This weekend the church celebrates the Twenty-Third Sunday of Ordinary Time. Ezekiel provides us with a look at the responsibility required of a prophet of God. This same responsibility to speak God’s word is ours as Christians. In the second reading, Paul tells us that love answers for all the requirements of the law and that love should be the guiding principle of our relationships with others. Jesus describes a process for reconciliation with a brother who falls into serious sin and for the expulsion from the community of an unrepentant sinner. He also assures us of His presence within the church and among us, His disciples.
First Reading: Ezekiel 33:7-9
7 You, son of man, I have appointed watchman for the house of Israel; when you hear me say anything, you shall warn them for me. 8 If I tell the wicked man that he shall surely die, and you do not speak out to dissuade the wicked man from his way, he (the wicked man) shall die for his guilt, but I will hold you responsible for his death. 9 But if you warn the wicked man, trying to turn him from his way, and he refuses to turn from his way, he shall die for his guilt, but you shall save yourself.
NOTES on First Reading:
* 33:7-9 Chapter 33 is at the turning point of Ezekiel’s mission and the subject matter is almost the same as the original commission given to Ezekiel in Chapter 3. In effect this chapter is a recommissioning of Ezekiel for his mission to the exiles after the fall of the city. There are some subtle differences from the commission in chapter 3 due to the different conditions faced by the people as Babylon is about to destroy Jerusalem. In chapter 3 there is a warning to the wicked and a warning to the just who are about to turn from God. Here, in Chapter 33, there is only a warning to the wicked. It is too late for the just to turn to wickedness; Babylon is at the gate and the righteous will not be spared. Had the people listened to the watchman earlier, there would have been time to be saved but now it is too late.
This section emphasizes the personal responsibility of one who speaks out God’s message as well as the personal responsibility of those who respond or fail to respond to it.
Second Reading: Romans 13:8-10
8 Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9 The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; you shall not kill; you shall not steal; you shall not covet,” and whatever other commandment there may be, are summed up in this saying, (namely) “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no evil to the neighbor; hence, love is the fulfillment of the law.
NOTES on Second Reading:
* 13:8-10 When the Christian’s moral decisions are directed by love, all of the genuine interests of law including family relations, and the protection of life and property, are already taken care of. Paul says that this applies to any other commandment whether from the Mosaic code, from local magistrates or even from imperial Rome. This occurs because love anticipates the purpose of public law which is to secure the best interests of the members of the society.
* 13:9 When Paul speaks of “the law,” it usually means the Mosaic Law. This is demonstrated by these specific commandments that are all quoted from the Decalogue (Exod 20:13-17; Deut 5:17-21). The order differs from the Masoretic (Hebrew version) text but matches the Septuagint (ancient Greek version) text of Deut 5:17-18. (See also Luke 18:20; James 2:11.) Paul may be echoing the statement of Jesus from Mark 12:28-34 which sums up the Mosaic Law with Deut 6:4-5; and Lev 19:18. While the idea of loving one’s neighbor is not new with Christianity, there is a big difference in that when the Jewish scholars used the word, “neighbor,” in this context it always meant a fellow Jew. In both Jesus’ and Paul’s usage it includes everyone.
* 13:10 While this verse seems to be just a restatement of the previous two verses, in fact it is a general principle that follows from Paul’s view of Christ as stated in the previous chapters. If Christ is the “goal of the law” (10:4), then “love,” which motivated His whole life and saving activity (8:35), can be said to be the law’s fulfillment. Love thus becomes the norm for Christian conduct and achieves all that the law stood for.
Gospel Reading: Matthew 18:15-20
(Jesus said to His disciples:) 15 “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. 16 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.’ 17 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. 18 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. 19 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. 20 For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”
NOTES on Gospel:
* 18:15-20 Jesus now turns to the question of how the newly formed community is to deal with one who sins and yet remains within the community. The process of correction described by Jesus largely corresponds to the procedure of the Qumran community (The community that left the Dead Sea Scrolls.) although not exactly. This process is usually called a three-step process but actually it has four steps. The last two are often jammed together as a single step. The statements of Jesus mean pretty much what they say.
* 18:15 The words in parentheses are added to the biblical text at the beginning of this verse by the Lectionary (book of readings) to indicate who is speaking. Private correction must always be attempted first. Only if this fails are other persons to be brought into the matter. Your brother means a fellow disciple as in Matthew 23:8. The words, “against you”, which are often bracketed in translations are widely attested but they are missing from important codices such as Sinaiticus and Vaticanus as well as some other important textual witnesses. Omitting them broadens the type of sin in question and seems to give reconciliation a greater communal aspect. The words translated as “won over” literally means “gained.” It is a technical rabbinic term for missionary conversion (Lev 19:17,18).
* 18:16 If individual correction is not successful then further correction before two or three witnesses is called for. This is based on the rule quoted from Deut 19:15 which requires that two or three witnesses must testify to any particular crime or sin.
* 18:17 The third step is to bring the matter before the church (assembled community). If the sinner refuses to accept correction from the church, the fourth step is to expel the unrepentant sinner.
The only two places in the Gospels where the word, “church, ” is used are here and in Mat 16:18 where Jesus responds to Peter’s confession of Jesus as Messiah. In Mat 16:18 it refers to the entire church of Jesus. Here it is usually taken to refer to the local congregation.
The injunction to treat him like “. . . a Gentile or a tax collector” invokes the way that an observant Jew avoided the company of Gentiles and tax collectors and others who were seen as public sinners. This is taken as the pattern for the way in which the congregation of Christian disciples is to separate itself from the arrogantly sinful member who refuses to repent even when convicted of his sin by the whole church. Such a person is to be set outside the fellowship of the community. The harshness of the language about Gentiles and tax collectors probably reflects a time when the Matthean church was principally composed of Jewish Christians. Although that time had passed, the principle of exclusion for such a sinner remained. In 1 Cor 5:1-13, Paul makes a similar demand for excommunication. See also Gal 6:1; Tit 3:10; Jas 5:19-20.
* 18:18 Except for the plural of the verbs bind and loose, this verse is practically identical with Matthew 16:19b and many scholars understand it as granting to all the disciples what was previously given to Peter alone. Others, however, hold that the context of this verse suggests that only the power of excommunication is intended. The church’s judgment will be ratified in heaven, that is by God. This is technically called a theological passive in which it is God who will bind or loose.
* 18:19-20 Some take these verses as applying specifically to prayer concerning the occasion of the church’s gathering to deal with the sinner of Matthew 18:17. This seems unlikely since the text seems to contain a saying of Jesus that is found elsewhere without that connotation and the difference between the one or two mentioned here and the entire congregation of the previous verse. Also against that interpretation is the fact that the object of this prayer is expressed in the most general terms rather than the specifics of the previous verses.
* 18:20 Jesus has promised that His presence will guaranty the efficacy of our prayer when we pray as a group of two or more. This saying of Jesus is similar to one attributed to a rabbi executed in A.D. 135 at the time of the second Jewish revolt: “. . . When two sit and there are between them the words of the Torah, the divine presence (Shekinah) rests upon them” (Pirqe Abot 3:3). Seen with this background, this passage identifies Jesus with both the Torah (Word of God) and with the Divine presence (Shekinah). See 1:23 and 28:20.