by Br Julian McDonald cfc
“Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven…Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them.” Matthew 18: 15-20
‘Speech is silver, Silence is golden’ is a proverb I learned decades ago in primary school. Whenever one of our teachers wanted to quieten our class down, he bellowed only the second half of that proverb. It wasn’t until I was in secondary school that I realised how anomalous that teacher’s bellowing was. More years passed before I came to appreciate that silence can be used destructively. I can use silence to express protest and annoyance. In fact, we have all probably learned how to use silence as a weapon to hold hostage somebody who has upset us. It is then that our silence becomes deafening. Moreover, we seem to get some satisfaction from hoping that our silence will prompt those around us to ask themselves questions like: “What have I done this time to upset her/him?” Jesus clearly knew that despite our antics to get even with those we believe have caused us grief, we all seem to want reconciliation with those by whom we have been distanced and we want it to be quick and easy, even though it’s not.
To better understand the significance of today’s gospel-reading, we would do well to give some consideration to the earlier part of chapter 18 of Matthew’s Gospel from which today’s reading is taken. The focus of this chapter is advice given by Jesus to his disciples about community building and formation. While Jesus had given attention in his ministry to reaching out to the poor, the forgotten and the overlooked, Matthew opened chapter 18 of his Gospel with an account of the disciples asking a surprising question: “”Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” That question is surprising in that it indicates that the disciples were completely unaware of the attention that Jesus had been giving to the poor, the sick, the disabled and the needy. The attention of the disciples was given to finding out who was at the top of the pecking-order in the kingdom of God that Jesus was ushering in. Instead of dismissing their question as out-of-hand, Jesus chose to take it seriously and use it as a launching point for teaching the disciples how to go about using the power that he intended to invest in them. He singled out a small child as a symbol of those who most deserved their attention. Children represented those in society who were not listened to, like women and shepherds, those who had no credibility, those who strayed off the tracks like lost sheep, those who had lowered themselves to work for the Romans, like tax-collectors. Jesus was pointing out that true disciples would contribute to building up the kingdom of God by using their position and power to reach out to the least and the most vulnerable. Moreover, he chose to use exaggerated examples so that his disciples could learn what he was teaching without being threatened or thinking that Jesus was criticising them. The kingdom of God gives no attention whatsoever to listing who is rhe most important in the pecking-order or who is the greatest.
The section of Matthew chapter 18, leading up to today’s gospel-reading is a set of brief teachings from Jesus about attitudes needed for building healthy community. That calls for avoiding competition and vying for status. It means reaching out to the most vulnerable and giving priority to respecting the young and those at risk, making sure not to manipulate them, scandalise them or lead them astray. It’s important to search for what lies beneath the hyperboles that Jesus used and to discern what is to be taken literally and what is to be viewed figuratively. For instance, we don’t amputate our limbs or those of others because they have been instrumental in our sinning. Nor do we pluck out eyes that have been used for offending. And drowning people who have been “stumbling blocks” is not a practice to be recommended.
In today’s gospel-reading we are given another strategy for how to go about strengthening community when wrong is done to us or another. Jesus warns against going off and rallying support by gossiping about the offender and what he or she is alleged to have done. Rather, we are urged to be courageous and honest enough to speak directly, one-to-one with the person who has hurt us in order to resolve the issue. Honest dialogue is the first step in opening the way to forgiveness and reconciliation. If that doesn’t work and a meeting with community representatives produces no worthwhile outcome, the recommendation from Jesus is to treat the resistor “as a gentile/pagan or a tax-collector”. And they were the very ones with whom Jesus preferred to dine and converse. In other words, if preaching and honest exchange do not work, proclaim the Gospel through the way in which we put it into practical action, through treating “offenders” with acceptance and respect. Don’t resort to running them out of the community or out of town.
This reading boils down to exercising whatever role we have in the Christian community with accountability and a readiness to listen with an open ear and an open heart and to engage in honest discerning with those around us. To conduct ourselves like that implies that we engage creatively with the word of God in Scripture. The Bible texts which we are invited to explore each week do not amount to a book of answers. Neither are they weapons to be used for winning arguments. They offer us material for enriching our conversation with one another as together we venture to discover what it means to live faithfully in the communities we call family and Church. All the while, the Scripture calls us to look at the world beyond ourselves and to discern how best we engage sensitively with it.