There Am I In The Midst
Ordinary 23 Year A
A Hebrew Catholic Perspective
St. Matthew 18: 15 — 20
If we take a quick glance at our text of six verses, we could easily have a negative reaction to what might appear as a rather barren, cold and legalistic passage — lacking the usual appeal we find in our Lord’s teaching. This, however, would be quite out of place and misleading. It is one of those occasions in which we need to recall the key teaching points of our Lord’s in-service training in the previous part of this chapter. This is essential and critical.
Verses 1 to 14 are an emphatic presentation of how Jesus sees His followers as family, and as sharing the same household as Himself: i.e., His Father’s. He talks with great affection, love and passion with regard to all who are part of His family and household. Even the horrors of verses 7 to 9 (cutting off your hand or foot — or pulling out your eye) are designed to strengthen the understanding we have of His love for “little ones” (among whom are children as well as people of any age) who need care and protection, and therefore need to be included in our reach.
Let’s look briefly at a few key points in these early verses so that we appreciate how earnestly Jesus is making sure His Church never becomes a high-handed, power-seeking, cold and inhumane body. We will find He cannot be more adamant!
We recommend the reader take a look at the first 14 verses of this chapter (18). The text is attached.
In verses 1 to 4 there was enquiry from the disciples, approaching their Rabbi: “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Jesus called over a child and explained that all those who trust and display an unpretentious attitude like that of this child; they are the greatest in the kingdom of heaven!
He continued to say that anyone who receives such a person, and honours them, receives and honours Him (verse 5). We should pause and take in just what that means. Then in verse 10, as if to drive home a key attitude for His disciples, Jesus makes a very strong statement (verse 10):
“See that you do not despise one of these little ones#, for
I say to you that their angels in heaven always look upon the
face of my heavenly Father.“
# these little ones — the insignificant and lowly people of society. Although our
Lord called a child over to Him, His words indicate He was
talking about all who had a simple faith and trust in
Him such as, here, this child’s.
This is a powerful statement. Some leading commentators explain such angels as being actually the spirits of the “little ones” after death, permanently beholding the of the Father’s face. Such an interpretation is quite different from our Hebrew perspective: that Jesus is, indeed, talking about distinguished members of the Heavenly Court. He is also talking about His Household!
Then in verses 11 to 14, Jesus tells the parable of the lost sheep and concludes it with the most emphatic statement:
In just the same way, it is not the will of your heavenly Father
that one of these little ones be lost.
This early portion of chapter 18 contains critically essential information for us to understand the short discourse on fraternal correction (verses 15 — 20). His preparation has highlighted the value His Father places on each humble person, no matter how unimportant they may appear to be in general society. The people God values are for that reason, “the greatest”. When anyone honours them, Jesus adds, they will enjoy His presence also. Be careful, He warns, not to let superior attitudes develop within you, for those humble people are very well connected. Angels of the highest ranks constantly look upon the glory of God.
It is with this understanding now conveyed to His Apostles, that Jesus demonstrates how the Church and its members are to continue to uphold the value of each individual person. In doing so they will reflect on earth the very practice and presence of the heavenly court, which He gives His assurance, will enfold all who are faithful to His teaching, in the Holy Shekinah, the Abiding Presence of the Lord God.
Now to our text for reflection: Matthew 18: 15 to 20.
Overview of our text — St. Matthew 18: 15 — 20
The recent division among the twelve showed how false was their idea
of the church. The church is one; they must be united in their government,
as well as in their prayers. They must think alike, and act alike, in union
with Jesus. Unity is the theme of our Lord’s remarks; it will be his final
prayer for his chosen leaders (at the Last Supper). Charity will try all
means before imposing sentence of excommunication; their authority
must not make them harsh. For the good of its members, and to preserve
unity, the church is given the same powers that Jesus promised to Peter
at Caesarea Philippi. They are a body organised for the salvation of
members, not for their condemnation. Like the Good Shepherd, they must
try to bring back those who stray.
And in their prayers it is not the worth of the individual that counts#;
the power and efficacy of their prayers comes from the Church,
which is the Mystical Body of Christ; our Lord himself prays through
and in union with his members. (R. Cox) (with slight modifications for Internet use.)
# “….. it is not the worth of the individual that counts …..”
The writer of the above overview (R. Cox) is not downplaying the value of an individual’s prayer, which can, of course, be powerful in its effect. Nor is he commenting on the personal virtue or devotion of the individual. He is highlighting the key point that Jesus makes: that when His followers demonstrate their earnestness and unity of intention by acting in spiritual union — as He has taught — then they can be confident He will pray with them.
Some notes On the Text
Our Lord begins this portion of His teaching by now applying the principles He has just demonstrated in verse 1 to 14.
“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.
Let us note first what the text specifically states:
After telling the disciples to avoid scandal, our Lord next tells them
what they should do to correct their erring brother, if need be.
There is here a question of fraternal correction, for the
administration of which, the following rules must be observed:
(a) The fault to be corrected must be a grievous one, and it must
be private, i.e. not known to public authority;
(b) There must be a well-founded hope that the correction will
be fruitful. (Callan, O. P.)
In plain language the overpowering message is: sort it out between you! This teaching is directly related to Leviticus 19: 17 and 18 which ends with “Love your neighbour as you love yourself.” What follows is actually paralleled in the rule of the Jewish monastic community of the Essenes at Qumran. Jesus therefore lays this down as the first step of love in the Biblical sense, following the very best Hebrew religious practice. Recall that verses 15 — 17 are in the singular, formerly translated, “if thy brother sin against thee.” (Although the words “against thee” were not in the original text, they were probably added to help convey Jesus’ meaning.) We cannot help but notice how our Lord talks both compassionately and firmly at the same time. In verses 15 and 16 He follows the model pursued by the Essenes, as noted above. This demonstrates how He sees His followers firmly established in the Biblical tradition of ancient Israel — in which God is very specific about what He commands and yet equally overflowing in mercy and lovingkindness with regard to both the faithful and the lost, provided they are humble and penitent.
In this instruction by Jesus, the emphasis is not on punishment, but on the rescue of someone Jesus calls a brother (particularly a fellow believer and therefore a member of His family) whose sins put them in danger. This then becomes a practical guide to initiating the Father’s love and concern for those who wander or are misled. (Remember the Shepherd in verses 12 to 14.)
Here again there is the common theme of God bringing His loved ones back to Himself, back into communion with Him; back into His presence — i.e. to share His presence, His own Household, with Him.
We cannot emphasise too much, nor too often, the great truth that the Lord Jesus insisted His followers are His family — not some military organisation. He therefore put in place an appropriate procedure for dealing with what He insisted remain “family matters” — at that level, if at all possible.
Our Lord covers the practical possibility that the offender may be slow to respond, and says:
“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’.” (Matt. 18: 16)
Jesus bases His counsel on Deuteronomy 19: 15.
“One witness alone shall not take the stand against a man in regard to
any crime or any offense of which he may be guilty; a judicial fact shall
be established only on the testimony of two or three witnesses.”
The whole point of multiple testimony is to win the offender over, minimise embarrassment, and prevent further disharmony within the “household”. But there is a limit even to the Father’s patience.
Ever the pragmatist, Jesus continues:
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.
So then, what precisely is specified in verses 16 and 17.
In administering fraternal correction, our Lord told His disciples:
first it should be in private between the offender and the one offended,
and if this were not sufficient, then, they should tell the “church,”
i.e. the authorities who represent the Church; and finally; if they could
not by these processes correct the offending party, they should
withdraw from and avoid that person, as the Jews were accustomed
to avoid# the heathen and publicans. (Callan, O. P.)
# “Avoid the heathen and publicans” — i.e. non-believers and collaborators.
Although Jesus uses the phrase metaphorically, He endorses the need, after all sincere
efforts have failed, to prevent the offender contaminating the faithful. This was the
only defence Judaism had under the oppressive Roman occupation.
Thus our Lord declares His requirement that every possible means must be employed to win the offender over. Only if he rejects all of these is he to be treated as a non-member, in which case his refusal will lead, sadly, to his own self-exclusion. Jesus calls for frankness and honesty. If a person doesn’t co-operate, don’t keep up any pretence. They are out, and it’s their choice. The infant Church always recalled the parable of the prodigal son, and thus continued to pray for those who took off to follow their own path, hoping, one day, to receive them back.
Amen, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound
in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed
Here, now, we observe our Lord declaring authority to be bestowed upon the Apostles whenever they are acting on behalf of the Church — in fact, on behalf of the Messiah Himself. In this case the Apostles receive the power given to St. Peter in Matt. 16: 19, without prejudice to the Chair of Peter, which retains the senior position. The Apostles thus have the power to pass this authority on to others, when they do so as a united Church. Our Lord set very clear guidelines in place for His Church to continue His personal mission. They were not left with a “wishy-washy”, weak, nebulous, rambling, committee-run organisation. Jesus knew exactly how to avoid that kind of culture! He requires discipline and decisiveness.
Verses 19 and 20
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.
For where two or three are gathered together in my name,
there am I in the midst of them.”
The session is rounded off by Jesus, true to his style, with a beautiful reminder of the central truth in His teaching that the Church in action, faithfully carrying out his commands, will enjoy the fullest possible communion with the courts of Heaven. His teaching is well grounded: He draws on rabbinic teaching based on Psalm 82: 1 and Malachi 3: 16.
Professor Samuel Tobias Lachs in his “Rabbinic Commentary On the New Testament” )Ktav Publishing House, New Jersey, 1987) writes, of verses 19 and 20:
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.
20 For where two or three are gathered in my name.
This concept is well attested to in rabbinic literature (M. Avot 3.3).
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 that they 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.
The venerable and learned rabbi quoted above wrote his document several decades after St. Matthew’s Gospel was compiled. However, what he recorded was material which had long been taught by the rabbis, before and during the time of Jesus. Interestingly Rabbi Hananya suffered an extremely cruel martyrdom for refusing a Roman command to stop teaching the Torah: the ancient Scriptures. We mention the death of this saintly martyr, since his link between a group of even just two people discussing the Divine Word and God’s Presence with them is in harmony with what our Lord Jesus teaches in verse 20 of our text.
“When two or three are gathered in my name.”
The phrase “in my name” means in devout reflection on the Sacred Word, or in devout prayer. It also refers to acting in obedience to the command of the Father:
“Listen O Israel!” “Listen to Him!”
(Deuteronomy 6: 4) (St. Matthew 17: 5)
In this respect God blesses our love and obedience with the gift of His Shekhinah, His Divine Presence, manifested in our age through the presence of Jesus Messiah in and among us.
Our reading shows Jesus making an impassioned plea to His followers to watch carefully for any signs of division or weakness, and upon detecting them, to follow strictly His declared procedure for their correction and settlement.
To sum up the points made in the final section of our Lord’s discourse we list the following”
• Jesus is the centre of the religious life of His followers. However,
He recognises that they will nevertheless have major differences
of opinion amongst them.
• Just as judicial decisions of the Church will be ratified in heaven,
so will the prayers of the faithful, united in prayer, be heard.
• Why will the Father grant such prayers? The power and efficiency
of their prayers comes from the Church, which is the mystical
Body of Christ; our Lord Himself prays through and in union with
• In Matthew 6 Jesus teaches the importance of individual prayer.
Here He teaches the power of community prayer.
• Christians cannot, however, carelessly take this for granted.
There are very real conditions. They must pray with the mind and
heart of Jesus and inspired by the Holy Spirit (see 1 Cor 2: 16).
• There is therefore a very solemn obligation binding on all who would
call themselves members of Christ’s body, the Church, to pray in unity
with one another, and to pray with the mind and heart of Jesus under
the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
A Final Thought
This text of Mt 18: 15 to 20 is normally referred to in one way or another as dealing with “fraternal correction;” and of course it does. We have placed it in its wider setting and focussed on the presence of God-with-us, our Emmanuel; a key theme in this Gospel. The passage is about restoring a sense of unity among one another so that our collective unity with God is both strengthened and manifested to the world. This is how Jesus strives constantly to present the Household of God to those who are willing to learn from Him.
If this is such an important theme in our Lord’s teaching with regard to individuals, must it not be equally pressing that his Body the Church likewise be manifested in a loving family unity. For over half a millenium it has been sub-dividing with increasing momentum. Today it is looked on as weak and sickly and inflicted with self-administered poison. Despite the collapse on many fronts, there are Christians who care little about trying to address this. Publicly they continue to run down certain “nominated” Churches at every opportunity, and project their vitriolic attitudes out into their mission fields. In the mind of Jesus, this is in direct opposition to His Gospel teaching, which can only mean, they have never really begun to understand it. This is a very serious situation. If we believe what Jesus taught in this passage, then we must play a part in reversing the tragic dismantling of the Body of Christ in the world. But — how to do this?
We can, by truly listening to Jesus in these Gospel reflections, and praying earnestly for one another, help restore mutual respect among different Christian traditions. Unless we do so, the world about us will continue to abandon Christian culture and allow atheistic and materialistic “values” to flood the vacuum now so widely spread.
If we can take the intended teaching of Jesus in this short passage, and apply it carefully to our fractured situation, the Church could again be seen for what it is meant to be, the presence of God and His rule on earth, and thus become a blessing to the whole world.
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There Am I In The Midst
Ordinary 23 Year A St. Matthew 18: 15 to 20
1. All movements and organisations require at least minimal regulations in place to
2. A second perspective Jesus built into His “procedure manual” was His central
3. In rabbinic tradition, Jesus proclaimed His absolute promise that when His
Let us pray for one another — despite all our weaknesses and annoying faults (we so easily notice in one another) — that the message and mission of our Lord Jesus Christ will flourish when we ardently promote the family concept of the Church, and encourage a sense of belonging among our fellow members.
Matthew 18: 1 — 14
Ordinary 23 Year A
1 1 At that time the disciples 2 approached Jesus and said,
2 He called a child over, placed it in their midst,
3 and said, “Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and
4 Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest
5 4 And whoever receives one child such as this in my name
6 “Whoever causes one of these little ones 5 who believe in
7 6 Woe to the world because of things that cause sin!
8 If your hand or foot causes you to sin, 7 cut it off and throw
9 And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it
10 8 “See that you do not despise one of these little ones, 9 for
12 What is your opinion? If a man has a hundred sheep and
13 And if he finds it, amen, I say to you, he rejoices more
14 In just the same way, it is not the will of your heavenly
1 [1-35] This discourse of the fourth book of the gospel is often called the “church order” discourse, but it lacks most of the considerations usually connected with church order, such as various offices in the church and the duties of each, and deals principally with the relations that must obtain among the members of the church. Beginning with the warning that greatness in the kingdom of heaven is measured not by rank or power but by childlikeness (⇒ Matthew 18:1-5), it deals with the care that the disciples must take not to cause the little ones to sin or to neglect them if they stray from the community (⇒ Matthew 18:6-14), the correction of members who sin (⇒ Matthew 18:15-18), the efficacy of the prayer of the disciples because of the presence of Jesus (⇒ Matthew 18:19-20), and the forgiveness that must be repeatedly extended to sinful members who repent (⇒ Matthew 18:21-35).
2  The initiative is taken not by Jesus as in the Marcan parallel (⇒ Mark 9:33-34) but by the disciples. Kingdom of heaven: this may mean the kingdom in its fullness, i.e., after the parousia and the final judgment. But what follows about causes of sin, church discipline, and forgiveness, all dealing with the present age, suggests that the question has to do with rank also in the church, where the kingdom is manifested here and now, although only partially and by anticipation; see the notes on ⇒ Matthew 3:2; ⇒ 4:17.
3  Become like children: the child is held up as a model for the disciples not because of any supposed innocence of children but because of their complete dependence on, and trust in, their parents. So must the disciples be, in respect to God.
5  One of these little ones: the thought passes from the child of ⇒ Matthew 18:2-4 to the disciples, little ones because of their becoming like children. It is difficult to know whether this is a designation of all who are disciples or of those who are insignificant in contrast to others, e.g., the leaders of the community. Since apart from this chapter the designation little ones occurs in Matthew only in ⇒ Matthew 10:42 where it means disciples as such, that is its more likely meaning here. Who believe in me: since discipleship is impossible without at least some degree of faith, this further specification seems superfluous. However, it serves to indicate that the warning against causing a little one to sin is principally directed against whatever would lead such a one to a weakening or loss of faith. The Greek verb skandalizein, here translated causes . . . to sin, means literally “causes to stumble”; what the stumbling is depends on the context. It is used of falling away from faith in ⇒ Matthew 13:21. According to the better reading of ⇒ Mark 9:42, in me is a Matthean addition to the Marcan source. It would be better . . . depths of the sea: cf ⇒ Mark 9:42.
7  These verses are a doublet of ⇒ Matthew 5:29-30. In that context they have to do with causes of sexual sin. As in the Marcan source from which they have been drawn (⇒ Mark 9:42-48), they differ from the first warning about scandal, which deals with causing another person to sin, for they concern what causes oneself to sin and they do not seem to be related to another’s loss of faith, as the first warning is. It is difficult to know how Matthew understood the logical connection between these verses and ⇒ Matthew 18:6-7.
8 [10-14] The first and last verses are peculiar to Matthew. The parable itself comes from Q; see ⇒ Luke 15:3-7. In Luke it serves as justification for Jesus’ table-companionship with sinners; here, it is an exhortation for the disciples to seek out fellow disciples who have gone astray. Not only must no one cause a fellow disciple to sin, but those who have strayed must be sought out and, if possible, brought back to the community. The joy of the shepherd on finding the sheep, though not absent in ⇒ Matthew 18:13 is more emphasized in Luke. By his addition of ⇒ Matthew 18:10, ⇒ 14 Matthew has drawn out explicitly the application of the parable to the care of the little ones.
9  Their angels in heaven . . . my heavenly Father: for the Jewish belief in angels as guardians of nations and individuals, see ⇒ Daniel 10:13, ⇒ 20-21; ⇒ Tobit 5:4-7; 1QH 5:20-22; as intercessors who present the prayers of human beings to God, see ⇒ Tobit 13:12, ⇒ 15. The high worth of the little ones is indicated by their being represented before God by these heavenly beings.
10  Some manuscripts add, “For the Son of Man has come to save what was lost”; cf ⇒ Matthew 9:13. This is practically identical with ⇒ Luke 19:10 and is probably a copyist’s addition from that source.
Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible, revised
Matthew 18: 15 — 20
Ordinary 23 Year A
16 13 If he does not listen, take one or two others along with
17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell the church. 14 If he refuses
18 15 Amen, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be
19 16 Again, (amen,) I say to you, if two of you agree on earth
20 17 For where two or three are gathered together in my name,
11 [15-20] Passing from the duty of Christian disciples toward those who have strayed from their number, the discourse now turns to how they are to deal with one who sins and yet remains within the community. First there is to be private correction (⇒ Matthew 18:15); if this is unsuccessful, further correction before two or three witnesses (⇒ Matthew 18:16); if this fails, the matter is to be brought before the assembled community (the church), and if the sinner refuses to attend to the correction of the church, he is to be expelled (⇒ Matthew 18:17). The church’s judgment will be ratified in heaven, i.e., by God (⇒ Matthew 18:18). This three-step process of correction corresponds, though not exactly, to the procedure of the Qumran community; see 1QS 5:25-6:1; 6:24-7:25; CD 9:2-8. The section ends with a saying about the favorable response of God to prayer, even to that of a very small number, for Jesus is in the midst of any gathering of his disciples, however small (⇒ Matthew 18:19-20). Whether this prayer has anything to do with the preceding judgment is uncertain.
12  Your brother: a fellow disciple; see ⇒ Matthew 23:8. The bracketed words, against you, are widely attested but they are not in the important codices Sinaiticus and Vaticanus or in some other textual witnesses. Their omission broadens the type of sin in question. Won over: literally, “gained.”
14  The church: the second of the only two instances of this word in the gospels; see the note on ⇒ Matthew 16:18. Here it refers not to the entire church of Jesus, as in ⇒ Matthew 16:18, but to the local congregation. Treat him . . . a Gentile or a tax collector: just as the observant Jew avoided the company of Gentiles and tax collectors, so must the congregation of Christian disciples separate itself from the arrogantly sinful member who refuses to repent even when convicted of his sin by the whole church. Such a one is to be set outside the fellowship of the community. The harsh language about Gentile and tax collector probably reflects a stage of the Matthean church when it was principally composed of Jewish Christians. That time had long since passed, but the principle of exclusion for such a sinner remained. Paul makes a similar demand for excommunication in ⇒ 1 Cor 5:1-13.
15  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. For a different view, based on the different contexts of the two verses, see the note on ⇒ Matthew 16:19.
16 [19-20] Some take these verses as applying to prayer on the occasion of the church’s gathering to deal with the sinner of ⇒ Matthew 18:17. Unless an a fortiori argument is supposed, this seems unlikely. God’s answer to the prayer of two or three envisages a different situation from one that involves the entire congregation. In addition, the object of this prayer is expressed in most general terms as anything for which they are to pray.
17  For where two or three . . . midst of them: the presence of Jesus guarantees the efficacy of the prayer. This saying 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).
Scripture texts in this work are taken from the New American Bible,