Historical Cultural Context
Our ancestors in the faith and Mediterranean culture in general are prone to conflict. (The technical word is agonistic, deriving from the Greek for battle, struggle, contest.) From experience they know that conflict is dangerous because it can escalate to violence and result in bloodshed, starting a blood feud that wouldn’t end until everyone was dead.
For this reason, they utilize a wide array of strategies to defuse conflict. One is to fume and threaten with no intention of ever carrying out the threat. The cultural belief is that words are better than action.
Another strategy for defusing conflict is to turn the other cheek rather than engage in tit for tat, or eye for eye (Mt 5:38-41). This strategy is not popular among Americans. Popular wisdom advises, “Don’t get mad, get even,” and the rising tide of violence in this country suggests that many citizens follow this cultural wisdom.
Today’s Gospel passage presents three more strategies for conflict resolution. The advice is intended to head off conflicts between insiders; it is not intended to govern relationships with outsiders.
The conflict arises because “sin” is an interpersonal offense. In societies where honor is the core value, it is very easy to sin against another, to offend another’s honor. People learn from an early age the potentially fatal consequences of such an offense.
If someone thinks another person has shown dishonor, the offended party is advised to confront the sinner in private (“when the two of you are alone”). The reason for this privacy is to avoid placing the suspected offense within the official arena of honor and shame, that is, the public eye
If the perception of dishonor has been mistaken, or the alleged dishonor unintentional, the conflict has been successfully defused in private. No one has lost face.
The second strategy is to take along two or three negotiators or witnesses (Mt 18:16). Now the situation is semiprivate and becomes a legal matter (see Dt 17:1-7 which requires more than one witness).
The Greek word in Mt 18:19 translated as “anything” literally means “legal case, litigation.” The witnesses are fully aware of the seriousness of their role (see Ex 20:16; Acts 6:13) and the consequences of bearing false witness (Dt 19:15-21). Whatever they decide is legally binding.
The hope is that the negotiators or witnesses will succeed where individual efforts failed. Honor must be repaired or restored in order to avoid the next step.
The final strategy now fully engages the cultural values of honor and shame. The matter is related to “the church,” that is, the entire community. The event has become fully public and publicized. In matters of honor and shame, the community is the final arbiter.
If the offender chooses to disregard the community’s judgment, the consequence is excommunication. To be considered as “a Gentile and a tax collector” is to be designated an “outsider.” The recalcitrant sinner is thrown out.
The force of excommunication is lost on American individualists who have little allegiance to any group, including family. Americans prefer to “go it alone” and “do it my way.” “See if I care. I gotta be me!” Not so our Mediterranean ancestors in the faith. Without community one is effectively dead.
The plural “you” in Mt 18:18 means that all disciples of Jesus have authority to bind or loose, that is, to settle conflicts and legal cases between community members.
When the community gathers in Jesus’ name to hear a legal case, Jesus is there. When the community agrees, the Father in heaven agrees.
How shameful a thing is conflict among Christians.
John J. Pilch
John J. Pilch is a biblical scholar and facilitator of parish renewals.
Liturgical Press has published fourteen books by Pilch exploring the cultural world of the Bible
**From Saint Louis University