The appointed Gospel for the Festival of St. Michael and All Angels is Matthew 18:1-11, no doubt chosen for its reference to the angels of little children (or, perhaps, new believers). As I was studying this pericope in preparation for preaching, I was struck once again by the way that Jesus seems to speak of the most extreme form of church discipline: excommunication. Repeating a theme found already in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says that if one of your body parts (members) causes you to stumble, cut it off so that the rest of your body is not cast into hell. Rather than take Jesus literally, preachers usually use these words as a call to repentance. Gouge out your eye, that is, repent.
David Scaer has a different take, and one with which I wholeheartedly agree. He says that the use of the word “body” here could be a reference to the church, as the “body of Christ,” and the eye and the hand and the foot are different members of that Body. Cutting off the offending body part would then mean casting out the person who is leading others to sin, so that the whole body (church) is not infected and thrown into hell. This interpretation makes sense, especially considering that earlier in this pericope Jesus warns against offending against the “least of these” who believe in him. The idea here is that it is better to lose the offending member than for the unchecked sin of that member lead the whole church into sin.
Analogous to this would be a foot or limb with gangrene. Before cutting off the foot, you do everything possible to save the foot. I have seen someone go through this process before. By-pass surgeries are the most common attempts to bring blood to the limb. When all else fails, the limb is amputated in order to save the rest of the body. If it is not, then the poison spreads up the leg, and infects the whole body. So also in the church, as one finds in Matthew 18, every attempt to reconcile the erring member is made before putting him out of the fellowship of the church. When all else fails, the last resort is to “cut him off,” that is, to excommunicate him, to “treat him as a tax collector and a sinner.”
A “real life” example of this taking place might be someone who lives an openly adulterous life. Left unchecked, this person can eventually lead the rest of the church members into sin since it would appear that such a lifestyle is tolerable in the eyes of God. Better to enter life without that offending brother, than for the whole church to be cast into the pit of hell. As with a gangrenous limb, which lacks blood supply, the offending member is already dead in his sins. Excommunication is merely the public acknowledgment of something that has already happened internally.