Sunday, September 10, 2023
Twenty Third Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year A)
Gospel Mt 18:15-20
Jesus said to his disciples:
"If your brother sins against you,
go and tell him his fault between you and him alone.
If he listens to you, you have won over your brother.
If he does not listen,
take one or two others along with you,
so that 'every fact may be established
on the testimony of two or three witnesses.'
If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church.
If he refuses to listen even to the church,
then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector.
Amen, I say to you,
whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven,
and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
Again, amen, I say to you,
if two of you agree on earth
about anything for which they are to pray,
it shall be granted to them by my heavenly Father.
For where two or three are gathered together in my name,
there am I in the midst of them."
Upon Reflection: This weekend's Gospel is an excellent laboratory for testing the difference between a fundamentalist (or literalistic) approach to the Bible and the typical approach that we Catholics and most main-line churches use when reading and/or hearing scripture (for us we will use the word, "exegesis," which means looking at scripture from all angles..i.e. who wrote it?, in what cultural context?, to what community?, using what literary devices?, in what relation to the whole work?, etc.).
For the last 90 years or so, Christian fundamentalism has grown, and with it, so has the Church's concern with regard to its impact on our communities. So putting this weekend's Gospel "in the lab," so to speak, might help us understand this concern better as well as help us appreciate the virtue in using exegesis methodology.
Testing the Fundamentalist Approach: The first part of the Gospel describes Jesus giving his disciples some conflict management skills. If one were to simply hear this in a vacuum, one could easily conclude that Jesus is instructing us to find "faults" (quotation marks used intentionally) in others and then confront those "erroneous" people until they either see it our way or be damned for all eternity.
Then, a literal understanding of the Bible could easily bring one to conclude that the authority given to us by Jesus to bind and loose on earth and in heaven is a license for a particular Christian community (or worse yet, a particular person within that community) to define the requirements for each person's salvation.
Finally, when Jesus says that bit about "if two of you agree on earth about anything for which they are to pray, it shall be granted to them by my heavenly Father," a literalist interpretation can easily result in major disappointment and consequently major disillusionment in God. Whether it is agreeing to pray that we win the lottery or agreeing to pray that grandma's cancer go away, the fundamentalists will eventually have many problems with this passage when it stands by itself.
But when we look at this section as a whole and also in the greater context of Matthew's Gospel account, we come to different conclusions as to what God's Word is saying to us.
Testing the Exegesis Approach: The Gospel this week is about unity and how that unity reveals the Lord's presence in our midst. When there is conflict within the community, Jesus urges us to not let it divide us. We are instructed to work it out face to face and/or within the community (notice he does not mention bringing in a lawyer). He reminds us that whatever we do to bind each other up, whatever legalistic prerequisites we put on our relationships, God will do the same to us. Likewise, whatever we do to open others up, free them, liberate them, make them feel welcome and non-judged, God will act the same way toward us.
In other words, Jesus has given us the authority to decide on earth through the way we treat each other how we want God to treat us in heaven. He goes on to say in his own cultural way the equivalent to a popular saying today: "The family that prays together stays together."
All these sayings of Jesus strung together by Matthew in this section of the Gospel point to one common theme: Unity! Be One! Come Together! When we do, there the Lord is in our midst!
And so I must ask you: which approach to understanding this weekend's Gospel sounds more like Good News to you?