mutilation.
Matthew’s concern for the weakest members of the community emerges in the following parable of the lost sheep. The sheep wanders off (a term used normally for moral straying), and the shepherd leaves the 99 on the mountain to seek the errant member. The most vulnerable becomes the criterion of pastoral care. This seems like a strange way to care for the welfare of a community.
Today’s Gospel seems to present a different way of dealing with sinners. First there is a one-to-one confrontation, followed by a meeting with official witnesses and then an appearance before the “church” (assembly of believers). If the sinner persists, he is to be treated as a “gentile or tax collector,” a decision that will ratified by God. Clearly Matthew, like Paul, was faced with situations in which a particular member was a threat to the good of the community (see also 1 Cor. 5:1-8).
This is a classic instance of Matthew bringing out from his “storeroom both the new and the old” and changing traditional teaching by placement of material. This disciplinary teaching is sandwiched between the parable of the lost sheep, in which the errant brother or sister is sought out rather than thrown out, and that of the unmerciful servant, next week’s Gospel, where Peter is counseled to have unlimited forgiveness. The tension between church order and the example of Christ remains through the ages.
Yet from the perspective of the whole Gospel, dealing with the sinner as a tax collector and gentile may not be so harsh. Jesus heals the servant of a gentile tax collector (8:5-13); while a slur against Jesus is that he is “a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.” When the ordinary ecclesial structures of reconciliation break down, the true shepherd must seek the one who is lost. Treating a sinner like the gentile and tax collector is not simply to practice excommunication but to seek new ways of communication.