It’s impossible to correctly understand the message our sacred authors are trying to convey without appreciating the necessity of community. These inspired writers couldn’t have imagined a “rugged individualist” reading their writings. All their theologies revolve around our relations with others: God, and all who come into our lives.
As a prophet, for instance, Ezekiel’s entire life is rooted in those others. Yahweh states, “You, son of man, I have appointed watchman for the house of Israel; when you hear me say anything, you shall warn them for me.” The consequences of such an appointment could be dire. “If you do not speak out to dissuade the wicked from his way, the wicked shall die for his guilt, but I will hold you responsible for his death.” How the prophet relates to people determines how Yahweh relates to him or her.
At least ten years before the first evangelist puts stylus to papyrus, Paul previews the gospel Jesus’ best-known command in his letter to the church in Rome: “Whatever . . . commandments there may be are summed up in this saying, namely ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” It’s important to remember that this command is originally found in the book of Leviticus; it’s not unique to Paul, Jesus or Christianity. Yet it makes sense that the historical Jesus, as a reformer of Judaism, would have often quoted these specific Torah words. Prophetic reformers always take us back to the beginnings of our faith, back to ideas and concepts which once were at the heart of our faith, but through the centuries were eventually relegated to the periphery of our lives. Paul is committed to grounding his early Christian communities in the essentials of their faith. The message of both the historical Jesus and the risen Jesus whom he imitates is rooted in the giving of ourselves to others.
That’s why the gospel Jesus constantly zeroes in on our relations with one another, how those relationships are to be structured and what they can produce. In today’s pericope Matthew’s Jesus demands we confront evil in the community, not let it slide by. If there are problems between two people, they’re first to “hash it out” between themselves. When that doesn’t work, the situation’s to be mediated by several others in the community. And if that fails, then the whole church is to be brought into the picture. (Of course, the whole (house) church back then would probably have consisted at most of only a couple dozen members.) Finally, as a last resort, they’re to “treat the person as you would a Gentile or a tax collector,” which, when we remember how the historical Jesus treated Gentiles and tax collectors, isn’t the worst thing that could happen to someone.
But perhaps the most important part of today’s passage are the lines which show how deeply the risen Jesus values the communities carrying on his ministry. They, like Peter, two chapters before, are empowered to “bind and loose:” to discern what rules and regulations are to be kept and which are to be discarded, something very significant for Matthew’s Jewish/Christian community, a church committed to keeping the 613 Mosaic Laws.
Not only will God hear the prayers of such communities and care for their needs, but the risen Jesus himself/herself is present in those churches: “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.”
Could our emphasis on Jesus’ presence in the Eucharistic bread and wine cause us to ignore Jesus’ presence in the whole community? Our ancestors in the faith presumed that if we don’t recognize him/her in one another, neither will we notice anything different about the bread and wine.