SEVENTEENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
September 7, 2008 (Lectionary 23)
Psalm 119:33-40 (35)
Psalm 149 (1)
1a. CONTEXT - Matthew 18:15-20
The discourse in Chapter 18 has been called the "Rule for the
Congregation," with this text being the central portion of it. Exegetes who
advance the so-called "fivefold formula" (Bacon, Fenton, and others) would
call this chapter the end of the fourth teaching discourse. For Thompson,
this text is a reflection of the Matthean community, and is a key to
Matthew's thought and structure. Kingsbury claims that a portion of this
text, in association with others, gives a clear picture of Matthew's
This text is actually a group of sayings, the most likely division
being vv. 15-17 as a unit, and 18, 19 and 20 standing on their own. The
whole text is unique to Matthew, though the sayings probably came to him
close to their present form. The first saying (the instructions) is a likely
elaboration on the Q logion found in Luke 17:3. Verse 15 harks back to
Leviticus 19:17, namely, giving no room to hatred towards a brother who
wrongs you. Verse 16 quotes Deuteronomy 19:15; this is not a means to
seek out witnesses to the offense, but an opportunity to determine the
willingness of the offender to change his or her ways. Furthermore, it is
meant as an encouragement for the offender to change. Verse 17 takes the
matter to the gathered community, the church, and ultimately leads to the
exclusion of the impenitent brother or sister from the church. This
process for discipline is found in the LCA Model Constitution for
Congregations, and the same is proposed for the ELCA document.
Verse 18, which is an independent saying, is a variant of Matt.
16:19, where the authority to "bind" and to "loose" was given to Peter.
Verses 19-20 is also an independent saying, though possibly more
developed than the previous one, for it spells out a more sophisticated
earth/heaven relationship. The saying is similar to a passage of Torah
interpretation which says, "But when two sit, and there are between them
words of Torah, the Shekinah (the presence of God) rests between them..."
However, as G. Barth says, "in the place of the Torah is the onoma ("name")
of Jesus, in the place of the Shekinah is Jesus himself."
1b. TEXT - Matthew 18:15-20
Two portions of the text call for closer examination. They are
"go and tell him his fault" (v. 15), and the "binding" and "loosing" of v. 18.
The RSV translation of the second portion of v. 15 does not, in my
mind, convey the full force of the Greek words. The verb form elegxon is
the aorist imperative of elegkein, which in the RSV translation would
mean "to tell (him his) fault." Such wording could imply a rebuke or
judgment against the one who sins; this is not the intent of the text. A
more useful (though hardly used) phrase might be "remonstrate with him,"
which means pleading with him in opposition to the offense, or showing
him the error of his ways.
The business of binding and loosing has concerned exegetes for a
long time. The "binding and loosing" formula is mentioned only in this text
and in the authority given to Peter text (Matt. 16:17-19). These are also
the only synoptic texts where the word ekklesia is found, and in both cases
it is linked to the binding and loosing. In the Greek text, the passive
participles for deo and luo are used to describe the corresponding action in
heaven (or the universe) for the act of binding and loosing on earth.
Consequently, a translation that speaks to the action in its fullest sense
might go like this: "Everything which you all bind on earth will be found to
be bound in heaven...," and so forth. In this context, "everything" would
refer to offenses, and "you all" would refer to the church, with the process
seen as one piece. As Luther says, "It shall be one single action, mine and
yours, not a twofold one."
The temptation for the preacher to focus on the most recent
manifestation of the hard-hearted (or hard-headed) member ofthe
congregation, and preach a sermon that says, "the church will get you, if
you don't watch out," is great. However, the text provides a richer
opportunity than this. First of all, the text assumes at least two things.
The first is God is for the fulfillment of human beings, and does not desire
to lose anyone to sin or separation from the gathered community. The
second is trust in the reconciling power that God gives to the church, and
individuals in the church, through Jesus. The text is filled with a
heightened sense of confidence in what followers of Jesus can do alone
and together to see reconciliation come to pass.
Some sermon titles that come to mind, given this background, are:
"I Am My Brother's Keeper, and Then Some," or "Blest Be the Tie that
Binds," and "Confidence in Reconciliation." The sermon can focus on the
church as the context in which the regaining of brothers and sisters can
take place, and the peace and the Lord's Supper can be highlighted as
elements of our life together that affirm reconciliation.
4. WORSHIP SUGGESTIONS
The aforementioned "BLEST BE THE TIE THAT BINDS" (LBW 370) is a
useful choice for the Hymn of the Day. Other hymns are "LORD OF ALL
NATIONS, GRANT ME GRACE" (LBW 419), and "DAME LA MANO" (Give Me Your
Hand) from the worship booklet IN ACCORD. There could be opportunity for
members to give testimony to a time when a brother or sister in the faith
brought them back to the gathered community. If the opportunity presents
itself, persons could be restored to membership (LBW p. 199) on this day.
Bornkamm, Gunther. "The Authority to 'Bind' and 'Loose' in the Church in
Matthew's Gospel: The Problem of Sources in Matthew's Gospel," in THE
INTERPRETATION OF MATTHEW, ed. G. Stanton. Philadelphia and London:
Fortress and SPCK, 1983.
Fenton, John. SAINT MATTHEW. Baltimore: Penguin, 1963.
Gonzalez, Justo and Catherine. IN ACCORD. New York: Friendship, 1981.
Kingsbury, Jack Dean. MATTHEW: STRUCTURE, CHRISTOLOGY, KINGDOM.
Philadelphia: Fortress, 1975.
Luther, Martin. "The Keys" (1530) in CHURCH AND MINISTRY II of LUTHER'S
WORKS: VOL. 40, American Edition, trans. E. Beyer and C. Bergendoff.
Philadelphia: Muhlenberg, 1958.
Thompson, William G. MATTHEW'S ADVICE TO A DIVIDED COMMUNITY. Rome:
Biblical Institute, 1970.
Exegete: Michael L. Cobbler is Pastor of Hilltop Lutheran Church
of the Ascension in South Bend, Indiana.