When It's Wrong to be Right
Matthew 18.18 What you
prohibit on earth will be prohibited in heaven, and what you permit on
earth with be permitted in heaven.
Verses eighteen and nineteen of
today's Gospel reading always tend to induce in me a sense of incredulity.
I don't find it easy to credit that anyone could be so sure of themselves
as to make such large claims.
I suppose we've all come across people who appear
certain that they have final answers to the world's key questions. In a
way I envy them. What consolation there must be in knowing beyond
all doubt that you have found even a single absolute answer to the
dilemmas of life! The sense of security must, I suppose, be deeply
Fortunately for the majority - the doubters, the fumblers, the
haplessly uncertain - these are almost certainly not the words of Jesus
himself. It's generally agreed that they are an insertion by the Gospel's
author. They reflect a way of handling disciplinary problems in a local
Christian group of the first century, probably one with a Jewish
Many scholars now recognise that members of such groups would have been
under great pressure to renege on their new-found faith. They would have
found unswerving allegiance to the strange new Messiah difficult. Family
and friends, the local synagogue leaders or the town council, may have
regarded such people as a corrupting menace to the established order.
It can be difficult for today's multi-cultural city dwellers to
understand just how resistant to new ideas small, relatively homogeneous
rural communities can be. Many today take for granted the freedom to think
and behave as a independent individual. That freedom is much more limited
in an authority-based, hierarchical social order.
With this in mind, it's easier to understand that the earliest
Jewish-Christian groups would have had to be tightly knit to survive.
Members of the group who "sinned" by lapsing into their former ways would,
it seems, have been disciplined by a system of excommunication and
re-admission (see also Matthew 16.19, John 20.23). That is, a particular
situation dictated a particular response by the early Church. These verses
reflect that response.
When one understands that this Gospel reading makes sense for the
situation in which it was written, its apparently inflated claims are cut
down to size. We can't today easily sympathise with the needs of the small
groups of Jewish Christians struggling to survive a hostile environment in
the decades after the death of Jesus. But we can, I hope, understand the
degree of reassurance they may have needed, and have got, from passages
such as this.
An ongoing problem is, however, that today's reading tends to be used
for purposes other than its original intention. It is quoted to justify
the actions and confirm the assumed power of some Christians. I refer, of
course, to those who quote it as justification for their sense of absolute
rectitude in relation to contentious moral matters and in support of
In essence their argument runs like this:
God can't be wrong. Right? God's will has been revealed to me by the
Holy Spirit or the Bible or both. Therefore my permissions and
prohibitions must be right. And if I'm right then you're wrong if
you disagree with me. In that case I have the right to put you right.
And if you think I'm wrong to try to put you right, then please just
refer to Matthew 18.18 and that will put us all right.
A clue to the validity or otherwise of this chain of thought is, I
think, to be found in something we can be almost sure was
said by Jesus.
He refused to judge others and advised us not to do so (Matthew 7.1).
To judge others right or wrong from some absolute standpoint is precisely
to take God's place, since only God can know anyone or any situation to
their depths. Only God can know the multi-variant circumstances, including
our personal choices, which have lead to a particular action.
Jesus did not claim either the right or the ability to do this.
As a society we must judge those who have broken the law, and we have
to do so consistently and impartially. The practice of debating what's
right or wrong is gradually becoming ingrained into some cultures. In the
end we all have to come down on one or another side of an issue. Even
sitting on the fence is to take a position.
But that's not the same thing as assuming God's mantle (to use an image
from 2 Kings 2.13) and claiming that we have a God-given ability to
pronounce absolutely on anything. To do so is to revert to a way of
dealing with the world which never worked very well and which certainly
doesn't work well in the 21st century.