Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost (7 September 2014)



  • Exodus 12:1-14 & Psalm 149 (or Ezekiel 33:7-11 & Psalm 119:33-40)
  • Romans 13:8-14
  • Matthew 18:15-20

Season of Creation

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In the seasons of Advent, Epiphany, Lent and Easter we celebrate the life of Christ. In the season of Pentecost we celebrate the Holy Spirit. Now, in the season of Creation, congregations and other Christian faith communities have an opportunity to celebrate God, the Creator.

For four Sundays in September, prior to St Francis of Assisi Day, some communities of faith observe a “Season of Creation” that celebrates the wonders of the natural order with which we are integrally connected. The Season of Creation web site offers a rich set of resources, including an amazing photo archive you may well wish to visit at other times as well:

  • Liturgical resources that follow the lead of the psalm writers and celebrate with creation — with the forests, the rivers and the fields, which praise the Creator in their own way.
  • Alternative Bible readings that focus especially on the story of Earth, which complements the story of God and the story of humanity in the Scriptures.
  • Opportunities to commit ourselves to a ministry of healing Earth, with Christ and creation as our partners.

Gospel: Jesus and the Rabbinic tradition

The few verses that comprise this week’s Gospel in all the major western lectionaries present Jesus imagined through the lens of traditional religious leadership within the Jewish community. There is little of the idiosyncratic sage of Galilee in this characterization. Matthew’s Jesus can easily be imagined wrapped in a prayer shawl as he intones the Torah for the gathered community.

Rabbinic parallels

The authentic Jewish roots of this depiction are affirmed by Samuel Lachs [Rabbinic Commentary on the New Testament] as he notes how the traditions applied to Jesus here are well-attested in rabbinic sources.

  • 15 … go and tell him his fault. – Gr. elegxein is the Heb. hokhi’ah, “to rebuke.” This passage goes back to Lev. 19.17, You shall surely rebuke your brother.
  • 16 two or three witnesses – Following the principle that any trial involving evidence must be attested to by at least two witnesses whose testimony agrees.
  • 17 Gentiles and a tax collector – On Gentile, Gr. ethnikoi. The term occurs only five times in the NT, three in Matt. (5.47, 6.7, 18.17), once in Gal. (2.14), and once in 3 John (7). It has been variously translated as “gentiles,” “pagans,” and “heathens.” This is strange, since Matthew, when referring to the non-Jewish world, would always employ ethnos. It is likewise significant that Jerome, when translating the Matthean passages where ethnikoi appears, renders it by gentibus. Presumably Jerome realized that ethnikoi was not employed by Matthew as a general term for the non-Jew, rather it designated a specific group within the Jewish people. … in Matt. 5.47 and 18.17 ethnikoi are coupled with the tax collector or the tax farmer, who represent the antithesis of correct behavior. Matthew also emphasizes that the faithful should do more than the Scribes and Pharisees, whom he calls the hypocrites, a favorite epithet for this group. Presumably all these are Jews, i.e., the tax collectors, the Scribes, the Pharisees, and the ethnikoi. Furthermore the adelphoi of Matt 5.47 means “one’s fellow disciples”; those who act properly and in conformity with religious principles, while the ethnikoi are those who do not observe the religious traditions of the people. We suggest that the term ethnikoi refers to the am ha-arez, lit. “the people of the land.” Originally it meant only the farming population. Subsequently it came to connote those who were lax in taking the tithe from the produce of the field, thus causing the unsuspecting purchaser to eat untithed food and thereby to violate a biblical law. Finally, am ha-arez became a term for the ignoramus, the unlettered and the boor. It is of interest and perhaps of significance that there is a parallel development in the word “pagan.” Originally he was one who came from the pagus, a rustic, but later it came to mean the superstitious and from that the idolator. The same is true of the word “heathen,” one from the heath, hence a countryman, a peasant, a rustic, which took on the meaning of an illiterate. In support of our identification of the ethnikoi with the am ha-arez, note that Justinian employed ethnikos to designate the “provincial.” The am ha-arez was looked down upon by all members of the Pharisaic community and was charged with many counts of reprehensible behaviour. [page 109f]
  • the church – Matthew is the only gospel writer who uses this term, here and in 16.18. The Gr. ekklesia is the Heb. qahal, kenesset; Aram. kenisha.
  • 18 bind … loose – These are undoubtedly translations of either the Aram. asar and share or the Heb asar and hitir. They mean to forbid and/or to permit some act which is determined by the application of the halakah. [page 256f]
  • 19 if two of you agree, etc – This must have reference to the decision of the petit court of three judges where the decision is arrived at by the agreement of at least two of the judges. There is a tradition that when a court renders a just decision God Himself (the Shekhinah) abides with them:

R. Hananya the son of Teradyon said: “If two sit together and interchange no words of Torah, they are a meeting of scoffers, concerning whom it is said, The godly man sits not in the seat of the scoffers; but if two sit together and interchange the words of the Torah, the Shekhinah abides between them, as it is said, Then they that feared the Lord spoke one with the other, and the Lord hearkened and heard, and a book of remembrance was written before Him, for them that feared the Lord, and that thought upon His name. [M. Avot 3.3]

R. Halafta the son of Dosa of the village of Hananya said: “When ten people sit together and occupy themselves with the Torah, the Shekhinah abides among them … And whence can it be shown that the same applies to three? because it is said, He judgeth among the judges [the minimum number of judges being three], hence can it be shown that the same applies to two? Because it is said, Then they that feared the Lord, etc.” [M. Avot 3.8]

Jesus Seminar

The Jesus Seminar commentary on these verses in The Five Gospels [page 216f] reads as follows:

Matthew has taken a Q passage as the basis for this segment of sayings (the parallels are found in Luke 17:3-4). He has used it in vv. 15 and 21-22 to frame materials of his own devising.

Scold & forgive. This verse and vv. 21-22 are derived from Q, which is better preserved in Luke 17:3-4:

If your companion does wrong, scold that person; if there is a change of heart, forgive the person. If someone wrongs you seven times a day, and seven times turns around and says to you, “I’m sorry,” you should forgive that person.

In Q the advice for dealing with wrongdoing is simpler and briefer than Matthew’s version. In either case, the regulations are relevant to a time when the Christian community had to develop procedures for dealing with deviant behavior.

Binding & releasing. Verse 16 is based on Deut 19:15: “A single witness is not sufficient to convict a person of any crime or wrongdoing … Only on the evidence of two or three witnesses can a charge be sustained.” Matthew has here introduced precedent from Hebrew Law, in accordance with the Christian practice of citing scripture as a way of buttressing its incipient bureaucracy.

Matthew then further elaborates the procedures: take the unrepentant before the congregation; if that fails, treat the person as “a pagan nor toll-collector.” Not only do these suggestions reflect later social practice, they also appear inimical to Jesus’ regard for toll-collectors and sinners (note especially Matt 9:10-13; 10:3; 11:19, and Luke 18:10-140). Later on, in Matt 21:31b, Jesus is even reported to have said, “I swear to you, the toll-collectors and prostitutes will get into God’s domain, but you [the Pharisees] will not.” Fifty-three percent of the Fellows voted red or pink on Matt 21:31b, although the weighted average came out gray; gray and black votes were occasioned by doubt that there were Pharisees in Galilee during Jesus’ public ministry there. The Fellows agreed that Jesus was entirely sympathetic with toll-collectors and sinners; they also agreed that procedures such as those described in v. 17 could not have originated with Jesus.

Verse 18 expands on the authority assigned to Peter in Matt 16:19. It obviously reflects the position of Peter in Matthew’s branch of the emerging institution, but it would not have been accepted by Paul (in this connection, note Gal 2:7-9, 11-14). This is Matthew’s language, not that of Jesus, inasmuch as it reflects the organization and rivalries in the infant church.

Two or three. Verse 19 again reflects Deut 19:15 (cited in v, 1t6 above). It is an addition of Matthew to bolster the church’s claim to the authority to bind and release.

“Wherever two or three are gathered in my name” has rabbinic parallels and was probably a standard feature of Judean piety. Since it was a part of common lore, Jesus cannot be designated as its author.

Seventy-seven times. In vv. 21-22, Matthew appears to be correcting a literal misunderstanding of Q’s advice to forgive seven times (see the Q version cited at the beginning of this section): according to Matthew, after being wronged, one is to forgive not seven times, but seventy-seven times, possibly reflecting the influence of Gen 4:24. Here one can observe the early Christian community reflecting on and modifying its regulations for dealing with backsliders and errant behaviour.

Nothing in this relatively long complex can be attributed to Jesus. The Q community’s rules of order are being reported and modified by Matthew.

Word Biblical Commentary

While leaving open the theoretical possibility that these instructions derive in some sense from the historical Jesus, the conservative Evangelical scholar, Donald Hagner, acknowledges that this passage is most likely the creative work of Matthew and is driven by the post-Easter experience of conflict within the Matthean community:

There is without question a certain anachronism about this pericope, which views the church as a distinct entity and, indeed, one with considerable organization. The present form of the discourse speaks obviously to the church of Matthew’s day. If, however, Jesus was able to conceive of and plan for a community to carry on the work of the kingdom after his death (see Comment on 16:18), then he could also have made provision for the future existence of that community through the type of teaching found in this pericope. Matthew has probably taken sayings from the tradition and molded them into this pericope (as he has for the discourse as a whole) and thus given them somewhat more immediate relevance for his church.
Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 14–28 (WBC 33B; Accordance/Thomas Nelson electronic ed. Dallas: Word Books, 1995), 531.

Hermeneia commentary

Ulrich Luz, one of the leading Matthean specialists of our time, identifies the probable process by which Matthew created this pericope:

Matthew uses the same method in this discourse that he uses in chapters 10, 13, 23, 24–25. To a foundation from the Gospel of Mark (Mark 9:33–37, 42–47 = vv. 1–9) he adds Q material and his own special material. From the sayings source he takes Q 17:1–4 = vv. 6–7, 15, 22. The parable of the unmerciful steward (vv. 23–35) and possibly the parable of the lost sheep as well (vv. 12–13) come from his own material. In my judgment he had them only in oral form.
Ulrich Luz, Matthew 8–20: A Commentary on Matthew 8–20 (Hermeneia 61B; ed. Helmut Koester; trans. James E. Crouch; Accordance electronic ed. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), 423.

New Interpreter’s Bible

Eugene Boring notes both the lack of fit with other actions, attitudes and sayings attributed to Jesus, and the underlying Christocentric character of these instructions:

18:17. The language used seems strangely harsh, since Jesus (and his community) is accused of befriending tax collectors and sinners, as well as Gentiles (9:11; 11:19). The practice of excommunication also seems strange, from the perspective expressed in 7:1–5 and 13:37–43. These tensions may be due to the incorporation of conflicting traditions in the history of the community’s development, or to applying them to different cases. It is clear, however, that if Matthew’s church does not already have a procedure for disciplining dangerously errant members, one is here provided, spoken in the name of Jesus. While this procedure involves the judgment of “the congregation,” it is not clear whether this presupposes the presence of church [Vol. 8, p. 379] leaders, through whom the congregation acts, or whether the assembly functions as a committee of the whole (see Introduction). In any case, the Christian community as a whole is concerned with the ethics of its individual members, and it intervenes in the spirit of love and forgiveness to take pastoral action that is more than mere advice. The goal is not only to maintain the holiness of the insiders, but to bring straying members to an awareness of their sins, to repentance, and eventual restoration as well (cf. 18:15, “gain”).
18:18–20. With a pair of solemn amen sayings (see on 5:18), the Matthean Jesus assures the church of the divine ratification of its decisions.420 The authority given Peter to make legal decisions for the church as a whole (16:19) is here given the congregation in matters of its own discipline. By placing v. 19 in this context, Matthew applies an originally independent saying, encouraging group prayer, to the matter of church discipline. Likewise, in v. 20, an originally independent saying assuring the church of the continuing presence of Christ during the time of its mission—a major theme of Matthean theology (cf. on 1:23; 28:20)—is here applied to the particular case of the church’s making its disciplinary decisions. Just as contemporary Judaism handed on sayings to the effect that wherever two or three discuss words of Torah they are attended by the divine presence,421 so also Matthew’s church proclaims that when it gathers in Jesus’ name, Christ himself is present. The church is Christocentric rather than Torah-centric.
M. Eugene Boring, “The Gospel of Matthew,” in General Articles on the New Testament; Matthew-Mark (vol. 8 of NIB, Accordance electronic ed. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 378-379.

Boring then offers this reflection on the gap between the underlying view of Christian life presupposed by Matthew 18 and our contemporary individualistic perspective:

1. The instructions in this passage concern a matter not only of personal relations but also of preserving and reconciling a straying member of the community, while preserving the community’s integrity as the holy covenant people of God. Matthew’s community orientation and our individualistic one come into sharp conflict. Matthew offers a solution to something we hardly perceive as a problem, since we are inclined to see our sin as a matter between ourselves and God, or, at most, between ourselves and the person who has wronged us. That it is a matter of the Christian congregation to which we belong, and may damage its life, comes as a surprise to both us and them, if they are as individualistic as we are. Whatever we think of the solution Matthew offers, we might first ponder the nature of the Christian life it presupposes. A doctrine of the church as the people of God is here presupposed. To be Christian is to be bound together in community; to pray is to say “our Father,” even in the privacy of our own room (Matt 6:6, 9).
M. Eugene Boring, “The Gospel of Matthew,” 379.

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  1. As a topical appendix to this week’s lectionary notes, and especially for people from the Anglican Diocese of Brisbane, let me add this comment that I offered on the Facebook version of these notes:

    It strikes me as timely that the passage on community discipline (Matt 18:15-20) – that featured so prominently in the three regional clergy conferences in the Anglican Diocese of Brisbane during the past few weeks – has now popped up in our lectionary cycle. Despite assertions to the contrary by the otherwise very impressive presenter, these are not words than can be blithely assumed to derive from Jesus and should not be understood as the divine blueprint for conflict management in the church. This is traditional Jewish community regulation, tweaked to reflect the unique role of Jesus in the life of the Matthean community late in the first century. It is worth noting that such a process played no part in Paul’s management of conflict, whether between himself and other leaders, or with troublesome factions within his congregations. Indeed, not even Jesus followed such a model of conflict management, as the incident in the temple demonstrates most dramatically. By all means invoke the Gospel of Matthew as a basis for ordering our conflict resolution processes, but let’s not perpetuate the naive literalism that simply equates the words of the Gospels with the wisdom of Jesus.

  2. An interesting intersection of meaning with these readings and my sermons at Beaudesert/ Rathdowney this weekend in which I spoke of the challenges faced by Christians in the Middle East at the present time.

    EXODUS 12 – the regulations for the Passover, with underlying themes of a minority experiencing persecution/oppression as well as preparations to become refugees (sandals on feet, loins girded, staff in hand) as they escape (relocate) to a land of promise where they can be safe and build a future together.

    PSALM 149 – give me the two-edged sword so I can wreak vengeance on my enemies, who are also God’s enemies. (Religious violence is not unique to the Islamic State fighters, but is deeply embedded in our Judeo-Christian tradition.)

    ROMANS 13 – obey the powers that be, because God put them there and the carry the sword to do God’s will. Great theory unless the government is evil, oppressive, violent. What do people of faith do when the powers that carry the sword are serving the dark side? Did Paul rethink his views as he prepared to bee executed by the Roman powers?

    MATTHEW 18 – rules for conflict management within the confines of the religious community, reflecting the ways that religious communities serve as natural communities for laws that in Western societies are now under the control of national governments. Membership of a specific religious community defines identity and life options for people in the Middle East, as in Matt 18, in ways we do not experience.

    Interestingly, the small congregation at Rathdowney interrupted the sermon which became a discussion ranging across religious violence, collapse of post-WW1 Arab states created by Britain and France, birthrates and contraception, where is God in all this, etc, etc. A fascinating preaching experience that flowed into more discussion around the one table that could fit into the world’s smallest church hall.

    For sure everyone is now much more aware of the pressures on Christians in the Middle East, and will remember to pray for them.

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