I’ll just slide by my really long absence from writing anything other than book reviews. Work is nuts, and this ain’t my work… but I do enjoy it. So let’s give it another whirl.
What I want to say in this post has been simmering for a while. I read it a couple months ago, I’ve discussed it with a couple people since. I think theology is best served in that kind of airing; it’s the classic way of Jewish scholars and it keeps you from getting in your own head.
Matthew 18 is what I want to hit up. This will be a long one, but forgive me… I haven’t written in a long time. I think this is worth sticking around for.
Matthew 18 is sort of divided into a few sections made a little more obvious thanks to some spacing and titles from our trusty Bible editors. Generally, it goes like this:
- The disciples try to figure out who’s the man and Jesus says, “none of you,” then shows them a little kid as an example of how to be.
- The parable of the lost sheep.
- Correcting another believer.
- The parable of the unforgiving debtor.
I’m not breaking much new ground there… most of those are the topic headings.
But listen… looking at that collection together is what strikes me. Think about this: If Jesus was using a kid sitting on his lap to show his disciples how they ought to conduct themselves, what if the kid stuck around for the whole story? Knowing kids, it’s just as likely that the parable of the lost sheep suddenly became a living story because the kid did wander off.. but what if that’s not what happened? What if Jesus told this whole chapter with a child right there, serving as a human object lesson?
If that’s true, then it reframes the entire tone of this chapter, especially verses 15-20 (the correcting people part). Those six verses have probably appeared in more excommunication proceedings, more pastor firings, more church splits than any other part of the Bible. I can certainly testify to my reading of it. “If you’re right, tell other guy he’s wrong. If he doesn’t listen, take someone else to tell him you’re right. If he still doesn’t listen, take it to the church, and then finally kick his butt out of there.” Right?
But that’s waaaaay out of place in this chapter if that’s what the section really means. If that’s the meaning we’re supposed to take, why does Jesus shoehorn it between two stories about compassion? All of which follows another section which can probably be correctly translated, “just get over yourself”?
I’ll tell you why, and this hit me right between the eyes: because humility and redemption are the points of it all. Compassion is the fruit of humility, and that’s really easy to miss when you’re busy trying to prove who’s right.
You might say, “well, maybe Jesus didn’t say all this together.” Sure, but then we still have centuries of churches teaching this thing as a unit? Should we maybe reframe it for the sake of history? Either way, I think using 15-20 as a cudgel is dramatically missing the point of life in community.
So there’s my setup. Let me get a little more to the point.
If stern and upright correction isn’t the whole picture, what is? If this isn’t rules for running your board of elders or church council like a jury, what is it?
Community is more important than your ego
If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of a correction by other believers, you know that it’s no picnic. There’s a good chance they carefully thought the whole thing out and presented it to you, encouraging you to repent or some such thing. There’s a good chance they prayed before they started so they could fully invoke the spirit into the braining they were about to put you through. And there’s a really good chance you felt like you would have been in defiance of God himself to argue back.
I don’t think that’s what Jesus intended for this mondo-bizarro, selfless, loving community that he started. I think Paul might have channeled a bit of Jesus’s intention in Galatians 6:
Dear brothers and sisters, if another believer is overcome by some sin, you who are godly should gently and humbly help that person back onto the right path. And be careful not to fall into the same temptation yourself. Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ.If you think you are too important to help someone, you are only fooling yourself. You are not that important.
Doesn’t that sound a bit more like Jesus? Beyond the intention, consider some of the phrases if they mean this (from the NLT):
15 “If another believer sins against you, go privately and point out the offense. If the other person listens and confesses it, you have won that person back.
Remember Jesus and Nicodemus? Nic came at night because it showed respect. Jewish culture was not above calling people out in the public square if they misspoke or erred. Going to someone privately was a show of honor, that you hold their dignity as equally as your own correctness.
16 But if you are unsuccessful, take one or two others with you and go back again, so that everything you say may be confirmed by two or three witnesses.
And don’t we think we understand THIS! Witnesses prove that I’m right, right? But listen, Sherlock… what if you’re NOT right? “Go back again” seems to indicate the private nature of the original, one-on-one interaction, so once again this isn’t calling someone out in the public square. What’s going on in that private meeting? People are saying their peace. But what if the witnesses aren’t there just to nod their heads in agreement with this character who’s claiming damages? What if they’re also present to let this damaged guy know that he’s also acting like an idiot, that he caused offense too, or that he’s just wrong? The witnesses should be unbiased to let BOTH sides know if they’re wrong. Because we’re supposed to be peacemakers, right? That seems like the hard work of peacemaking to me.
17 If the person still refuses to listen, take your case to the church. Then if he or she won’t accept the church’s decision, treat that person as a pagan or a corrupt tax collector.
We’re in public now, but I still submit that the objective is redemption if at all possible. The church is involved because we are a community. And if we’re a community, we bear with one another. And if we bear with one another… we don’t seek to cut someone off. Even if the offender won’t repent, remember how Jesus treated corrupt tax collectors? Remember Zacchaeus? Aren’t we all redeemed sinners, and aren’t we glad somebody didn’t give up on us?
18 “I tell you the truth, whatever you forbid on earth will be forbidden in heaven, and whatever you permit on earth will be permitted in heaven.19 “I also tell you this: If two of you agree here on earth concerning anything you ask, my Father in heaven will do it for you. 20 For where two or three gather together as my followers, I am there among them.”
Funny how the last part of this verse is used often to describe the minimum for a worship service. “Wherever two or more” has always been the battle cry of a preacher who can’t muster a big crowd, and it’s absolutely correct as that metric. It’s also correct here. Christ is present with us, and in no smaller part with this person who we’re trying to convince of his or her error. We come together so that Christ may be present, and we want Christ present in these situations especially. Also notice where the real power is granted: after the church’s introduction. You certainly hope that redemption happens before you get to that point, but if it doesn’t, it’s still vital to preserve the community. Power isn’t given to a pastor or chairman of deacons so that it can be wielded. If we’re not submitting to one another, we’re not acting like the church.
And then maybe there’s still a kid there. Maybe Jesus just called over the naughtiest kid in the village to make this point, it would be appropriate. Maybe this little discourse was poignant because everyone in the village knew the kid was rotten, but they also knew that they’d never cast him out. They knew that his parents loved him, that the village would work together to raise him. That he wasn’t yet the person they knew he could be, and that future was what they most wanted for him. He wouldn’t get that if he was cast into the wilderness.