Monday, September 4, 2017

The Power of Reconciliation

Below is a rough translation and some initial comments regarding Matthew 18:15-20, the Revised Common Lectionary Gospel reading for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost, Year A. There are three matters that I want to identify before addressing the pericope verse by verse.

1. The Dating of this Text
This is an “M” pericope, meaning that it is unique to Matthew and not in Mark or Luke. If one reads “the church” (ἐκκλησίᾳ, see below, v.17) as meaning the gathering of Christian believers with enough order to convene a hearing and render a verdict, then this would certainly be a text from the late 1st century and not from the life and teaching of Jesus.  

On the other hand, the word ἐκκλησίᾳ was a well-known and well-used word before it became a way of describing a Christian church. It could simply mean a community gathering, the likes of which were far more important to the stability and peace of communities in villages and small towns than they might be in larger metropolitan areas. In suburbs, this might take the shape of a ‘housing association’ meeting, but those usually are devoted to keeping property values intact, rather than fostering well being among the members of the community. If the use of ἐκκλησίᾳ simply signifies a called gathering, this could be a pre-church-order text that assumes a kind of familiar communal practice.

2. The role of a Textual Variant
As I note in v.15, how one interprets the matter at hand rests greatly on a bracketed phrase [εἰς σὲ: against you] , which indicates that some of the manuscripts differ from others. It is sometimes the case that the way I feel one ought to interpret the text (in this case, leaving out the bracketed phrase) is different from how the NRSV interprets the text. That leaves me with a dilemma on Sunday mornings, when our readings in worship are from the NRSV and it feels too presumptuous for me to say, “Contrary to the NRSV …” (Presumption or not, that’s what I do on occasion, but I always add that they are way better than I on this work.)

3. The Context of the Text
The context of this pericope seems important, but, again, one is left with choices. Vv. 10-14 are about the one sheep that strays, which would suggest that the person in v.15 is one who strays in general, not one who offends me in particular. 
‘Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven. What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.’

On the other hand, vv. 21-35 begin with Peter asking a question about one who offends him and then needs forgiveness, which would suggest that the offender in our text has offended me personally. In the end, I believe we have to make the best choice that we can, knowing that other reasonable possibilities exist.
Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

15  Ἐὰν δὲ ἁμαρτήσῃ [εἰς σὲ]  ἀδελφός σου, ὕπαγε ἔλεγξον αὐτὸν μεταξὺ σοῦ καὶ αὐτοῦ μόνου. ἐάν σου ἀκούσῃ, ἐκέρδησας τὸν ἀδελφόν σου: 
“Yet if your brother should sin [against you], go confront him between you and him alone. If he should listen to you, you won over your brother.
ἁμαρτήσῃ: AASubj 3s, ἁμαρτάνω, 1) to be without a share in 2) to miss the mark  3) to err, be mistaken  4) to miss or wander from the path of uprightness and  honor, to do or go wrong 
ὕπαγε: PAImpv 2s, ὑπάγω, 1) to lead under, bring under 2) to withdraw one's self, to go away, depart
ἔλεγξον : AAImpv 2s, ἐλέγχω, 1) to convict, refute, confute 1a) generally with a suggestion of shame of the person convicted 
ἀκούσῃ: AASubj 3s, ἀκούω, 1) to be endowed with the faculty of hearing, not deaf  2) to hear
ἐκέρδησας: AAI 2s, κερδαίνω, 1) to gain, acquire, to get gain 2) metaphor a) of gain arising from shunning or escaping from evil  
1. Some texts do not include the bracketed phrase “against you,” which suggests two different possibilities at play here.
a. Including the bracketed words, the issue at hand is an offense by X against me. As the offended, the process puts it on me to force the issue. This interpretation fits well with the pericope that follows, which begins with Peter addressing a question of forgiving one who sins against me.
b. Excluding the bracketed words, the issue at hand is an offense by X that is simply wrong. For me to force the issue in this case would be less a matter of redressing an offense in which I have some stake, and more a matter of troubling myself in order to help the offender. This interpretation fits well with the preceding pericope, about the one stray sheep that must be returned to the fold.
2. My suspicion is that the second of these possibilities – that the offense is someone’s own error, rather than something that offends me – is the original meaning, since the success of the confrontation is not measured by the offender making some kind of recompense or even apologizing to me, but by that one listening. If that suspicion is correct, this is a story of radical corporate accountability. If the bracketed words are part of the original text, then reconciling acts within the community seems to be the point.
3. This is the only use of “confront” (ἐλέγχω) in Matthew.  
4. The word “win” (κερδαίνω) is interesting. Matthew uses it to describe using a sum of money to gain more money (parable of the talents, c.25), as well as in the question “what shall it profit someone to gain the whole world yet to lose one’s soul?” (16:26). Paul uses it repeatedly in a way that is similar to what I am hearing in this pericope in I Corinthians 9:19-23.

16 ἐὰν δὲ μὴ ἀκούσῃ, παράλαβε μετὰ σοῦ ἔτι ἕνα  δύο, ἵνα ἐπὶ στόματος δύο 
μαρτύρων  τριῶν σταθῇ πᾶν ῥῆμα: 
But if he should not listen, take with you still one or two, in order that by mouths of two witnesses or three every word may be established.
ἀκούσῃ: AASubj 3s, ἀκούω, 1) to be endowed with the faculty of hearing, not deaf  2) to hear
παράλαβε: AAImpv 2s, παραλαμβάνω,1) to take to, to take with one's self, to join to one's self 
σταθῇ: APSubj 3s, ἵστημι, 1) to cause or make to stand, to place, put, set  1a) to bid to stand by, [set up] 
1. I typically translate the verb ἀκούω as “hear,” but since there is a matter of agency implied in these verses I am using “listen.”
2. Deuteronomy 17:6 and 19:15 stress that one person cannot be put to death or convicted of a crime simply by the mouth of one witness. But, if two or three offer the same testimony, then their testimony is valid. Like many practices (democracy and the balance of power in governance being two of them), this judicial system was predicated on the unreliability of sinful persons. Solomon’s predicament of the one live baby claimed by two women is the type of situation that multiple witnesses might overcome. Of course, two or three witnesses may conspire to defraud or avenge someone, but the likelihood is less with multiple testimonies. In our pericope, it prevents the “s/he said, s/he said” kind of dueling testimonies that might arise later when an act of reconciliation is being brought to bear.
I think this reference is intended to be an important safeguard against anyone assuming the authority of the community and misusing that power to oppress or offend another. In addition, Jesus has been very forthright in warning against violating the “little ones.” Almost every time I try to imagine how a church community could take this process and put it into practice, red flags abound! The mere phrase “Salem Witch Trials” is enough to show that even the community, even the gathering of multiple witnesses, is a process that can be fraught with sin, self-interest, and hysteria. Jesus’ repeated warnings again causing the “little ones to stumble” are – I think – add an important safeguard against hubris and the misuse of power.

17ἐὰν δὲ παρακούσῃ αὐτῶν, εἰπὲ τῇ ἐκκλησίᾳ: ἐὰν δὲ καὶ τῆς ἐκκλησίας 
παρακούσῃ, ἔστω σοι ὥσπερ  ἐθνικὸς καὶ  τελώνης. 
Yet if he refuses to hear them, speak to the assembly; yet if he refuses to hear the assembly also, let him be to you as the Gentile and the tax collector.
παρακούσῃ: AASubj 3s, παρακούω, 1) to hear aside  1a) causally or carelessly or amiss  2) to be unwilling to hear  
εἰπὲ: AAImpv 2s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
παρακούσῃ: AASubj 3s, παρακούω, 1) to hear aside  1a) causally or carelessly or amiss  2) to be unwilling to hear 
ἔστω: PAImpv 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
1. The word ἐκκλησίᾳ had a wide use before it became a way of referring to the church. Literally meaning “called out,” it could refer to any time the community or the community’s representatives were called to order. A community town hall or a presbytery meeting would have fit that description. In later use, it became shorthand for the “called out Christian community” or the church. In like manner, the words “synagogue” and “congregation” literally refer to groups gathering together and became shorthand for specifically religious gatherings. In certain contexts, the ‘religious community’ and the ‘community in general’ can be virtually the same.
2. My point in noting the evolution of ἐκκλησίᾳ is to suggest that – if we read this as a reference to “the church,” we are assuming that this is a later text than the time of Jesus’ ministry, since “the church” had not yet been built. By the time Matthew is written – most critical scholars would say the mid-80’s or later – the word ἐκκλησίᾳ could have had a more specific meaning of the local, ordered, Christian community, at least in some areas.
3. If we insist that this is an authentic saying of Jesus, then the word ἐκκλησίᾳ would refer to any gathering that has some authoritative standing in the community.
4. By this stage in Matthew’s gospel, treating someone “as a Gentile” might mean: Healing a demonized daughter (15:21-28) and feeding 4,000+ (15:32-39). Treating someone “as a tax collector” might mean: Eating together (9:9-10), calling as a disciple (10:3), and partying together as friends (11:19). Or, if we read this reference in terms of the customary propriety, it might mean distancing oneself such persons. I’m inclined to imagine that what has transpired already in Matthew needs to factor into how we read this verse.

18 Ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν, ὅσα ἐὰν δήσητε ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς ἔσται δεδεμένα ἐν οὐρανῷ 
καὶ ὅσα ἐὰν λύσητε ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς ἔσται λελυμένα ἐν οὐρανῷ. 
Truly I say to you, whatever [pl] you bind on the earth will be [what] has been bound in heaven and whatever you loose on the earth will be [what] has been loosed in heaven.
λέγω: PAI 1s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
δήσητε: AASubj 2p,δέω, 1) to bind tie, fasten  1a) to bind, fasten with chains, to throw into chains
ἔσται: FMI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
δεδεμένα: PerfPPart npn, δέω, 1) to bind tie, fasten  1a) to bind, fasten with chains, to throw into chains
λύσητε: AASubj 2p; λύω, 1) to loose any person (or thing) tied or fastened  1a) bandages of the feet, the shoes,
ἔσται: FMI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
λελυμένα: PerfPPart npn, λύω, 1) to loose any person (or thing) tied or fastened 1a) bandages of the feet, the shoes,
1. This verse is a parallel to Mt. 16:19, with the difference that in c.16 Jesus is speaking to Peter and uses the singular voice, while here the voice is plural.
2. Like my translation of Mt.16:19, I am adding a bracketed “that” in order to preserve the syntax of the perfect participles. I agree with Julius Mantey’s argument (“The Mistranslation of the Perfect Tense in John 20:23, Mt 16:19, and Mt 18:18, Journal of Biblical Literature 58 (1939), p.246): “The future perfect passive should not be translated into English as a simple future passive (‘will be bound, will be loosed’) for this makes the verse say the opposite in English of what it says in the Greek.” The point, in my mind, is the same as the petition in the Lord’s Prayer, “May your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” with those on earth complying with what is done in heaven and not visa-versa.
Mt. 16:19: καὶ  ἐὰν δήσῃς ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς ἔσται δεδεμένον ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς, καὶ ἐὰν λύσῃς ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς ἔσται λελυμένον ἐν τοῖς οὐρανοῖς. 

19 Πάλιν [ἀμὴν] λέγω ὑμῖν ὅτι ἐὰν δύο συμφωνήσωσιν ἐξ ὑμῶν ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς 
περὶ παντὸς πράγματος οὗ ἐὰν αἰτήσωνται, γενήσεται αὐτοῖς παρὰ τοῦ 
πατρός μου τοῦ ἐν οὐρανοῖς. 
Again [truly] I say to you that if two out of you agree together on the earth about any matter which they may ask it will come into being to them by my father in heaven.
λέγω: PAI 1s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
συμφωνήσωσιν: AASubj 3p, συμφωνέω, 1) to agree together
αἰτήσωνται: AMSubj 3p, αἰτέω, 1) to ask, beg, call for, crave, desire, require 
γενήσεται: FMI 3s, γίνομαι, 1) to become, i.e. to come into existence, begin to be, receive being, 2) to become, i.e. to come to pass, happen 
1.The popular interpretation of this verse makes prayer the magical power for ‘binding and loosing.’ If, the argument goes, two of us agree and pray about something, then the God of heaven necessarily complies. The problem is context. Remembering that the first verse of this pericope, v.15, begins with the conjunction δὲ, we must ask what it is conjoining. Remembering that this verse itself begins with the word Πάλιν (again), we must ask what it is repeating.
a. The topic of this chapter is “these little ones.” The chapter begins with a question to Jesus about who is the greatest in the reign of the heavens (v.1).  Jesus answers by calling a child and saying that unless on becomes like children one will never enter the kingdom of heaven (vv.2-3). Verse 4 specifies that being child-like is an allusion to humility. A significant change of subject enters in verses 5ff. The subject is no longer “becoming a little one” per se, but how one acts toward the little ones. Jesus stakes out two different courses of “receiving one such child in my name” or “causing one of these little ones who believe in me to stumble.” The phrase “one of the little ones” arises again in v.10. Verse 11 (left out of many modern translations because it is not in most of the older manuscripts) introduces a new topic, “the lost,” whom the Son of Man came to seek and to save. Verses 12ff introduces the familiar imagery of the Son of Man as the shepherd, leaving the 99 on account of the one lost sheep. However, verse 14 shows that the “lost sheep” imagery is also about “one of these little ones.”  While the subject matter could be interpreted as “children” per se, or “children-like” humble persons who can be welcomed, stumble, or stray, from v.5 on the subject has been how one conducts oneself – in Jesus’ name – toward the “little ones.”
b. The next pericope, vv. 21ff, continues the question of how one acts toward those who sin, only the language of the “little ones” has been dropped by now.
c. The impact that the context has on v.19 is prevents us from seeing as a magical formula for prayer. There are similar claims in the gospel about asking and believing that are not specific to two or three (v.20) persons agreeing. What the number two brings into focus is that this verse is directly connected to v.16 above. In that verse, Jesus is drawing on the ancient tradition of gathering two others to sustain one’s testimony. Jesus uses that tradition to speak about how those who are in the ἐκκλησίᾳ exercise the role of welcoming/reconciling those who sin/stumble. It is not a magical formula for granting wishes. It is about asking for someone to be forgiven, bound, loosed, reconciled, or treated as an outsider.
2. The phrase “agree together” captures the word συμφωνέω. This verb is has as its prefix συμ, which means “together” and as its root φωνέω, “to speak.” It does not seem to be a reference to “praying together,” but to the act of communal discernment in the redemptive reconciling process.
3. The word I have translated as “matter” (πράγματος), is the root from which we get our adjective “pragmatic.”

20οὗ γάρ εἰσιν δύο  τρεῖς συνηγμένοι εἰς τὸ ἐμὸν ὄνομα, ἐκεῖ εἰμι ἐν 
μέσῳ αὐτῶν. 
For where two of three gather together in my name, there I am in the midst of them.”
εἰσιν:  PAI 3p, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
συνηγμένοι: PerfPPart npm, συνάγω, 1) to gather together, to gather  1a) to draw together, collect  1a1) of fishes  1a2) of a net in which they are caught
εἰμι: PAI 1s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
1. The phrase “gather together” is from the verb συνάγω, which is also the root of the word “synagogue.” See my comment regarding the word ἐκκλησίᾳ in v.17 above.
2. This verse would certainly appear to be a post-resurrection reference to Jesus, as opposed to something that Jesus in the story – located in time and space – would say.


  1. This is a great resource Mark. Thanks! I have been influenced by this text ever since I read John Howard Yoders essay on binding and loosing in The Royal Priesthood. Do you know the essay?

    1. Wow, yes, I read it many years ago, but I only know that because I read the whole book many years ago. I don't remember the exact essay on binding and loosing, but now I'll go back to it. Thanks for the tip.

  2. I wonder if the binding/loosing issue at least in this passage has to do with binding or freeing a partner from a covenant? 1Cor 7:27 uses exactly those words in relation to marriage. The 'sin' then in this Gospel means a break in a covenant between two people - a very serious break = sin). The language is highly legal and court-procedural: charge, witnesses, decision. Even Jesus' Amen, legw humin sounds covenantal. In additional, there's no mention of repentance (only 'hear you', or not. Again, the sin here is different to moral transgressions.

    In 19, why does the asking need to be prayer? Two people ask the assembly for a decision and that will be ratified (or, as you say, has already been ratified) by heaven.v19 is a paraphrase or extension of v18, and even v20 is too. Whenever you meet to make decisions about any break of covenant (divorce as almost classically in 1 Cor 7)I will be in the midst of it (as all covenants were made with an oath calling on the Presence)

    Thanks for great posts. They are always a blessing.

    1. Hi Rick,
      Thanks for the notes. I think your suggestion that this may be about a covenantal matter like marriage is very suggestive. And you are certainly right about the legalese that is here. I always think we jump to moralistic interpretations of the word "sin" rather than a fuller meaning that I think is represented in the NT.
      Also, I think you are absolutely right that v.19 is not about prayer. The clear antecedent in this text is that of witnesses agreeing on a legal matter between two persons. I referenced prayer because that is the way that this text is usually defined. I am trying to distance myself from that typical interpretation, but perhaps I focused too much on the 'magical' aspect of it to be clear that I think it is a leap to assume that this is about 2 or 3 of us praying about something.
      Thanks again for your comments. They are very helpful.

  3. Hi Mark,
    It's interesting how much binding and loosing has been going on these past three weeks. (And interesting, too, that this Sunday the Lectionary links this Gospel with St Paul's advice to put on the armour of light, which puts me in mind of the wonderful hymn St Patrick's Breastplate - I bind unto myself today...)

    I share your scepticism about the binding/loosing being a magical formula to make God follow suit (presumptuous, much?); but I hope you will forgive me (77 or 490 times) for saying that I am also uneasy about the opposite interpretation, which - followed to its logical conclusion - ends up saying something like 'if two or three of you bind/agree something on earth, that's probably what God already binds/agrees/thinks in heaven.'

    As someone with a high ecclesiology, I want to affirm the theological truth in the idea that when the Church prayerfully and thoughtfully decides/says something, there's a good chance that it is of God and Spirit-led; but even the briefest of glances at the Church's record on gender / sexuality / race / disability / goodness-knows-what-else starts ringing some very loud alarm bells on that one.

    I wonder whether there is mileage in considering exactly what is being bound to (or loosed from) what. Is it a simple case of sinner in or sinner out, or is something more profound going on here? Maybe what the text is telling us is that *whatever* we choose to do with someone who offends (or offends us), that choice naturally binds us together with (for want of a better word) the sinner. If somebody punches me in the face, whatever I or they do afterwards (forgive, don't forgive, reconcile, don't be reconciled), whether we like it or not, that punch has created a link between us. And perhaps the text is suggesting that our bound-ness is not just temporal but eschatological - we are bound in heaven as on earth. His offence, and my response (which might very well also be an offence) have ripple effects not just for us but for our whole community, and for the whole of creation. Perhaps reconciliation is the work of loosing the toxic bonds in order to create bonds of love instead.

    As an aside, I believe that the Orthodox have a great prayer for those times when you just can't (or can't yet) forgive. They teach that if you really can't forgive from your own heart, you should pray for God to forgive; and if you really can't pray for God to forgive, you should pray "let him not be brought to judgement because of me." I think that's a neat expression of the ideas about bound-ness, sin, reconciliation, earth and heaven that I am trying (probably unsuccessfully) to express.

    1. Hi Forton,
      Your alarm bells and my red flags are both well-warranted, as history will attest. But, I also don't want to forget those moments in the life of the church where the community got together and even found some new direction when it was called upon to make a judgment/decision. In Acts 15, I would think it was a huge change of direction when the church was persuaded by Paul and Barnabas that Gentile believers could be part of Christ's church apart from the Mosaic law. Or, think about that first church meeting (perhaps a council of some sort) that decided it was good and not bad to let some persons with alcoholism meet in their basement. That kind of discernment seems easy enough in the rear view mirror, but think about how it required a whole new way of thinking about alcoholism and persons with alcoholism.
      I want to keep that part of the dynamic of the ἐκκλησία in play.
      The problem with gathering the community is that there may be someone there who looks at the worthless offender and says, "I was there once. It's not what you think it is."
      I'm not convinced that this is where Matthew is going with this text, but it is where I'm going with it this week.

  4. Another take on the 'earth/heaven' dynamic; what you do in the micro impacts the macro; when you hold someone about a small and specific thing, it affects the entire context of the situation?

    1. Hi Wiliam. Indeed. I think that's exactly where next week's parable takes us.


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