The Community Sermon: Matthew 18 by Canon Jim Foley
The Community Sermon: Matthew 18 by Canon Jim Foley
To view this Reflection in PDF format click here.
A Year with Saint Matthew
Reflections on the Lectionary
For the Ordinary Sundays of Year A
The Community Sermon:
The Community Sermon is the fourth of Matthew’s five carefully crafted sermons and fits well into the sequence of reflections on the kingdom of God:
Sermon 1: The doctrine of the kingdom
Sermon 2: The mission of the kingdom
Sermon 3: The reception of the kingdom
Sermon 4: Preserving the unity of the kingdom
Sermon 5: The consummation of the kingdom
Our fourth Sermon concentrates on the internal life and spiritual well-being of the kingdom of God on earth and, to that extent, is of particular interest at a time when there are as many threats to the survival of the kingdom of God on earth from within as there are from external hostile forces. The Sermon begins with an unseemly dispute among the Twelve as to who amongst them is the greatest in the kingdom. This was not the only occasion on which the subject would be raised. The ambitious mother of James and John could be forgiven for making an early bid for high places in the kingdom for her sons, one on Jesus’ right hand, the other on his left (Mt 20.20ff). But what were they thinking about as they argued along the way to Jerusalem?
Perhaps we should not be so surprised that ambition should raise its ugly head from the outset and should be given such a high profile among the threats from within the company of the disciples. Saint Paul, writing before Matthew composed his Gospel, dedicates most of his first Letter to the fledgling Corinthian church to precisely this issue. The community built on faith in a crucified Christ was already torn apart by internal strife: ‘All these slogans that you have, like: ‘I am for Paul’, I am for Apollos’, ‘I am for Cephas’, ‘I am for Christ’. Has Christ been parceled out? It would appear that ambition, like charity, begins at home!
Although there are many passages in the Sermon which have a legal background in rabbinical law, the spirit of this Sermon is one of deep pastoral concern for unity and, where unity is threatened or even disrupted, to restore it by a due process of reconciliation. Like the Mission Sermon which addressed so much that has come to be associated with the Sacrament of Confirmation, the Community Sermon explores almost everything we associate with the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
The unity of life promoted in this Sermon is not restricted to a kind of monastic fellowship or to a privileged company blessed with a special vocation in life. It addresses a world fragmented by social strife, by prejudices of every kind, and by alienation between individuals and among peoples. The presence of evil is identified wherever there exists alienation or distance. By the same token, the presence of goodness is demonstrated in unity of life, mutual respect and common purpose.
The image of the child 18.1-10:
Pride of place is given to a complete change of heart and a return to childlike simplicity. ‘Unless you turn around and become as little children’ (Mt 18.3). The ambitious Twelve are confronted with a child. The image may be simple but the confrontation could hardly be more radical. The command to ‘turn around’ is in line with the great tradition of conversion, complete change of direction in life which is so characteristic of the message of the Prophets of the Old Testament, a message addressed to both individuals and entire nations. The most dreadful of punishments await those who harm or give scandal to ‘these little ones’ who constitute God’s kingdom. Matthew gives the most uncompromising and radical statement of the punishment they deserve: ‘Anyone who is an obstacle to bring down one of these little ones who have faith in me would be better drowned in the depths of the sea with a great millstone round his neck’.
The enormity of sin
The theme of the enormity of sin is pursued to its limits. The fact that the language used by Jesus is inspired by the most radical Semitic images to the point of the amputation of offending limbs, does not diminish the essential message of these devastating verses (Mt 18.8-9). Where there is no real acceptance that there is such a thing as sin and evil in the world there is no possibility of sorrow or remorse for sin committed or evil perpetrated. Where neither sin nor remorse are believed to exist, repentance makes little sense.
An element of threat enters into the Sermon when the disciples are advised that those who visit harm and suffering on the innocent should not forget that ‘their angels in heaven are continually in the presence of my Father in heaven’ and God will not leave their oppression unpunished (Mt 18.10).
Shepherds of the flock 18.11-14:
The image of the Good Shepherd is introduced at this point. There will be those who will be called to take on the role of the Good Shepherd. There will always be those who will wander off and put their lives at risk. Cain had questioned whether he was ‘his brother’s keeper’ (Gen 4.9). The message of the Community Sermon is that we are indeed our brothers’ keepers. Each Christian must learn to accept responsibility for the well-being of the weaker brethren and some will be called to exercise this call as their special vocation within the community of faith. Part of the image of the Good Shepherd is a sense of the true value of every individual in the eyes of God. The ninety-nine can be left at risk to save even one who wanders off.
Due process 8.15-20:
In a precise and almost legal statement we are reminded of the Jewish process for resolving misunderstandings. Where offence is given or taken, then the opposing parties must have the good sense to speak to each other. To harbour grudges in silence closes the door to any hope of reconciliation. Yet often enough this first step fails before it has begun.
Those in bitter conflict must not be too proud to seek advice. The opinion of trusted friends or independent parties may find a way forward in any dispute. Where all else fails final recourse is to be made to ‘the church’ as the last resort and the final arbiter of serious issues. In the most extreme cases there may be no choice but to exclude the offender from the company of faith.
Such final and irrevocable decisions are not undertaken lightly. They are reached on an understanding that the community of faith is guaranteed guidance from heaven. The same authority invested in Peter by Jesus is seen to be invested in the Church as a community of faith. The faculty to ‘bind and loose’ is the authority to offer a final judgement on all serious matters of human behaviour. This ‘canonical’ section, however, concludes that the authority of the Church stands or falls by its sense of being identified with the Redeemer himself for ‘where two or three are gathered in my name, I shall be there with them’.
The unforgiving debtor 18.21-35:
Peter can once again be depended on to speak out of turn. How often must I forgive my brother if he sins against me? The parable of the unforgiving debtor which follows gathers together everything that has been said so far. There is one thing God cannot do and that is forgive the man who refuses to forgive his brother from his heart.
From the Community Sermon to the Sacrament of Penance:
The process of reconciliation envisaged in the Community Sermon is replicated in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, celebrated in the Church since earliest times.
The Sermon begins with conversion. Without a genuine change of heart and sometimes even a radical change of direction in life, little, if anything, can be accomplished. The image of the child with which the Sermon is introduced speaks to us of a rediscovery of childlike innocence. Where this innocence has been lost there is no place for despair. In this instruction to the Twelve Jesus explained, at some length, that there was a way forward. His opening words include a term which has a long history in Old Testament description of a return to favour with both God and man. The same term would soon establish itself in the New Testament literature and the early Fathers of the Church as a description of the essence of pardon, namely ‘metanoia’. They must ‘turn round’.
The Sermon offers a particular view of sin and pardon, a view shared by all four evangelists. Sin and evil cannot be subjected to direct scrutiny. The same is true of goodness and grace. However, the presence of both is immediately recognised by their symptoms.
Where there is distance and alienation there is good reason to suspect the presence of some evil at work. The simple image of the lost sheep formulates this perfectly: The sheep that strays distances itself from the sheepfold and from safety and even puts its life at risk. There can be no rejoicing till the stray returns.
Likewise, where there is unity of life, communication and dialogue, there is evidence of the presence of deeper and more spiritual virtues.
The three great parables of reconciliation preserved in the Gospel of Saint Luke (chapter 15) offer the same interpretation. The lost coin begins life in the possession of the woman and there can be no joy till it is returned to her possession. The same is true of the lost sheep and the lost son. Like Matthew, Luke also points to a final day, either of separation for all eternity or of life in the presence of God himself.
A real awareness of the enormity of sin likewise permeates our Sermon. Clearly, where there is no awareness of sin and evil or a flat denial of their existence, the question of pardon and reconciliation does not arise. Akin to this is the prospect of a fateful day of reckoning which will decide the eternal destiny of each individual either in terms of a welcome into the kingdom of heaven or banishment to ‘the hell of fire’.
There are to be shepherds of the flock whose purpose will be to search out and care for the safe return to unity of those who have strayed. Theirs is a ministry of reconciliation and it falls to them to value each individual as precious in the eyes of God and, likewise, the object of their special concern.
There is an appeal to the power and authority to ‘bind and loose’ as the ultimate forum of reconciliation. At the end of a due process the decision of the church will be ratified in heaven. Absolution and reinstatement into full communion with the Church are to be realised prayerfully.
The concluding parable formulates an essential element in the Sacrament of Reconciliation. There can be no pardon and reconciliation for those who refuse to forgive their brother from their heart.
In brief: the Community Sermon offers an excellent introduction to the Sacrament of Reconciliation and by extension to any dispute which threatens the unity of society.
To view this Reflection in PDF format click here.