Weekly Bible Reflection
Matthew's Communities of Justice
Sundays after Trinity (12)
Matthew 18.15-20 :
"Keeping the Peace"
Begin by using the Bible Study method as outlined
Tell about an experience of your own of:
NOTE: This is a sensitive subject. Few people may feel able to share these stories and for any sharing to happen the group will need to be clear about the confidentiality of its conversations
- conflict that has remained unresolved (in church, family or local community) and how that has affected relationships and patterns of behaviour. Share, if you wish, your feelings about it.
- conflict that has been resolved, how resolution came about, and your feelings about it.
Reflection on the text
These words of Jesus move us into a new phase of his teaching, alluded to last week: the Way of the Cross. Matthew’s chapter 18 provides a framework of practices for sustaining relationships in the Christian community and dealing with conflict creatively.
There seem to be four lessons:
- the individual Christian is to be ‘like a child’ (v1-4) – not hung up on ‘status’ but humility;
- take care not to cause another to stumble (v6-9) – especially those least able to look after themselves;
- it is the whole community’s responsibility to care for every individual (v10-14);
- how to deal with conflict management (v15-20) – the core of this week’s study.
Many communities and groups at that time had developed disciplinary procedures, commonly public processes involving two witnesses, and punishment through fines, exclusion or loss of membership (based on the Law of Moses - see Deuteronomy 19).
Jesus teaching is quite different. Resolving a dispute between ‘brothers and sisters’, between fellow Christians in the community, was to be attempted first between the two parties in private (v15). The object was to achieve reconciliation, not punishment or retribution. If that was unsuccessful, witnesses were to be called, but still heard in private (v16). If all else failed, offenders were to be treated as ‘Gentiles or tax collectors’ – no longer belonging to the community – that is, by their behaviour the offenders excluded themselves from the life of the community.
Lack of forgiveness or repentance is unacceptable and it becomes the whole community’s task to discern the presence or absence of that (v18-19). Prayer is essential for the task (see James 5 v13 – 16).
some questions for group discussion:
Go back to one or more of the situations that were revealed during the time of sharing and ask the following questions of one issue which was resolved and one which was not:
- In what ways did your method of resolution follow the pattern which Jesus teaches to the disciples in this passage? In what ways did it differ? Would events have turned out differently if people had a thorough knowledge of Jesus’ method of reconciled forgiveness?
- How should we act towards those who refuse to engage in the practice of forgiveness, especially when there are different perceptions of the wrongdoing? How, for example, should the Christian community respond to a chronic abuser, a perpetual liar or unrepentant racist? How do we deal with such people without demonising them?
- Has your Christian community ever discussed how forgiveness should be practiced in the life of the community? What might be the benefits of having such a discussion and how might it be introduced into your context.
- It is increasingly common for community groups and organisations to have agreed behavioural practices that leaders, members and participant sign up to. Do you think that such a practice is appropriate for a church? Consider what benefits and disadvantages might be involved.
- What practical steps might your Christian community take to offer its understanding of reconciled forgiveness and restorative justice to the wider community and its neighbourhoods?
As you move towards prayer, spend a few minutes in silence pondering the enormity of God’s forgiving reconciling love for humanity and God’s call to you, as a community in communion with Him and each other, to be a sign of God’s reconciling forgiving love so powerfully embodied in Christ.
Say the Lord’s Prayer together, pausing after the sentence about forgiveness.
Allow space and silence for personal prayer about situations of conflict, those spoken about earlier and those unspoken.
Then complete the Lord’s Prayer, slowly and thoughtfully, after repeating the words “Forgive us our sins as ...”
More background information
- The group may find it helpful to watch a short video clip on Restorative Justice available on the Bath & Wells Diocesan website at http://www.changinglives.org.uk/vid3.php . A DVD and study programme are available from the same source.
- Stanley Hauerwas, in Christian Existence Today (1988, Labyrinth, Durham, page 94) says that those who exclude themselves from the community by their behaviour ‘are acting like those who have not learned that they have been forgiven. To act like one not needing forgiveness is to act against the very basis of this community as a community of peacemaking.’
- Helpful resources include: L Gregory Jones, Embodying Forgiveness: a Theological Analysis, 1995, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, see especially chapter 6, ‘Practising Forgiveness’ pages 163 – 204. Also James Koenig, 1992, Rediscovering New Testament Prayer, Harper Collins, New York, especially the section entitled ‘Prayers of Forgiveness and Healing’ pages 95 – 113. See also Warren Carter’s commentary entitled Matthew and the Margins.