If you ever belonged to a group with a member who failed to “go with the program”—a team member of your basketball club who often missed practice, or a cast member who refused to learn his lines—you know the kind of situation addressed by this Sunday’s Gospel. Of the five major speeches of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, the fourth one (from which today's reading comes) is about the internal management of the Church. One scholar called his study of this speech “Matthew’s Advice to a Divided Community,” because he saw in this passage the evangelist's focusing of Jesus' sayings to address problems of his own divided church.
In the center of Matthew 18 sits a procedure similar to the protocol mandated in almost any secular policy manual. For example, the student handbook at the school where I teach says that if you want to challenge a grade you should first take your case to the instructor. If the problem is settled at that level, fine. If not, take it to the department chair. If you find no satisfaction there, go to the dean.
This is a procedure for conflict resolution that thousands of reasonable persons have arrived at without consulting Scripture. What elevates this protocol to something worthy of the inner life of the Church is the context the evangelist provides.
First, Matthew has carefully placed the parable of the shepherd and the lost sheep right before this disciplinary procedure. The story of the lost sheep, which in Luke 15 is a defense of Jesus' practice of eating with tax collectors and sinners, becomes in Matthew 18 a model for the exercise of Christian authority (go after the wandering sheep lovingly).
Then, right after the escalating procedure, which in the hard case can result in excommunication, Matthew describes this use of authority with the “binding and loosing” language used in Jewish circles to describe the chief rabbi's authority to include or exclude from community. It is the same language used of Peter's authority in Matthew 16:18. This grounds the authority in Christ. To further keep this disciplinary authority in perspective, Matthew next includes two powerful sayings that remind his readers that the community in which such discipline occurs is the same community whose power of petitionary prayer derives from their praying together and whose source of unity is the presence of the risen Lord in their midst. (Mt 18:19-20)
Finally, Matthew rounds off the context of the confrontation protocol by completing the speech with another parable, the unforgiving servant—about a man who is forgiven something like our national debt and then turns around and abuses a coworker who owes him a mere pittance. The obvious message: if we have been forgiven enormously by God, we should pass on that forgiveness generously to our fellow human beings.
Thus, the evangelist takes one of the toughest challenges any community has to face—what to do with the recalcitrant member whose behavior endangers the life of the community—and presents a reasonable protocol of escalating confrontation; but he makes sure this is done in the spirit of Christ by surrounding it with teachings of Jesus modeling extreme care (shepherd parable), prayer, and endless forgiveness. What holds for pope and bishops extends, of course, to pastors, parents, teachers, employers, and friends.