Pentecost +14 2020
Rev. Doug Floyd
Ezekiel 33:1–11, Psalm 119:33-48, Romans 12:9–21, Matthew 18:15–20
As we reflect on our lessons this week, it might help to think about these in light of family. Ezekiel is warned by the Lord to deliver the words of judgment to the people, so that Ezekiel won’t be held liable. Who is Ezekiel addressing? His people. His covenantal family, the children of Israel. The Old Testament is primarily the story of this family: the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The Lord enters into covenant with this family: not with a government and not with structures of power but with this family.
When Jesus comes, he comes to restore this family from the power of the evil one. Even as he restores the lost tribes of Jacob, he will also restore the Gentiles. Romans 8 explores the theme of adoption. In Christ, those who were not in the family have now been adopted into the family. Romans 9, 10 and 11 discusses this family of Jew and Gentile. The Gentiles have been grafted into the Israel of God. Once Christ has come and brought this family of Jews and Gentiles together, he creates a blended family so to speak: two households coming together and forming a new family. Within this blended family, God keeps gathering people.
The New Testament is written to this re-formed family of Jew and Gentile in Christ. It will help us to understand both the work of the cross and the call to carry the cross in light of family obligations. We follow Jesus even as we lay down our lives for one another. Romans 12 is exploring our family commitments to serve one another, give to one another, honor one another, rejoice with one another, and mourn with one another. It gives us a picture of genuine love.
Most earthly families even in their brokenness give us some image of what it means to live in family. We are born into families that care for us, serve us, honor us and even delight in us. We learn to speak within our families even as we speak to learn within our church family. We learn to walk as a child even as the church shapes our walk in Christ. Within the family, we have to learn how to share, how to forgive. We learn patience, manners, and hopefully some sense of responsibility. At the same time, the family is the place where we let down our guard. The family should be a safe place where we can laugh, cry, relax, and even ask questions.
I say all that to help us think about Matthew 18, because this is a difficult passage. Verses 15-20 focus on confrontation over sin and ultimately on church discipline. I say it’s a difficult passage because the church doesn’t have a very good history with this passage. In attempting to obey this passage, innocent people have often suffered greatly. Joan of Arc was burned at the stake as the church claimed to obey this very passage. Some people have had their land taken away from them; their titles stripped from them. Even in churches today, people have been publicly shamed, sometimes for no sin, but because they offended the leadership.
As I read today’s passage, I immediately thought of a novel by George Eliot, Silas Marner. He’s a weaver from a community of weavers. It is a community very much like the kind of community that Thomas à Kempis would have been a part of. It’s a working community of common brothers and sisters that live near one another. They work together. They worship together. They share a life together. There are strict regulations, strict spiritual obedience. Silas Marner is sort of an honored member of the community for a variety of reasons, partly because of some of his own particular experiences, quirks about his own disposition. He’s a great weaver. He’s about to be married, and his best friend frames him for a crime that he didn’t commit.
Silas is brought before the community: this event is similar to the one who has sinned being brought before the church in Matthew 18. In the story of Silas Marner, they draw straws to determine his guilt or innocence, and he’s expelled from the community. This betrayal and judgment by the community breaks Silas. He leaves the community declaring, “There is no just God that governs the earth righteously, but a God of lies, that bears witness against the innocent.” He leaves that community, the city, and eventually ends up at the edge of the town of Ravenloe where he lives alone, weaves alone, and eschews human contact. He saves most of the gold he earns for his weaving and treats gold as a substitute for human relations. The rest of the story is the story of his surprise discovery of a new family, of healing relations, and of restoration.
There are plenty of examples of the poor application of Matthew 18. So how might we think about it in a positive light? We might think go back to the beginning of the chapter. What does it look like to live in the kingdom of God? What does it look like to live within this family? Jesus is laying out Torah instruction for how this family functions.
Matthew 18 begins with the disciples, arguing who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. That will play a role in everything that we read about in Matthew 18. Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? And what does Jesus do? He calls a child to him and he puts him in the midst of them. And he says, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” And then he proceeds to give us at least part of what he might mean by a child, “Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” So now he’s answered their question, who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? “Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”
Here we have the image of a child who is humble. He is completely dependent on the family. The child is literally physically smaller than the adults. The child has a certain position within the family. He’s not the parent, but the child. As Jesus welcomes people into the community of faith, they are welcomed as children. Jesus is bringing us to God the Father. We are his children.
Throughout Matthew 18, Jesus will emphasize the way we behave with one another as God’s children. There are several places where he could specifically be referring to actual children, but most likely what he’s referring to is to other people within the community as he begins to talk. He says, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and drown in the depth of the sea.” On the one hand, we should not cause little children to sin, but actually it would be whoever causes God’s children within the community to sin. We are all siblings. Whoever would hurt another within the community and cause them to stumble or to sin, that’s a great judgment that is passed upon them. Jesus says, “It would be better for a millstone to be placed about their neck.”
He proceeds to give a series of little moral stories about temptations and about cutting off one eye or hand, “anything that offends me.” Think of a small child stripped from the family: it is unimaginable. Jesus is showing the horror of what it would be for us to be removed from the family of God.
Then Matthew reframes the Parable of the Lost Sheep. He puts it within the context of the family. In the other Gospels, it will be often used to image Jesus as the Great Shepherd. In Matthew, it’s very clear that we are playing sort of a role alongside the Good Shepherd because as Jesus is talking about this family, he says, “See to it that you do not despise these little ones. I tell you that in heaven, they’re angels, always see the face of my father’s who is in heaven.”
He goes on to say, “What do you think a man who has a hundred sheep and one of them has gone astray?” He talks about retrieving the lost sheep, the image would be that the community that so loves one another, that it does not allow someone who has wandered away to be forgotten. It’s so important to preserve the love of the community and to care for those who have gone astray. We follow Jesus the Good Shepherd in gathering those who have been hurt and offended or who have walked away.
Now we come to the passage of today. Before I talk about it. Let me mention next week’s passage. I think about this all in the great context of all these stories, about keeping the family. Peter says, “How often should I forgive? Seven times?” Jesus says, “70 times seven.” All of Matthew 18 is about preserving the family, preserving this communion, operating within the love of Christ. It recognizes the danger of sin that could destroy individual lives.
Within that context, we have this section: if your brother sins against you. Now it doesn’t say if you have offense with your brother. The offense language is used in the Sermon on the Mount. “So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, eave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.” (Matthew 5:23-24)
Today’s passage says that if your brother sins against you. This sin is an ongoing action. It sin is detrimental to the body, the family. You approach the one who is sinning to confront and discuss the problem. If there is no change, you invite witnesses to get involved. It appears that the person is not going to change. At least not yet. That’s why the witnesses are being brought in and it may end up in front of the church. The judgment will be to treat the person as a Gentile and a tax collector. If in today’s context, one of two things could happen. If a person is going to a giant anonymous church, and this is exactly, they might simply go to another giant anonymous church, it wouldn’t really matter.
Think of a culture where church member were really dependent on survival of one another: either emotionally or physically. Separation could be a powerful tool to invite repentance. Even if we get all the way to Augustine, there’s so much built around reliance on friendships and connections that to be cut out of the network, to be cut out of the friendship community that you’re in, could be very threatening. A sense of loss and being alone. It could provoke someone to repent, which we see in Corinthians. This is where we see this kind of justice being carried out. Also, in I John, he writes about those who deny Jesus as Lord. They have left the family, the communion. John calls them “anti-Christs.”
I am the least confrontational kind of person. I avoid that at all cost, yet a few times, I have been thrown into this very situation. And each time it never progressed beyond the first step. There was restoration in the first step. I believe we should work and pray for resolution and restoration in the community.
Now, if we think of the first step and the process being resolved, then we can rethink about some of the other things in this passage because he goes on at the end of the passage to say, “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven. And whatever you lose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. If two or three of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am among them.”
We often use this as a promise that when we gather Christ is in our midst. We might also think of it in light of a restored brother or sister. It gives us a beautiful image that Christ is in the midst of the community of reconciliation, where there has been offense and there has been restoration. Christ is pleased to dwell in the midst of a family who dwells in unity. He pours his spirit out upon this family. There’s something very beautiful about the bringing together of those who have gone astray: the lost sheep who’s been restored; the forgiveness that has been poured out; the one who could have been lost to the world or lost to the community restored and is now a vital member of the community, bringing health and healing within the community.
It’s a beautiful picture of how relationships can be healed. This kind of confrontation is particularly difficult for Southerners. Usually everything is said to the side, and if you don’t pick it up subtly, you might miss it.
When people are direct to Southerners, think, “Man, that person’s got a little bit of an attitude.” But sometimes we need to learn from that. Kelly teaches a course called Crucial Conversations. The business world realizes you need to learn how to have hard conversations. If you don’t, it can destroy the working community within the business. When one person is doing something wrong that is affecting the entire group, the tendency might be to avoid a difficult conversation and just pass a rule. The new rule doesn’t actually resolve the problem.
Jesus invites into a place where we must be willing to have difficult conversations that might actually bring healing. This can become a healing grace, not a thing of power, not a thing of standing over and above, but of two children learning how to reconcile and learning how to forgive. That’s what is beautiful to me of this passage: the text goes immediately from this passage into Jesus talking about forgiveness. If we begin to think in this way, maybe we begin to think of other stories. I thought of Silas Marner, but I also thought of another story when I read this part of the passage, was Lila by Marilynne Robinson.
Lila is a girl who was raised by this wandering community of people who are estranged from church. They are sort of like migrant workers. They just move around and take on any kind of job. But Lila’s heart is to see them redeemed. She keeps asking what’s going to happen to them because she’s bound up in relation to these people. She’s long since left them, so life has gone on. She doesn’t even know where they are. The heart of Lila is that their life and her life are bound together. That kind of heart is the very heart that Paul shows in his writing, “My life and your life are bound together. To see you redeemed is to see my faith brought into fulfillment, that I am incomplete if you’re not.” That’s the kind of heart that would operate within the Matthew 18 picture is that we are bound together. My heart is to see that we are brought into the fullness of Christ, that we learn how to love one another, and that we are all brought in together as children before the Father.
 Eliot, George. Silas Marner (p. 10). Kindle Edition.