Matthew is concerned about members of his Community who have departed from their first fervor.
The Community needs to make every effort to help these persons before giving up on them. If there are no signs of repentance, the Community needs to separate itself from these members who arrogantly refuse to repent. Mathew assures the faithful the presence of Jesus guarantees the efficacy of their prayers for this situation. Matthew suggests a process that can be a blueprint for all to be followed.
Matthew offers a process and encouragement to those members who are willing to reach out and help those who have gone astray. First, the Community member needs to approach the offender privately. He needs to confront and correct the offender in kindness with hopes for a conversion. Second, if this does not happen the member must take another member of the Community and see if this is not persuasive? The Book of Deuteronomy recommends two or three witnesses. (Dt. 19:15). The facilitator helps both parties to listen to each other. If this does not bring about a conversion, the Third, the next stage is that the member is to take the Offender to the “whole Community.” Ordinarily, the larger the Community the more liberal or generous is the conversion. Repentance is possible when Jesus is in our midst. If there is no change the Offender must be “expelled.” Excommunication takes place when the welfare of the Community is at stake.
Matthew’s Gospel is speaking of real sin, not just social offenses. Jesus tells us He has the power to forgive. Jesus also transmits this power to his disciples. Communal forgiveness is primarily private and pastoral. Matthew is concerned about his present Community but also the eschatological Community. Also this is the only time Matthew uses the term “Church.” Matthew in Chapter sixteen is directing the instructions directly to Peter and in Chapter Eighteen Matthew directs the instructions directly to the disciples in general.
The Gospel tells us that we must forgive, and we must seek conversion. The First reason the Gospel gives us to do this is so the Community can prayer together! Second, we cannot manage our faults and our virtues without each other. Third, forgiveness and conversion radicalizes the goodness in each other. Fourth, the evil in each of is challenged when we live in Community.
Community is best when virtues triumph over evil. The Mennonite tradition has an axim when confronted with differences. “Don’t argue, Don’t deny, Don’t withdraw.” Peter Drucker, the father of modern management: “Be fair, Be firm, and Be friendly.”
Forgiveness is an extraordinary gift. Matthew recognizes this. The rabbis use to say “you can forgive up to three times. After that God take care of the forgiveness.” When Peter asks if he should forgive seven times, Jesus responds 70 times 70 times, in other words. Forgive without end! The disciples respond “Help our unbelief!” Forgiveness is not easy, and we can’t give up on repentance
Fr. Ken O’Malley, C.P., is a member of the Passionist Community at Sacred Heart Monastery in Louisville, Kentucky.