Monday, October 16, 2017

29th Sunday A

29th Sunday of the Year A

Readings: Isaiah 45:1, 4‑6  1 Thessalonians 1:1‑5  
Matthew 22:15‑  21

            Throughout much of the biblical period the Jewish people were dominated by various foreign powers: Assyria, Babylon, Persia, the Greeks, and finally Rome.  In today's readings both Second Isaiah and Jesus offer us visions of how God's power and demands are operative, even in situations where the chosen people have no political power.  As we listen to the wonders of God's power in shaping human events for his saving purposes, let us acknowledge his greatness in the words of the responsorial psalm: "Give the Lord glory and honor" (Ps 96).
            The Isaiah reading is the famous Cyrus oracle of Second Isaiah in which the prophet announces that the Persian king Cyrus is God's "anointed" agent for freeing the exiled Jews from their captivity in Babylon.  Although Cyrus does not even know the Lord's name, from the prophet's perspective, his victories over nations, including Babylon, are the Lord's actions "for the sake of Jacob, my servant, of Israel, my chosen one."  
            The prophet's vision separates God's saving plan from Israel's political ambitions.  Many exiles may have preferred a Jewish deliverer like Moses or David, but Second Isaiah daringly gives the pagan king, Cyrus, the title of "anointed" or Messiah.   If God can use an unbelieving, foreign king to further his saving purposes, then Israel's task is not to become a great political power.  Rather, she is called to be a "servant" and "witness" to the one true God (see chapters 42, 44-45, 53).

            For the next several weeks, the Epistle reading will be taken from the first letter of Paul to the Thessalonians, probably the earliest writing in the New Testament.  This Sunday we have Paul's greeting at the beginning of the letter.  Because of tensions within the community, Paul had to leave Thessalonica rather abruptly, and therefore in the traditional thanksgiving section, he assures the Thessalonian Christians of his continued union with them in prayer and encourages them to maintain their commitment to the Christian virtues: faith, love and hope. “We keep thanking God for all of you and we remember you in our prayers, for we constantly are mindful
before our God and Father of the way you are proving your faith, and laboring in love, and showing constancy in hope in your Lord Jesus Christ.”
            There has also been some criticism of Paul since his departure, and, therefore, he begins to defend the way in which he preached the gospel among them.  Paul insists that his preaching was not a matter of mere rhetoric but an authentic proclaiming of the gospel. “Our preaching of the gospel proved not a mere matter of words for you but one of power; it was carried on in the Holy Spirit and out of complete conviction.”
            This Sunday's Gospel continues the controversies between Jesus and the religious leaders who are attempting to "trap him in speech" during his last days in Jerusalem.  The question of paying taxes to the Roman emperor is raised by two groups who had very different views on the question.  The Pharisees, as devotees to the Jewish written and oral law, opposed the tax because it forced them to admit Israel's subjection to pagan Rome and to use coinage bearing the image of Caesar.  But the Herodians, who supported the descendants of Herod the Great, advocated cooperation with Rome.  In this situation, Jesus apparently cannot win, when the disciples of the Pharisees ask: “Is it lawful to pay tax to the emperor or not?”  Jesus exposes the hypocrisy of the Pharisees by asking them for a coin of tribute.  He does not carry such coins; they do.  His question goes on to intimate that to carry such coins, bearing Caesar's image, is to cooperate with the emperor’s rule. "Why are you trying to trip me up, you hypocrites? Show me the coin used for the tax . . . Whose head is this, and whose inscription?" The Pharisees are forced to say the image is “Caesar's,” and they thereby concede that they recognize the claims of Rome on their lives.  This makes the meaning of Jesus' final challenge something like this.  Because you carry Caesar's coin, it is clear that you "render to Caesar what is Caesar's," but I challenge you hypocrites to "give to God what is God's."  

            Throughout Christian history many have been tempted to identify a particular political cause with God's will.  Jesus' challenge forces us to be aware that God's demands and purposes transcend any particular political project.

Monday, October 9, 2017

28th Sunday A

28th Sunday of the Year A

Readings: Isaiah 25:6‑10  Philippians 4:12‑14, 19‑20  
Matthew  22:1‑14

            In today's Gospel Jesus attacks the chief priest and elders with the parable of the wedding feast.  As we hear the repeated  invitations to come to God's joyful banquet, let us sing in hope  the refrain of this Sunday's responsorial psalm: "I shall live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life" (Ps 23).
            Isaiah's vision in the first reading gives a joyful picture of the final messianic banquet on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem.  There are places for both Jews and Gentiles at the "feast of rich food and choice wines."  The prophet envisions "the Lord of hosts" providing "for all peoples" and destroying "the veil that veils all peoples."  He also speaks of the Lord God removing "the reproach of his people" (the Jews) who rejoice in his salvation. “On that day it will be said:/ ‘Behold our God, to whom we looked to save us!/ This is the Lord for whom we looked;/ let us rejoice and be glad that he has saved us!’"
            The second reading continues the selections from Paul's letter to the Philippians with a "thank you note" to the community for the care package they have sent to him in prison through their brother Epaphroditus.  It reflects Paul's understanding of the "share" that he and the church at Philippi have in the spreading of the gospel of the crucified Christ.  Paul, somewhat proud of  his capacity to suffer for the gospel, is almost embarrassed by the gift, and therefore begins by insisting that in Christ, he has "learned how to cope with every circumstance‑‑ how to eat well  or go hungry, to be well provided for or do without."  But, almost despite his tendency to rugged independence in Christ, Paul is grateful for the Philippians' "share" in his "hardships," and he prays that God in turn will supply their needs in Christ.

            The parable of the king's wedding feast for his son is the last of three parables that Jesus addresses to the chief priests and elders, condemning them for their failure to respond to God's repeated calls to repentance and entrance into the kingdom.   (Recall the two previous Sundays in which we read the parables of the two sons and the wicked tenants.) 
            The allegory of the wedding feast begins with great joy as the king issues a twofold invitation to the guests who have been invited to his son's wedding feast. “Tell those who were invited, See, I have my dinner prepared!  My bullocks and corn‑fed cattle are killed; everything is ready.  Come to the feast.” Sadly, the invited guests refuse both invitations out of worldly concerns and even react violently against the king's servants. “Some ignored the invitation and went their way, one to his farm, another to his business. The rest laid hold of his servants, insulted them, and killed them.” At this point, it is clear that the parable is an allegory for the religious leaders' repeated refusal to respond to God's invitation to the son's kingdom and the joys of the messianic banquet.
            The king's response is twofold.  In anger, he sends his army against the leaders' city to destroy it, an allegory for the destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman armies in 70 A.D.  And secondly, he sends his servants “into the byroads" to "invite to the wedding anyone you come upon."  For Matthew, this is an allegory for the spread of the gospel message among the Gentiles. These new guests fill up the wedding hall, but, we learn, they are made up of both “bad as well as good.” 
            For Matthew, to be invited to the banquet is not enough.   One must also respond with the proper deeds of repentance and good works (see Matt 5:13‑48), and therefore he adds a second  parable about the man without the proper wedding garment who is asked by the king, “My friend how is it you came in here not  properly dressed?”  Those "invited are many," but they must respond properly if they are to be considered the elect who will fully enjoy the wedding feast of the son.

            Although Matthew understood this parable as an allegory for the rejection of Jesus by the religious leaders of his time, we, Christians living in the early twenty-first century, should hear the parable as an invitation and warning not to miss the joyful summons to experience God's kingdom in the midst of our busy lives.  In the parable some of those invited respond violently, but others miss the invitation simply because they are distracted by the ordinary affairs of life.  “Some ignored the invitation and went their way, one to his farm, another to his business.”  Are we those who are distracted by the business of our daily lives?    

Monday, October 2, 2017

27th Sunday A

27th Sunday of the Year A

Readings: Isaiah 5:1‑7  Philippians 4:6‑9  Matthew 21:33‑43

            Nothing hurts us more than the ingratitude and irresponsibility of loved ones.  In this Sunday's readings both Isaiah's song of the vineyard and Jesus' parable of the wicked tenants tell us that God too is wounded by ingratitude and expects justice from the people who have received his bountiful blessings.  Aware of our sins in failing to respond to God's favor, let us pray for the opportunity to begin again in the words of the responsorial psalm. “Once again, O Lord of hosts,/ look down from heaven, and see;/ take care of this vine,/ and protect what your right hand has planted” (Ps 80:15‑16).
            Isaiah's allegory gives a poignant picture of the Lord's disappointment in Jerusalem and Judah during the 8th century B.C. when both the city and nation were corrupted with injustice and violence.  Using the figure of a "friend" who planted a "vineyard," the prophet begins the lyrics of a love song by describing how his friend lavished care on his vineyard (his beloved). “He spaded it, cleared it of stones,/ and planted the choicest vines;/ within it he built a watchtower,/ and hewed out a wine press.” Sadly, when he "looked for the crop of grapes," the vineyard only yielded "wild grapes."  Now the prophet, speaking for his friend, asks the "inhabitants of Jerusalem and men of Judah" to "judge between me and my vineyard."  Surely their sympathy is with the friend who asks "What more was there to do for my vineyard that I had not done?"  They can then understand why the friend decides to give up on the vineyard that yielded wild grapes and "Take away its hedge, give it to grazing,/ break  through its wall, let it be trampled." 
            The parable's punch line comes at the end when the prophet announces: “The vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel,/ and the men of Judah are his cherished plant;/ he looked for judgment, but see, bloodshed!/ for justice, but hark, the outcry (of injustice)!”

            The second reading continues the selections from Philippians with Paul's appeal to the community to settle their disputes by coming "to a mutual understanding in the Lord" (Phil 4:2).  He suggests two ways of doing this.  First of all, they are to present their "needs to God in every form of prayer and in petitions full of gratitude."   Their common prayer will give them "God's own peace, which is beyond all understanding."  Secondly, their "thoughts should be wholly directed to all that is true, all that deserves respect, all that is honest, pure, admirable, decent,  virtuous, or worthy of praise."  Paul again promises that if they live in this way, and in imitation of what he has done and taught, "Then will the God of peace be with you."
            The parable of the wicked tenants continues Jesus' attack on the chief priests and elders which began with the parable of the two sons in last week's gospel.  Using the imagery of Isaiah's song of the vineyard, Jesus' parable is an allegory for the religious leaders' repeated rejections of God's call for justice and their plans to now kill Jesus.  The parable begins with vineyard owner's attempts to collect rent from his tenants in the form of a share of the grapes at vintage time.  We hear that twice the rebellious tenants not only refused to pay the owner but also seized his slaves and “beat one, killed another and stoned a third.”  Finally, the vineyard owner decides to send his son, thinking, “They will respect my son.”  When the wicked tenants see the son, they recognize him as the heir and decide to kill him so that they may “have his inheritance.”  The parable ends with the tenants apparently succeeding in their plan.  They seize the son, drag him outside the vineyard, and kill him.  But the tenants have tragically miscalculated, for the vineyard owner is still alive, and so Jesus asks the chief priest and elders, “What do you suppose the owner of the vineyard will do to those tenants when he comes?”  With great irony, the leaders condemn themselves by saying, “He will bring that wicked crowd to a bad end and lease his vineyard out to others who will see to it that he has grapes at vintage time.”

            Rather than simply limiting this parable to a judgment of the chief priests and elders of Jesus' time, let us hear it as a warning to ourselves.  We, as tenants in the Lord's vineyard, have the responsibility to respond to God's call for the fruits of right judgment, justice, and peace.  Have we met the challenge or have we attempted to steal the inheritance for ourselves?

Monday, September 25, 2017

26th Sunday A

26th Sunday of the Year A

Readings: Ezekiel 18:25‑28   Philippians 2:1‑11   
Matthew 21:28‑32

            A central doctrine of both Judaism and Christianity is that God's mercy calls sinners to repentance.  Both religions reject a fatalism that would say people are predetermined in their conduct, and, instead, take the hope-filled position that God's mercy always makes it possible for the sinner to freely turn from a life of sin and find the new life God offers.  The correlative truth, however, is that the good person may turn from virtue and life to iniquity and death.  As we struggle in freedom to embrace God's mercy, let us pray in the words of the responsorial psalm: “Your ways, O Lord, make known to me;/ teach me your paths,/ guide me in your truth and teach me,/ for you are God my savior” (Ps 125:4‑5).
            In the Ezekiel reading, the prophet is instructing the Israelites who are complaining that “the Lord's way is not fair!”   They are enduring twin tragedies: the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile to Babylon, and many, believing that these punishments are due not to their own sins but those of their forefathers, are complaining: “Fathers have eaten green grapes,/ but their children's teeth are on edge.”  In response to this complaint Ezekiel insists on both God's mercy and justice and the corresponding freedom and responsibility of each Israelite.  On the one hand, if a virtuous person turns to sin, death will result.   But, on the other, if a wicked person rejects sin and does what is right and just, "he shall surely live, he shall not die."  The virtuous are to persevere, and the wicked are to repent.
            The second reading continues the selections from Philippians with Paul's magnificent hymn to Christ who triumphed over sin through self‑emptying love.  In the context of exhorting the Philippians to give up selfish and petty jealousy, Paul uses this early Christian hymn as the foundation for the Christian life of selfless love.  The pattern, established in Jesus, of death to self and resurrection through God's power is to mark the life of the community.  Christ, in contrast to his anti-type Adam, did not grasp at being godlike, but, like the suffering servant in Second Isaiah, took the form of a slave and emptied himself by becoming fully human, even to the point of obediently accepting the degradation of death on a cross.  God responded to this act of self-emptying love by exalting Jesus and bestowing on him lordship over the cosmos, so that at the mention of his name all beings in the universe might acknowledge him as Lord and Messiah.

            Jesus' parable about the two sons is addressed to the chief priests and elders who are challenging his authority for cleansing the Temple.  This bitter controversy will lead to their decision to arrest and execute Jesus.  After they had questioned him about his authority to drive the money changers out of the Temple, Jesus responded by asking them whether John's baptism was “from God” or “from human origin.”  Jesus’ challenge exposes their hypocrisy.  For, if they say, “from God,” Jesus would ask why they had not believed in John's call to repentance, and, if they say, “of human origin,” they fear the crowd who revered John as a prophet. Caught in their hypocritical web, they refuse to answer.
           Now Jesus challenges the chief priests and elders to repent by asking them to judge the case he proposes in the parable.  A father has two sons.  When the first son is asked to work in his vineyard, he says, “I am on my way, sir;” but he never went.  On the other hand, the second son initially refuses to obey his father's command, but “afterward (he) regretted it and went.” Jesus then asks the leaders, “Which of the two did what the father wanted?”  After they answer, “the second,” Jesus uses the parable to contrast their response to John's preaching with that of the "tax collectors and prostitutes."  The later, like the second son, repented of their sins when they heard John's preaching and thereby “are entering the kingdom of God.”  The leaders, however, like the first son, claim to be willing to do the father's will, but “put no faith” in John's preaching, even after they saw the repentance of the tax collectors and prostitutes.   Their smug religiosity keeps them from true repentance and belief in God's call through John's preaching. 

God's call is both challenge and offer of mercy.  If we have said "yes" to God, we must always ask, "Have I followed through in deeds?"  If we have rejected God in the past, we must remember His mercy always offers the opportunity for repentance and change.

Monday, September 18, 2017

25th Sunday A

25th Sunday of the Year A

Readings: Isaiah 55:6‑9  Philippians 1:20‑24,27  
Matthew 20:1‑16

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,/ nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord” (Isa 55:8). In our relationship with God, we may be tempted to calculate our standing on the basis of human conceptions of justice.  Today's readings challenge us to accept the surprising ways of God's mercy.   Let us be open to God's mercy to others, as we sing our responsorial psalm: "The Lord is near to all who call him" (Ps 145).

The first reading from the concluding poems of Second Isaiah is an invitation to the wicked to repent.  It is modeled on a priestly invitation to come to the sanctuary for sacrifice, but Second Isaiah makes this appeal in exile where the Jews have no sanctuary.  The prophet stresses two important features of God's call.  First, it comes at certain propitious moments: "Seek the Lord while he may be found,/ call to him while he is near."    Second, God "is generous in forgiving," and his mercy is beyond all human reckoning. “As high as the heavens are above the earth,/ so high are my ways above your ways/ and my thoughts above your thoughts.”
            For the next four Sundays our second reading will be from Paul's letter to the Philippians.   As is evident from today's reading, Paul writes this letter while he is in prison and awaiting trial for preaching the gospel.  He is not sure whether he will be condemned to die or be released so that he may continue his apostolic work, but he sees advantages in both possibilities: "I long to be freed from this life and to be with Christ, for that is the far better thing; yet it is more urgent that I remain alive for your sakes."  Paul's faith tells him that the outcome is in God's hands and that in either case "Christ will be exalted" by bringing forth "life" from a situation which, to human eyes, is fraught with death. “For, to me, ‘life’ means Christ; hence dying is so much gain.  If, on the other hand, I am to go on living in the flesh, that means productive toil for me . . .”
            The Gospel parable is traditionally called "The Laborers in the Vineyard," but it might be better entitled "The Generous Vineyard Owner."  Jesus' story gives us a glimpse of both God's generosity and the revolutionary character of "the reign of God."   The "owner" and "vineyard" are traditional images, drawn from the prophets (see Isaiah 5 and Jeremiah 12), for God and Israel.
            In the first half of the parable, the owner, apparently anxious to complete his grape harvest, hires workers at "dawn," "mid-morning," "noon," "mid-afternoon," and finally "late afternoon."  Concerning the workers hired at dawn, we learn that the owner "reached an agreement with them for the usual daily wage."   So far, the parable, with its anxious vineyard owner and unemployed day laborers, seems to be a typical picture of agrarian life in the time of Jesus.

            In the second half of the parable, however, we, and those who had "worked a full day in the scorching heart," are shocked by the owner's actions.  For some unstated reason, he instructs his foreman, "Call the workmen and give them their pay, but begin with the last group and end with the first."   Then, in defiance of any profit driven business practice, he gives those hired at the last hour “a full day's pay.”  Naturally, the full day workers, having endured the indignity of being paid last, “supposed they would get more,” but they too “received the same daily wage.”

            The dialogue between the disgruntled all day workers and the owner contains the punch line of the parable.  Understandably, the full day workers are upset at the apparent injustice of their being paid the same wage for twelve hours of work as those who only worked an hour.  But the master of the vineyard reminds them, “My friend, I do you no injustice.  You agreed on the usual wage, did you not?  Take your pay and go home.”  Then the owner goes on to give an explanation for his behavior.  “I intend to give this man who was hired last the same pay as you.  I am free to do as I please with my money, am I not?  Or are you envious because I am generous?”  God's generosity is not calculable on a human scale of "good business" or justice, and, in fact, often strikes the dutiful as injustice.  In Jesus' own ministry, he was often criticized by the religious leaders for his association with "tax collectors and sinners."  Within Matthew's community, there was concern about the entrance of Gentiles into an originally Jewish Christian community.  To all those who would put limits upon those called to "the reign of God," Jesus says, "`I am free to do as I please with my money, am I not?  Or are you envious because I am generous.' Thus the last shall be first and the first shall be last."

Monday, September 11, 2017

24th Sunday A

24th Sunday of the Year A

Readings: Sirach 27:30‑28:7  Romans 14:7‑9  Matthew 18:21‑35

            Forgiveness of those who have wronged us may be one of the most difficult teachings of the Jewish and Christian traditions, but in today's readings we learn that it is absolutely essential if we are to truly experience the God of Moses and Jesus.  Conscious of our own need for forgiveness and the necessity of extending forgiveness to others, let us gratefully sing this Sunday's responsorial psalm: "The Lord is kind and merciful/ slow to anger, and rich in compassion" (Ps 103).
            The wisdom sayings of the Book of Sirach remind us that Jesus’ teaching on forgiveness of the enemy is a continuation of his own Jewish tradition.  Sirach's reflections about the destructive nature of wrath and anger are rooted in his understanding of the nature of the covenant God of Israel.  In mercy the Most High has entered a covenant with Israel and overlooked its faults, and as a consequence the children of Israel are to set aside vengeance and to forgive one another.  They cannot directly repay God for his forgiveness; only if they extend forgiveness to others, do they properly understand the demands of God's covenant love. “Forgive your neighbor's injustice; then when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven. Should a man nourish anger against his fellows and expect healing from the Lord? Should a man refuse mercy to his fellows, yet seek pardon for his own sins?”
            Paul's reflections in the Romans reading come in the midst of a chapter in which he is urging two factions in the community to be considerate and non‑judgmental of one another.  The "weak in faith" (probably Jewish‑Christians) are keeping certain dietary restrictions and observing special days (the Sabbath?), but others are eating whatever they want and consider every day alike.  In both cases, the individuals are acting in sincerity "for the Lord."  Therefore, Paul urges both groups to leave judgment to the Lord.  The basis for this attitude is that Christians are no longer their own masters.  They belong to the Lord, to Christ who died and came to life again for them.  They are to live and die as his responsible servants, and each of them will have to give an account before the judgment seat of God. “For if we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die, we die for the Lord; so then, whether we live or die we are the Lord’s.  For this is why Christ died and came to life, that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.  Why then do you judge your brother? Or you, why do you look down on your brother?  For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of God.”

            The Gospel reading continues the theme of forgiveness with the unforgettable story of the unforgiving servant.  The context for Jesus' parable is the conclusion of the discourse in Matthew 18 on relations among Christians.  Peter tries to force Jesus to make a legal determination of how often one must extend forgiveness to a brother who has wronged him.  Peter's initial proposal of forgiving “seven times” seems quite generous, but Jesus replies that forgiveness should be unlimited.  “No, not seven times; I say, seventy times seven times.”

            He then proceeds to illustrate the folly and tragedy of not being forgiving with a parable about the “reign of God.”  The behavior of the king in the parable is surprising.  At first when he discovers that one of his officials owes him 10,000 talents (a huge sum equivalent to billions of dollars in our currency), he orders that the official be “sold, along with his wife, children, and all his property.”  But, when the official begs, “My lord, be patient with me and I will pay you back in full,” the king is moved with pity, releases the official, and writes off the debt. 

            The next scene mirrors the first with, of course, significant differences.  When the same official, having just been forgiven a huge debt, goes out, he meets a fellow servant who owes him 100 denarii, a debt that could reasonably be repaid.  But when his fellow servant asks for patience in the same words as the official had, “Be patient with me, and I will pay you back,” the official refuses and has his fellow servant put in jail until he pays back what he owed.  When the master hears of the official's callous behavior, he confronts him with his lack of compassion: “You worthless wretch!  I canceled your entire debt when you pleaded with me.  Should you not have dealt mercifully with your fellow servant, as I dealt with you?” Jesus ends his parable by warning, “My heavenly Father will treat you in exactly the same way unless each of you forgives his brother from his heart.”

Monday, September 4, 2017

23rd Sunday A

23rd Sunday of the Year A

Readings: Ezekiel 33:7‑9   Romans 13:8‑10   Matthew 18:15‑20

            In this Sunday's liturgy both the first reading and the Gospel challenge us to correct those within the community who have sinned.  But in the second reading we are also reminded that the only debt we owe to anyone is love them.  As we strive to be faithful to both the demands of God's justice and the command to love one another, let us humbly listen to the call of this Sunday's responsorial psalm: "If today you hear his voice,/  harden not your hearts" (Ps 95).
            The first reading is part of Ezekiel's commissioning as a prophet (see also Ezekiel 3).  He is living with the Jewish exiles in Babylon, and the Lord calls him to be the "watchman for the house of Israel."  Like the sentry who alerts a city when an invading army is approaching, Ezekiel has the all-important responsibility of warning the wicked that they will die if they do not repent of their sins.  If Ezekiel does not speak out, God will hold him responsible for their death.  If he does warn them, then, even if they refuse to listen, he will save himself. 
            The reading from Romans continues the exhortation section of that letter with Paul's summary of Christian ethical responsibilities.  Like Jesus, Paul believes that the command "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" fulfills or includes all the individual commandments that have to do with the neighbor: the prohibitions of adultery, murder, theft, and coveting.  Paul understands the obligation to love the neighbor as a "debt" owed to the neighbor because of what God has done for us in forgiving our sins through the death and resurrection of Christ.  Love is not some vague emotional feeling for the neighbor, but an active and considerate concern "that never does any wrong to the neighbor" (see also 1 Corinthians 13).
            The Gospel reading is taken from Jesus' fourth great discourse in Matthew which is addressed to Peter and the other disciples and treats relationships in the community.   In this section Jesus is giving advice on how to settle disputes if one member of the community wrongs another.  Jesus proposes four stages for the settling of such problems.  First, if one has been wronged, the person should point out the fault to the other and attempt to keep the matter between the two of them.  If the other party listens, you have won that person over (see Lev 19:17, 18).  If this method fails, one should bring forward one or two witnesses in accord with the prescriptions of the Jewish law (see Deut 19:15).  If the person fails to listen to the witnesses, then the matter should be referred to the church (the local community).  Finally, if the person ignores the church, then the community should treat the offender as "a Gentile or tax collector."   This does not mean that the person is permanently expelled from the community.  Recall that Jesus himself frequently associated with Gentiles, tax collectors and sinners and called them to conversion (Matt 8:5‑13; 9:9‑13; 11:19; etc.).

            After giving a procedure for settling disputes, Jesus confers upon the community the authority to make decisions in disciplinary matters.  "I assure you, whatever you declare bound  on earth shall be held bound in heaven, and whatever you declare  loosed on earth shall be held loosed in heaven" (see also Matt  16:19).  Jesus' final words move beyond the realm of disputes to prayer.  He ends with the consoling promise of his continued presence within the community when it gathers for prayer in his name (see also Matt 28:20). "Again I tell you, if two of you join your voices on earth to pray for anything whatever, it shall be granted you by my Father in heaven. Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in their midst."