Matthew 18 is the fourth of five conversations that Jesus engages with the crowd or with the disciples in the Gospel of Matthew. It is often called the “community discourse,” or less accurately, the “discourse on the church.” Chapter 18 is a discussion on particular virtues related to leadership in ministry. In order to understand the theology in chapter 18, it is good to have a working knowledge of the other four discourses.
Parenthetically, Matthew the Evangelist seems to have self-consciously structured Jesus’ teaching into five sections, as four of the five discourses conclude with the phrase, when Jesus had finished… (Mt 7:28; Mt 13:53; Mt 19:1; Mt 26:1).
Chapter 18 begins with a question by the disciples, who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? Jesus tells the disciples that if they need to ask, then their hearts are in the wrong place. We see a similar concern with the disciples creating a hierarchy of political standing in Mt 20:20-21, where the mother of James and John suggests that Jesus Command that these two sons of mine may sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.
In response to the ambition and curiosity of the disciples, Jesus reminds them to be as humble and simple as children. As future ministers of the church, he tells the disciples that they should be more concerned with avoiding doing anything that would harm or scandalize the innocent in the Christian community (18:6), rather than worrying about who is the most respected among them.
Jesus then tells two parables, both of which are about leadership and ministry: the parables of the Lost Sheep and the Unforgiving Servant. These parables are instructions to the disciples to a) go the additional mile to assure that no member of the community is lost, and b) not to exploit or abuse a brother or sister in Christ.
Then Jesus addresses a more practical and mundane issue: how to deal with trouble-makers in the community. This advice, which is not evidenced in the Gospels of Luke or Mark, is an expansion on a discussion in the Sermon on the Mount, given previously in chapters 5-7. Here is an excerpt from Mt 18:15-20,
If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.
The advice is to be upfront with someone who has wronged you, and to go directly to that person, first, to redress the matter. If that fails, Jesus suggests bringing a witness or friend, and then addressing the ekklesia – the church community. Failing that, Jesus says drop the matter! To treat someone as a tax collector means to keep someone at a safe distance. For first century Jews, tax collectors (who remitted their takings to Herod and the Roman governor) were neither trusted nor well-regarded.
If you are at fault
The above advice is slightly more elaborate than the advice given in chapter 5 of Matthew. In Mt 5:25-26, Jesus tells us what to do if we are at fault:
Make friends quickly with your accuser, while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison; truly, I say to you, you will never get out till you have paid the last penny.
Jesus’ counsel is practical. He advises those who do wrong to settle quickly, lest the judge exact a demanding punishment. In the Sermon on the Mount, from which this passage is drawn, Jesus goes further and argues that a person should “turn the other cheek,” (5:39) and pray for (and love) one’s enemies” (5:44). By comparison, consider what the Book of Leviticus (24:18-23) says about justice:
Anyone who takes the life of someone’s animal must make restitution–life for life. If anyone injures his neighbor, whatever he has done must be done to him: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. As he has injured the other, so he is to be injured.
The belief in the Levitical adage of “an eye for an eye,” (Leviticus 24:25) was, by the time Jesus was preaching, about eight hundred years old. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus challenges the hypocrisy of the pharisees, scribes and saduccees, and the burdens they impose on the faithful. For Jesus, taking the law into one’s own hands, and acts of revenge, are both completely out of the question.
Where two or three are gathered in my name.
Jesus repeats his commission to Peter, that whatever the disciples bind on earth shall be bound in heaven. I discussed this apostolic commission last week. The Sunday reading then concludes at Mt 18:20, somewhat incongruously, with the promise, For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them. Or in Greek, οὗ γὰρ εἰσιν δύο ἢ τρεῖς συνηγμένοι εἰς τὸ ἐμὸν ὄνομα, ἐκεῖ εἰμι ἐν μέσῳ αὐτῶν.
Is Jesus saying, wherever two or three pray, or wherever two or three worship? We should note that the Greek verb in Matthew 18:20 used is “synago” which means, “to assemble” or “to gather.” It is for this reason that the very early church fathers (Ignatius) referred to the Church (of which he was a bishop) as a “synaxis,” and the Orthodox, to this day, refer to a meeting of the the episcopate as a synaxis. Some modern liturgists attempted to re-introduce the term in the 1960s and 1970s.
However, the early church also referred to scriptural services (liturgies of the Word) and communal recitation of psalm-prayers as synaxes. In either case, we are presented with a minor theological dilemma since it begs that question as to what Jesus implies with I am in the midst of them.
Most scholars are in agreement that Jesus is not referring exclusively to the Eucharist in this passage. Christ is present at the proclamation of the Word, and He is present in the Liturgy. I think it is unsurprising that there is deliberate ambiguity in Christ’s words. The best way to interpret Mt 18:20 is to understand what else Jesus says about worship and prayer in the rest of Matthew’s Gospel.