Jesus saw in his disciples a community with the power to change lives, the power to release sins and the power to transform the world through prayer.
‘Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.’ (Mt 18:20)
Who are the members of your ekklesia? How do you resolve conflict?
With whom do you pray? With whom do you work for the fulfillment of God’s dreams?
Although the Greek word ekklesia (church) is common in the New Testament, it is rare in the Gospels, appearing only here and in Mt 16:18. Many scholars wonder if it is an anachronism. Matthew was perhaps projecting a later reality of “house-churches” back onto the time of Jesus. This is not necessarily the case, as the word is common in the Septuagint, where it translates the Hebrew word qahal, meaning “assembly” (Luke uses it in exactly this way in Acts 7:38). In this older context, ekklesia stands for all forms of the Israelite community. In the Pentateuch, for example, the word signifies a gathering of the entire nation, while in post-exilic literature, it connotes a small assembly that represents an absent whole. Matthew is likely playing on both this latter meaning of ekklesia as well as its later Christian significance. In either case, ekklesia describes a group of God’s people who share a common purpose, history, set of values and sense of family.
In teaching his disciples to bring their disputes to such a community, Jesus drew on well-developed traditions of Second Temple Judaism. Examples of these traditions also appear in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Throughout Israel’s war-torn history, internal strife threatened national cohesion. Techniques of conflict resolution formed a significant part of Israel’s religious inheritance. Those who bound their life to Israel’s law knew that ties of affection in the local assembly could sort out nearly any dispute. Among their fellow people of God, aggrieved parties had their best chance of sympathy; among people they trusted, they could be vulnerable and open to correction.
Jesus adds his own wisdom to these traditions. If correction in the ekklesia does not change someone, “treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.” It is easy to imagine the evangelist, himself an advocate for Gentiles and tax collectors, smiling as he wrote this line. Jesus never gave up, and neither, therefore, could the ekklesia that continues his mission. As our second reading implies, Israel’s laws about dispute resolution find their fulfillment in Jesus’ teachings on love.
The next lines of the Gospel are directed toward the life of the community. Unlike the two other discussions of the church’s power to bind and release, this instance makes no mention of sins. Instead, it reads like an exhortation to the ekklesia to bind the repentant back to the community and release them from the sin that led them astray.
Trust in God’s love grounds Jesus’ assurance that God grants the request of any two Christians who agree. In the wrong context, this sounds like magic. In the context of divine love, any Christian who joins with another to continue Christ’s mission will find a rich supply of grace. In this grace, God is at work, enabling the church to reconcile the estranged, to restore ties of affection among people and to pray for the realization of God’s dreams.