Matthew 18:15-20 (ESV)
15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.”
Dear Heavenly Father, send your Holy Spirit upon us so that we may care for the ‘little ones’ in our midst, for the sake of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
Today’s Gospel reading is usually one of the very few Scripture passages quoted in our Congregational Constitutions and By-Laws. It often forms the basis of a detailed three-stage process describing church discipline.
Although the By-Laws say all church discipline is to be done ‘in an evangelical manner’ (which means it’s to be done in accordance with the gospel) and that it should be done with the purpose of gaining a member, it seems to encourage us to admonish, or tell off, everyone who does the wrong thing.
Since the church is full of sinful saints, it would seem we’d have a full-time job if we had to tell each other off every time we feel upset by what people say and do! If we ever attempted to rebuke each other every time someone did something wrong, we shouldn’t be surprised people no longer want to be part of our fellowship!
So, does Jesus really wants us to tell each other off every time we feel hurt by each other? Have we misunderstood what he’s saying here, or have we gone about it in the wrong way?
Well, it would serve us well to understand what Jesus says here is only part of his conversation with his disciples. To better understand the context he was speaking into, we need to go back to the beginning of the chapter.
This is where we hear the disciples were wondering who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
In other words, who is more important? Who is more worthy? Who is more valuable? Whose rights should be more prominent in God’s kingdom?
This question in itself shows our inherent human nature which is selfish and self-centred. We want to be merited for our righteous behaviour, and we judge each other based on merit. This question is all about me and where I stand over against the pecking order of the rest of the people of God.
My pride might figure I follow Jesus more nearly, love him more dearly, and see him more clearly than everyone else, and I want to be recognised for this. Surely I’m more important, more prominent, more admirable, more righteous, and more holy than those sinners next to me, aren’t I Jesus? Surely I’ve earned a spot closer to Jesus based on my own efforts and good intentions?
But Jesus turns this type of thinking upside down.
In response he invites a toddler to stand in the middle of the disciples. Now, a very young child, while valuable to his or her parents, normally contributes nothing of value to society. They are powerless, uneducated, unskilled, naïve, and defenceless. Despite their best efforts to convince us the world should revolve around them, they have no right to rule or have a position higher than anyone else.
Yet Jesus says: “Unless you turn and become like a toddler, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt 18:3-4).
Now, Jesus isn’t asking his disciples to be childish. He’s asking us to be childlike. He’s turning our world upside down by telling us only the childlike actually get into the kingdom of heaven. The childlike have no authority or power or greatness about them. You see, it’s not about being great or important or valuable or more righteous in God’s kingdom, but about being humble. It’s about being ‘little ones’ in the kingdom.
At this point it’s helpful for us to consider how Jesus, who we consider worthy of praise and honour, humbled himself and emptied himself of his greatness for you and me. He didn’t come to be served, but came to serve all the ‘little ones’ who we would often shun, or look down on, or ostracise, or reject; the ones whom the Pharisees and teachers of the Law criticised and condemned. Jesus welcomed ‘little’ sinners at his table so they may receive his feast of forgiveness. He died for sinners so they may be forgiven and free to live in his kingdom.
Those who puff themselves up and want to be great in the kingdom are challenged by what Jesus says and does, but those who are ‘little’ in the eyes of the world, who are humble and childlike, see him as their Saviour.
As if this wasn’t challenging enough for all of us who want to be seen as good or right or worthy or important or great, Jesus likens himself to a ‘little one.’ Therefore, when you receive a ‘little one’ in Jesus’ name, you also receive Jesus. Of course, this also begs us to ask the question how we can receive Jesus if we can’t receive ‘little ones’ in our midst.
In fact, anyone who might cause a ‘little one’ who believes in Jesus to sin, well, it’s better for them to drown in the sea with a millstone around their neck, or to have their offending part of the body which caused a ‘little one’ to sin to be cut off.
We’re not to despise or look down on the ‘little ones’ (or those we think ‘little’ of) in our fellowship. Instead, like a shepherd who cares so deeply for his ‘little ones’ that he would leave ninety nine sheep to rescue one of his ‘little ones’, we too should be deeply concerned that any ‘little ones’ might perish because they were led to sin by those who considered themselves great in the kingdom of heaven.
For this reason, you could argue a Christian community is to be measured by how they treat their most insignificant, unworthy, useless, and sinful, ‘little ones’.
Then, knowing we humans often judge each other (and ourselves) based on merit and worthiness (or the lack of it), which too often affects the faith of the ‘little ones’ in our midst, Jesus gives us a way to reconcile and win back the recalcitrant sinner.
So, Jesus says to you and me, as people who no longer want to be the greatest but who are ‘little ones,’ that when a brother or sister in Christ sins against us, we should…go.
But this isn’t what we always practice. Many times, we don’t want to go. We want to excuse someone’s behaviour. “That’s just who they are” or “You just have to get used to so-and-so” we might say. We might make out it wasn’t that bad after all and deny the way their sin affects the ‘little ones’ in the community. But, if we’re really concerned for the ‘little ones,’ we need to go, but we go in humbleness and with a readiness to forgive the repentant sinner.
Connected to the ‘go’ is that we approach them one on one and in private.
Again, this isn’t what we practice. We often want to tell everyone else what they’ve done through our careless talk, before checking to see if we misunderstood them in the first place. Before you know it, we’ve publicly shamed and humiliated them behind their back. Through our unchecked gossip, we’ve put them on trial without the possibility of repentance or a proper defence. This isn’t the way to win people over to repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation!
But, even if we were to see them privately, what are we to do, and how are we to do it?
Well, we’re to ‘go and tell him his fault’ or ‘tell him what he did wrong,’ but in such a way that we patiently and lovingly bring the person to the point they realise their own sin.
This is important. You see, we’re often spiritually blind to our own sin, so a ‘he said/she said’ argument of right and wrong won’t always convince someone what they did was wrong, especially in today’s world where the rights of the individual have become more important than the rights of the community.
In this case we prepare carefully and prayerfully so that we may have the courage and perseverance to help them see themselves, their words, their actions, and their intentions, in the light of God’s Word. Let God be the one to change their heart. Once they realise their sin, we’re to forgive the repentant sinner.
It could be ninety percent of our troubled relationships can be dealt with in this manner, without the need for our sins to be made public. The ‘little ones’ will reconcile with those who have sinned against them and the community of faith will continue to experience love and unity and harmony as a powerful witness to the forgiveness of Christ.
However, some will have trouble seeing or admitting their own sinful behaviour.
In this case, we’re to get some of our friends and gang up on them!
When you need to bring others along in an effort to gain back your brother or sister in Christ, you seek objective and spiritually mature people who will carefully investigate the situation (and perhaps also check your own misunderstandings or bias), but most importantly, people who will bear witness to what Christ has done for themselves, and him (or her), and for you. They may have the gifts to communicate more effectively, ask the right questions, and have the wisdom to explore solutions you haven’t thought of yet. These spiritually mature people will seek every opportunity to regain those who have sinned against the ‘little ones.’
Of course, if a heard-hearted person, who professes to be a Christian, refuses to repent, forgive, or be reconciled after repeated appeals, Jesus then commands us to treat him or her like a non-Christian. Of course, like all pagans, tax-collectors and sinners, this person shouldn’t be shunned or written off, but now is in need of our evangelism.
Throughout the whole process, the intention is to forgive and restore the repentant sinner – for their sake, for the sake of the ‘little ones,’ and for the sake of the Christian community.
You see, Jesus is deeply concerned for all of us – for all the ‘little ones’ who humbly look to him for mercy, forgiveness and peace. Through baptism and faith, he has grafted us into his own body and he feeds us with his own body and blood at his Holy Supper. He raises up the humble and gives us a place in his heavenly kingdom.
Jesus also knows people hurt us and that we in turn hurt others. This hurtful behaviour affects the fellowship of believers, affects our unity in the body of Christ, and affects our witness of faith and love and peace. He has given us a wise process to reconcile strained relationships and restore unity and peace in a troubled community.
Where the rest of the world judges each of us on the basis of our worthiness and usefulness (and also looks down on those who are of little value), living in God’s kingdom involves humbleness and respect. We value and love those who many consider to be useless, unworthy, and undeserving. We love and serve them because Jesus suffered and died for all people, no matter how lowly they may be. We also don’t want to lead people into temptation or despair because of the way they’ve been treated, so we have the courage to reveal how sin affects our fellowship. We’re also ready to forgive the repentant sinner so that he or she may experience reconciliation and restoration where possible.
While we have these words from Christ referred to in our Constitutions and By-Laws, let’s never take them out of context. Let’s always be humble and childlike as we live out our faith in Jesus Christ so that we never think of ourselves too highly. Let’s always love the ‘little ones’ so much we may never lead them into temptation or despair because of their experience of sin. Let’s be ready to forgive the repentant sinner and seek to maintain our unity in the body of Christ.
In this way, may the peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.