Reflection for OS23, Sunday September 6 2020
Gospel reading: Matthew 18.15-20 – Forgiveness and reconciliation; harmony in the church.
Jesus draws on traditional Jewish teaching in the gospel reading for today. He sets down the community rules for dealing with trouble between Christian brothers. It emerges that harmony is very important for the Christian community. This is reflected in the requirement to make three attempts at reconciliation when a dispute occurs. The injured party must first make an attempt to explain between the two of you in private. Then if this fails take two or three others with you. If this third attempt also fails the offended brother can invoke the whole church.
We are not to imagine that the universal church is meant. For most early Christians the church meant the local Christian community, often meeting in a house. Disputes seem to be within these house churches. Ancient houses were mostly small and people lived at close quarters. These households were likely to have been the context that Jesus had in mind for this teaching.
There is a very good example of such houses in ancient Ephesus where the houses are terraced one on top of the other and there must have been very little privacy. In such a public context it was important for harmony to prevail. Another pointer to the context of the house churches is provided by a saying of Jesus preserved in the Gospel of Thomas at Saying 48. This Gospel is a collection of sayings purported to belong to Jesus and number 48 reads: ‘Jesus said, if two make peace with each other in a single house, they will say to this mountain ‘Move from here’, and it will move’. This saying links the importance of harmony in the household with the power of prayer together. The saying does confirm the context of the household. There were also larger houses belonging to wealthy Christians who welcomed the community. The NT Letter to Philemon is a good example.
To return to our Gospel reading – verse 19 reads ‘If two of you agree on the earth concerning any matter whatsoever they ask, it shall come about for them from my Father in heaven.’ Once again we are pointed to the power of prayer and the importance of harmony and reconciliation. This Gospel reading wanders over several themes all of which have their importance for our parish as we embark on a new chapter – prayer, reconciliation, authority, forgiveness, punishment, prayer groups. All these values come into play at a time of change.
Reverend Dr. Calum Gilmour