Rather than establishing a procedure for excommunication, Mark Allan Powell (Currents in Theology and Mission, December 2003) suggests that Matthew presents Jesus as authorizing the Christian community to resolve disputes concerning the application of religious law (for example, what constitutes adultery [5: 27-30] or when divorce is permitted [5:31-32]). Jesus promises that, as risen Lord, he will be present among even two or three who gather in his name, authorizing them to determine how covenant statutes apply (are bound) or don’t apply (are loosed) to the situation that has led to disagreement among his followers about what constitutes sin.The subject of religious law has gained a new currency in American politics today. Ignorance and racism has led legislators in several jurisdictions to propose unnecessary legislation, making illegal the use of Islamic law by secular courts in the United States. How can preachers use this week’s gospel passage to help congregations understand the distinction between governmental law courts and the rules by which communities of faith govern themselves?
What is at stake is nothing less than the unity of the church. In light of the preceding verses, which describe a shepherd leaving ninety-nine sheep on the mountain in order to seek one lost stray, the process must be understood, not as the steps necessary for exclusion, but as steps that may lead to reconciliation. Like the shepherd seeking and finding the sheep, the Christian community must make every effort to uphold unity among its members. Because the process is realistic about the presence and power of sin at work in the lives of believer, it recognizes the need to overcome division and restore estranged brothers and sisters to their place in the family of God.
Homily Service: an ecumenical resource for sharing the word. Vol. 41, No. 4 (1 September 2008 – 25 November 2008), p. 5.
Aaron J. Couch is co-pastor of First Immanuel Lutheran Church in Portland, Oregon, where he shares ministry with his wife, Melinda J. Wagner.