Sermon: “Keep Your Eye on the Ancient Interpreters” (Matthew 18)

Although modern biblical scholarship may rightly reveal that many traditional assumptions about the Bible are wrong, the Bible’s ancient interpreters can point us to how God is still speaking to us through scripture — just as God always has and always will.

Keep Your Eye on the Ancient Interpreters

The Rev. J. Carl Gregg        

2 October 2011

Broadview Church; Chesapeake Beach, Maryland

15 “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. 16 But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector. 18 Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19 Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

Matthew 18:15-20


Before we dive into this morning’s scripture, I would like to briefly recapitulate a central point from last week’s sermon that there are an almost endless number of ways to interpret any given text. In particular we looked at three general categories of methodologies: trying to glimpse “behind the text” to extrapolate the historical context; concentrating “in the text” itself for various literary, narrative and rhetorical features; and opening yourself to what is happening to you, your community, and your worldview “in front of the text” as you read and study.

This morning I wanted to say, in particular, that despite the immense amount of insight that can be gained from trying to peak “behind the text” to the original context or the insights that can be gained from focusing on the text itself, either of these interpretive strategies can (and has) led many people to abandon a focus on how God is still speaking to us today both through the text of scripture and through every aspect of our lives.

This dynamic is a major focus of our Tuesday Night Bible study this fall on James Kugel’s book How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now. Kugel is one of those paradoxical human beings who is both an observant orthodox Jew and a highly respected professor who taught the historical-critical study of the Hebrew Bible at Harvard University for decades. Kugel’s orthodox Jewish heritage makes him keenly interested in the meaning of scripture for today (“in front of the text”), while his academic focus is on the original context thousands of years ago (“behind the text”). Kugel brings the fruit of living with this tension to his writing.

As Kugel guides us through the Hebrew Bible, he continually juxtaposes the way ancient interpreters read the Bible (from approximately 300 years before Jesus until about 200 years after Jesus) with the way modern scholars have read the Bible for the past 150 years. He begins by contrasting “Four Assumptions” that are distinctly different for ancient versus modern interpreters of the Bible.

First, ancient interpreters assumed scripture was “fundamentally cryptic,” whereas modern scholars defer to the so-called “plain sense” of scripture unless there is clear reason to think otherwise.

Second, ancient interpreters assumed that all of scripture was directed to “each reader in their own day” (what we’re calling “in front of the text”), whereas modern scholars focus on the “original context” (what we’re calling “behind the text”). Kugel — despite countless hours in the library studying historical-criticism — helpfully cautions his readers not to get lost “behind the text.” He says, “Keep your eye on the ancient interpreters.” Kugel is saying that despite all we have learned in the past 150 years of thoroughgoing modern biblical scholarship — and we have learned many historical insights that are invaluable — he is saying that, nevertheless, we should keep our eye on those ancient interpreters that lived more than a thousand years before the scientific revolution. He advises us to keep our eyes on the ancient interpreters because they have wisdom to teach us that has been too often lost in the wake of the modernity, despite its many social and technological benefits.

Returning to our brief survey of Kugel’s “Four Assumptions” of ancient versus modern interpreters, we can perhaps now see that although modern interpreters are surely right that the various books of the Bible “contradict one another and our current scientific understanding” and that the “trail of the human serpent” is all over scripture; nevertheless, there is a sense in which the ancient interpreters were right to see that there is a “harmony” to scripture and that scripture is “divinely given.” Said differently, although modern biblical scholarship may rightly reveal that many traditional assumptions about the Bible are wrong, the Bible’s ancient interpreters can point us to how God is still speaking to us through scripture — just as God always has and always will.


If all of this theoretical talk so far doesn’t resonate with you, then — turning to our passage for this morning — you may be pleased to see that Matthew’s Jesus has some fairly good, practical, concrete conflict-management advice. If someone wrongs you, start by confronting the person directly — instead of, for example, gossiping about that person behind their back, perhaps based on false information that could’ve been cleared up if you had followed Jesus’ first step. If you perceive yourself as having been wronged, begin by opening up a conversation with the person you think may be at fault.

If that person is ornery or in denial, ask one or two other people to come with you for round two. Having witnesses can sometimes make a positive change in the tenor of a difficult conversation. Notice here that Jesus doesn’t say to have one or two other people confront the person in your place. In modern sociological terms having someone serve as your proxy is called “triangulation.” At first there was merely a two-way conflict between you and another. But if you have a third party go in your place, you have created a “triangle” of conflict — you have “triangulated” that third person — which will likely result in the third party being unnecessarily dragged into the dispute. These sorts of situations inspired the phrase “Don’t shoot the messenger!”

Finally, Jesus says, “If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” There are a number of problematic aspects to this passage, but, perhaps most importantly, many of you will remember for last week’s sermon that it is highly doubtful that Jesus ever spoke the word “church,” at least not in the sense we understand the word. The word church only occurs four times in the whole of the canonical Gospels, and all four instances occur in The Gospel According to Matthew: the one time in Matthew 16 we have already seen regarding Peter being the “Rock” on which the church is built and three more times in our scripture for this morning. Both these instances are anachronistic and reflect an understanding of the word “church” and “Peter’s position in Matthew’s branch of the emerging Christian movement” that postdate the historical Jesus.


If we were only focused “behind the text” on what the historical Jesus said, we might be tempted to ignore these verses, but we have already seen that these verses contain wisdom for us here “in front the text” 2,000 years later irrespective of their original intended audience. As Kugel would say, “Keep your eye on those ancient interpreters,” who were open to how God is always speaking in every present moment, irrespective of a passage’s original context.

I also want to turn our attention to verse 20 which says, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” The historical Jesus may have said these words, although it is dubious. More likely, these verses mixed in with the Christian oral tradition sometime between Jesus’ death around 30 A.D. and the writing of Matthew Gospel around fifty years later as the early church was coming into formation.

All of the numerical language in this morning’s scripture reflects a lively debate that began centuries before Jesus and continued after his death in books like the Mishnah, a written version of what is known as the “Oral Torah,” which includes arguments that span centuries, but that came into a finalized form around 200 A.D.

Examples of numerical references in this morning’s scripture include taking “one or two others along with you” to confront an offending party, why you need “two or three witnesses,” or that something changes when “two or three are gathered in my name.” The number of people that you need for various acts derives from a number of pre-Jesus sources, including Deuteronomy 19:15, which says, “A single witness is not sufficient to convict a person of any crime or wrongdoing…. Only on the evidence of two or three witnesses can a charge be sustained.” We similarly see language of “two or three witnesses” being needed (not just one witness) in 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Timothy, and Hebrews.

Looking to Jewish precedents in the Mishnah, we read that, “If two sit together and words of the Torah (are spoken) between them, the Divine Presence rests between them…” Later we see, “If three have eaten at one table and have spoken over it words of the Torah, it is as if they had eaten from the table of God.” Finally, and most interestingly, we see, “If ten men sit together, and occupy themselves in Torah, the Divine Presence rests among them, for it is written, God stands in the congregation of God.” In many Jewish contexts, this claim readily makes sense because a quorum of ten Jewish adults is required for some religious rituals. But, the Mishnah continues, “What if we have only five?” Voicing the affirmative, the text continues to press the issues: “What if only three?” And then “What if only two?” The affirmative answers here are expected because almost any reader of the Mishnah would know the answer because she or he would have a familiarity with Deuteronomy’s criterion of only two or three witnesses being needed as a minimum. But the Mishnah presses onward — doubtlessly because this issue was a matter of contention — “What about whenever there is only one person?” The text answers affirmatively, “Because it is written, ‘In every place where I record my name, I will come unto thee and I will bless thee.’”


I have taken the time to point out these various passages because Matthew 18:20 has inspired a significant amount of controversy over the years. Indeed, I remember being nervous sometimes as child when I heard this verse quoted because I would think to myself, “Does that mean that God doesn’t hear me when I’m alone?” I am far from alone in this interpretation. Some Christians read the line from Matthew’s Jesus that, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” to mean that the movements of early Christians hermits into the desert were illegitimate. Other Christians in the Free Church tradition have sometimes looked to this passage to refute church authority — saying the equivalent of, “If we have two or three people who believe the same way that we do, then we don’t have to worry about what the church tradition or apostolic authorities say. If two or three of us agree, then Christ is present.”

Following in the same direction as the Mishnah, the utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill in his nineteenth-century essay, “On Liberty,” declared that, “If all humankind minus one, were of one opinion, and only one person were of the contrary opinion, humankind would be no more justified in silencing that one person, than the person, if she or he had the power, would be justified in silencing humankind.” But if each person comprises a committee of one, the world would be left in terrible isolation.

I think the point is that Matthew’s Jesus is inviting to lean in toward community. Sometimes we have to go at it alone, but in highlighting the fruit that can result when “two or three are present,” we are seeing a similar point to that made in the fourth chapter of Ecclesiastes:

9 Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. 10 For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help…. 12 And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one. A threefold cord is not quickly broken.

So where does this point leave us? What I hope this sermon has shown, at least in part, is that this scripture passage — and well as many others — has been interpreted almost countless different ways over the past two thousand years, and I am increasingly convinced that this proliferation of interpretation is a good and inevitable occurrence.Certainly anywhere “two or three are gathered,” there is almost a guarantee that you will have at least two or more opinions and interpretations!

I’m reminded of a parable that the theologian Peter Rollins tells

about two rabbis sitting in a park arguing about a passage of the Torah. They’ve been arguing about it for years and can never come to an agreement. God is so tired of their contending that finally God parts the sky, comes down and says, “You guys have been fighting for years. I will now tell you what the passage means.” And in a rare moment of unity, the two rabbis turn to God and say, “What right have you to come down here and tell us what it means? Go away and let us argue.”

This story invites us to consider that, as important as it is to look “behind the text” for the original context, even the author’s original intent is not the final arbiter of meaning. As we learn to embrace new methods of interpretation, we are well advised to remember Kugel’s advice to “Keep your eye on those ancient interpreters,” who remind us that, through whatever text we are reading, God is still speaking in ever new and different ways — including the ways God speaks to us through the many different interpretations of our fellow church members. We must, then, open our ears, not only to God, but to the sometimes surprising insights of our neighbors, whom God calls us to love. Even in the midst of deep diversity, there can be no full manifestation of the love of neighbor without open ears, open hearts, and open minds.

So let us be thankful for the challenging, often subversive insights of modern biblical scholarship. But let us keep our eyes also on the wisdom of those ancient interpretation, who remind us of the countless different ways in which God is still speaking.


1 James Kugel’s “Four Assumptions” on ancient versus modern biblical interpretation — see How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now, 14, 31.

2 Jacob Neusner, The Mishnah: A New Translation. The Mishnah is so important from some perspectives that its status as “Oral Torah” has been held as of equivalent importance to the “Written Torah” (the first five books of the Bible), and it has been called, “half of the one whole Torah revealed by God to Moses at Mt. Sinai.” Fascinatingly for Jewish-Christian dialogue, the Mishnah/“Oral Torah” was coalescing into its final “canonical” form in the wake of the destruction of the Second Jerusalem Temple in 70 A.D., which is the same period in which the Christian New Testament canon was being written. In many ways, Modern Rabbinical Judaism and Christianity are “sibling religions,” which are both birthed from the same “parent” of Second Temple Judaism, a form of religion no longer sustainable after the Romans destroyed the Temple. Thus, both these sibling religions (and eventually Islam, too) became “people of the book.”

3 We similarly see language of “two or three witnesses” being needed (not just one witness) in 1 Corinthians, 2 Corinthians, Timothy, and Hebrews:

  • 1 Corinthians 14:29, “Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said.”
  • 2 Corinthians 13:1, “Any charge must be sustained by the evidence of two or three witnesses.”
  • 1 Timothy 5:19, “Never accept any accusation against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses.
  • Hebrews 10:28, “Anyone who has violated the law of Moses dies without mercy ‘on the testimony of two or three witnesses.’”

4 The parable is from “Seeds of Doubt,” an interview with Peter Rollins in The Christian Century (June 2, 2009), 22.

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