Scripture notes – 23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year A – 10th September 2023

This week the liturgy has some challenging questions: what responsibility does an individual have when they see someone in their church community acting ‘sinfully’ or destructively? What situations call for a response, and how does one go about it?

The readings are available online here.

Ezekiel 33:7-9
We don’t often hear at mass from this Old Testament priest-prophet, who tells us in his opening verses that his call to prophecy came when he was among the exiles in Babylon, which was around 593 BCE. It was a turbulent time and his message is divided; first it was warning and condemnation of Israel’s sinfulness, but after that his message was one of hope, as the exiles would be returning to rebuild the Temple and the religion of Judaism. In our short selection, we have one aspect of his teaching: the importance of individual choice and responsibility – but also a command to work with those who are seen as wrongdoers. Although in Ezekiel’s case, this concerns one who has a prophetic call from God, it leads to what we will hear in the Gospel.

Psalm 94/95:1-2, 6-9
The response is in the spirit of Ezekiel’s preaching, a plea to listen to God, to worship him and follow his lead as sheep follow their shepherd.

Romans 13:8-10
More this week from St Paul’s letter on living by faith and with the responsibilities this brings. The opening words of mutual love and care take up the theme of what we ‘owe’ one another in community. Paul’s words of the ‘single’ commandment come from Deuteronomy 6:5. In Matthew 22:34-40 (Mark 12:28-31, Luke 10:25-28), this is combined with the command to love God, which of course Paul would recognize, but in this reading his emphasis in on the love owed to other human beings. This middle reading is not about challenging anyone, unlike the first reading and the Gospel. It gives an important balance to how we respond to one another: always with love, and doing no harm.

Matthew 18:15-20
The liturgy has skipped ahead in the gospel order from Jesus’ prediction of his passion, passing over the second time he warns his disciples this will happen. Chapter 18 is another of Matthew’s long Discourses, and it looks ahead from Jesus’ time on earth to when the disciples are to carry on his mission. Matthew has collected various sayings of Jesus about how they are to behave in the Christian community – the Greek word used (ekklesia) is the same word we heard in the words to Peter as the foundation rock on which Christ will build his ‘church’. Since Matthew has compiled various commands and teachings of Jesus which were probably said at different times, there are not always clear connections between them; instead, there is a common theme of how the young community is to deal with problems with fellow Christians, and how to pray and share faith in practice.

One sign which indicates a new topic is the phrase ‘Amen I tell you’ which was characteristic of Jesus’ speech in introducing an important issue. In our liturgy it is translated, ‘I solemnly tell you’ and that occurs twice today, showing three separate teachings.

The ‘wrongdoing’ of the wayward brother in this case is not a personal injury but some sin or behaviour that is disruptive of common life. (Forgiving a sin against one personally will be taken up next week.) To deal with the wrongdoer in private is tactful and respectful, allowing them to change their ways without exposure to the whole community. The translation, ‘have it out with him’ conceals the meanings found in the Greek word, which has several aspects: reprimand, calling one to recognise they are in the wrong, or showing up a wrongful act. Also note that the Greek nouns word means both ‘brother’ and ‘sister’.

If that first effort does not work, the next step is to take two more to act together for reconciliation. (This practice seems to echo the provisions of Deuteronomy 19:15 and similar Jewish practices of dealing with a sinner.) The final step is to call the wrongdoer forward in the community, and if there is still no repentance and change, he is to ‘treated as a pagan/Gentile or tax collector.’ These words are somewhat startling here, for Jesus has in his ministry made a point of dealing with both these groups, and even praising them and chose a tax collector as one of the Twelve. Perhaps the words are borrowed from Jewish practice as just meaning those who are difficult to live peacefully with. It could also mean that one who disrupts the community by his behaviour needs to be removed, but still considered as one potentially accepting Jesus’ good news at another time. As Andrew Gregory puts it, the offender now becomes ‘an object of appropriate evangelical zeal.’

The second teaching with the words of ‘binding-loosing’ extends the saying given to Peter in 16:19, to the community. (See the notes for 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time: what is ‘bound’ or ‘loosed’ by the head of the community on earth can be understood as reflecting what already is upheld or set free in ‘the kingdom of heaven’.)

The third set deals with the prayer of several disciples coming together. As with similar promises in other parts of the gospel for answered prayer of an individual, there is the question of how literal is the promise that prayer will always be answered? Many Christians have the experience that what they asked did not happen as they wanted. The question of how God responds to ‘petitionary prayer’ is dealt with in various ways in the books of the New Testament. It helps to look at these in the whole, including the Lord’s Prayer, and Jesus’ own prayer in Gethsemane – where the petitions include ‘Your will be done’. Here with the following verses on the presence of Jesus with two or three praying, it may mean that effective prayer is that which is made in ‘Jesus’ name’. To pray in Jesus’ name means more than just adding his name at the end of the prayer. The background in the Hebrew Bible is that ‘name’ means the whole person. (This is why misusing the ‘name of God’ is serious enough to be one of the Ten Commandments.) Such a prayer would be made with Jesus’ own teaching of what is right to do, and with full trust in God no matter what happens. In this sense, we can be sure that God responds to our concerns, even when we don’t see here and now the ‘why’ or ‘how’.

In Judaism the number required for the ‘minyan’ – community prayer – was ten males. In Jesus’ community, it is any two members. Matthew stresses that Jesus is ‘with’ those coming together and ‘with us’ is an important theme of his gospel. It appears in the early pages, where Jesus’ name is said to be ‘Emmanuel’ meaning ‘God with us’. The last words of the Gospel bring this to the fore again when the risen Christ promises to ‘be with’ his people to the end of time.

Joan Griffith

Suggestions for prayer or reflection

    • Many of us would feel very uncomfortable at the thought we would go to someone in our parish and tell that they are doing something wrong and sinful.
    • How do I feel I can enact Paul’s point that ‘love is the fulfilment of the Law’ in a way that respects my neighbour if they seem to be struggling with something?
    • We also might not be praying regularly in twos and threes, expecting that this will mean that God will answer our prayer.
    • What is my relationship to others in our parish actually like? How would I like it to be? What, if anything, is getting in the way?

Gwen Griffith-Dickson