Being the Called Out Ones

Reconciliation and acceptance is meant to be at the core of who we are, and to be honest with you, if we can’t do it between ourselves in the church, how can we ever be agents of reconciliation in the world? Right here, Jesus gives a clear blue-print for how our community of faith might be a holy place where holy relationships might flourish. And, it’s something that we need to practice until it is so ingrained in our DNA, we can’t imagine living another way.

Our text from Matthew 18 is bracketed by parables and teaching on how we are to see ourselves in relation to others. Preceding the passage we read that Jesus responded to the question of who’s the greatest in the Kingdom by calling a child into the gathering. It was a clear call to humility and self deprecation and a warning about placing “a stumbling block” in the way of someone less prominent. Next comes the story of the shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine in order to restore a wayward lamb. The story emphasizes the value of every person. No one is expendable.

In the narrative immediately following our text Jesus tells Peter that the requirement of seeking reconciliation is beyond calculation. And added to that we hear the scathing story of the unforgiving servant which makes the point that God, from whom we have received grace, expects us to extend that grace to others. It’s more than mere forgiveness. We can actually take pride in how forgiving we’ve been. It can give us the notion that we are a step above another in righteousness. Forgiveness must come from the heart. Which takes us to our text. I’m reading from the New Revised Standard Version. It is an update of the American Standard Version.

15“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. 16But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

Some versions of Matthew have shown their King James heritage and have been less than helpful in getting to the heart of the intended message. Several other translations put new light on this passage.

First of all we need to note that this version translates the word for the “called out” as “the church”. According to the chronology of Matthew’s gospel Jesus is instructing the diverse group of persons who were accepted by him as disciples. At best the “called out” consists of the diverse gathering of those who have been following Rabbi Jesus. He calls them, “the called out”, that’s the literal translation of the word eclessia that has been translated as the assembly or ‘the church’. There was no such thing as ‘the church’ at that time.

The character of the ‘twelve’ was quite diverse. Tradition tells us that the core of this movement to reveal the new activity of God consisted of the twelve men. What adds to our confusion is that different lists in the New Testament included different persons. Some would suggest that the number was significant as a symbol of the new Israel and not to be taken in its numerically literal sense. We know that, though not listed among the males, women were part of this core. The first evangelists were, in fact, women. Those who followed Jesus represent the whole of the economic and social levels of the day. The group included journeymen, zealots, and Roman collaborators. What could possibly hold just a diverse group together?

We all have different ideas about what is a sin. Modern versions of the New Testament translate the Greek word ‘hamartia’ as “sin”. In Classic Greek it means to err. The word has migrated into English to describe a fatal flaw, an inherent defect or shortcoming, in the hero of a tragedy. We’ve often noted that the Greek word means ‘missing the mark’ as in shooting an arrow toward a target. It simply means ‘missing’.
Modern versions substitute the phrase “another member of the church” for the Greek which says that the person in question is your brother or sister. This substitution obscures from us the familial relationship Jesus intends to exist among the ‘called out’ ones. This person isn’t just some other person, it’s your sister or your brother.

Next, modern versions further confuse things when it adds ‘against you’ to the Greek. It’s not there. If we include “against you” the emphasis is on the personal nature of the offense. If we follow the best Greek manuscripts the focus is on what the other person did to offend.

So. Let’s try the first verse this way: “If a brother or sister among the called out is missing, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone.”

“…go and show him his shortcoming and maybe how it effects you. The goal is to restore the relationship with your brother or sister. It’s a very private intervention aimed at reconciliation. I’d suggest it requires substantial prayer and thoughtful preparation. This is the most discreet and least threatening possible intervention. It protects them against unnecessary embarrassment, permitting reconciliation before the issue becomes general knowledge.

So, the text suggests step two if the first step failed. The first step was to confront the Christian brother or sister individually. Step two is to take witnesses for one more face-to-face confrontation. “But if he doesn’t listen, take one or two more with you.” The requirement for two or three witnesses comes from Torah law (Deuteronomy 19:15. This protects people against unfair accusations. The church is to be deliberate, careful, and fair in its discipline. If the conflict cannot be resolved during this second intervention, the “one or two others” will serve as witnesses before the church. Their testimony will help the church to understand the problem and to establish a remedy.

If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the ‘called out.’ If he refuses to hear the assembly also, let him be to you as a Gentile or a tax collector.”

On the one hand, the phrase “let him be to you” is singular not “you-all.” The fact that “you” is singular in verses 15-17 and plural in verses 18-20 suggests that the advice to treat the offender as “a Gentile and a tax collector” is given as guidance for the person who began this intervention without resolution rather than the whole church. Of course, I couldn’t help wonder how Matthew himself would have received this word. In this view followers of Rabbi Jesus who can’t resolve a conflict with a brother or sister should just avoid each other.

From a corporate perspective the object is to restore an erring brother or sister to the fellowship, faith and practice of the group. Failing that, the advice is to relate to the person as an outsider –– a person of no faith –– spiritually dead. While it appears that the church is forcing the offender outside its circle, it is, in reality, only acknowledging publicly that the offender has already placed him/herself outside its circle. Should the body of the faithful ceases to be a marked by forgiveness, grace, and mercy you well could say that it ceases to be a church in any discernible fashion.

The last three verses of this passage are scary in their implications. 18Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

Jesus says ‘listen up’. Jesus warns us that we dare not thumb our nose at the church. He says the body of the faithful have the authority that he previously gave to Peter. “Bind” and “loose” have to do with forbidden or permitted activities. They also have to do with who is and is not part of the body of Christ. When he saysthat if two of you will agree…For where two or three are gathered together in my name” he is referring to Jewish worship practices which require the presence of at least ten adult Jewish males to hold a public worship. The Mishnah says, “But if two sit together and words of the law are gathered between them, the Divine Presence rests between them” (Aboth 3:2). Jesus chooses this latter standard of two persons, but makes no mention of adult males. Two or three! A person can pray alone, as Jesus demonstrated, but coming together in Jesus’ name multiplies the power. This minimal requirement should be an encouragement to us. And here’s the good part. Jesus says “there I am in their midst” (v. 20). In the beginning chapter this Gospel says, “They shall call his name Immanuel, which is being interpreted, ‘God with us’ ” (1:23). The Gospel will conclude with Jesus’ promise to be with us always (28:20). Here Jesus promises to be with every group of two or more who gather in his name.

Reconciliation and acceptance is meant to be at the core of who we are, and to be honest with you, if we can’t do it between ourselves in the church, how can we ever be agents of reconciliation in the world? Right here, Jesus gives a clear blue-print for how our community of faith might be a holy place where holy relationships might flourish. And, it’s something that we need to practice until it is so ingrained in our DNA, we can’t imagine living another way.

Because, for Jesus, there isn’t another way.

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