Read the passage here.
The passage that we’re looking at today contains two sections which I think are distinct, but closely related. As always, we want to pay attention to how they’re related to the greater context. And with these verses, we wrap up the discourse portion of this major section of Matthew.
The verses that we looked at last week, I argued, spoke to one of the themes that we’re seeing in Matthew – that the kingdom, and those who belong to it, looks different than people thought it was supposed to. The verses that we’re looking at today take a different tack – again, as far as my reading leads me – but it seems still very much on the topic of kingdom.
So, let’s begin with verses 15-20. Again, I can’t tell you how you’ve understood these verses or heard them interpreted in the past. But we have three sections within these verses that are often taken almost independently of each other.
15 “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. 16 But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ 17 If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or 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 that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”Matthew 18:15-20
Verses 15-17 are often read (again, only in my experience) as pertaining to church discipline.
Verse 18 is usually read from the perspective of authority (the same, or very similar words are spoken to Peter back in Matthew 16. Mt. 16:19
19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”Matthew 1619
Therefore, we tend to hear these words in relation to the authority of the church, or the authority of Christians – usually in relation to the previous verses, or in relation to judgement, as I’ll get into in a moment.).
Verses 19-20 are usually understood in relation to the power of prayer. Indeed, verse 20 is sometimes understood independently (with apologies) to indicate the importance of community.
Once again, none of these may be wrong inferences in and of themselves, but we want to try to pay attention to what’s going on in this context – with how Matthew presents the words of Jesus.
For our purposes, I want to start by focusing on verses 15-17. Jesus says that if someone sins, they should be addressed first by an individual, then by two or three witnesses, and finally by the whole community. If they refuse to listen, then they should be cast out of the community. At least, this is how we usually understand it – literally, Jesus says to treat them as a pagan or a tax collect, which suggests that they should be avoided or even treated with disdain. This passage, it would seem, is key for the practice of excommunication – which we (Protestants) usually don’t practice, but is still used in the Roman church. Nevertheless, even if we don’t practice excommunication literally, we sometimes practice it metaphorically by rejecting people, restricting people, or just making people feel bad about themselves.
Now obviously, this raises all kinds of questions about the efficacy and sufficiency of grace. If someone is saved solely by grace, if someone is a member of the body of Christ purely by what Jesus has done, how can human beings cast someone out of that body?
It also raises the practical problem in that it seems that it’s the responsibility of the church or other Christians to keep an eye on other brothers and sisters in order to ensure that they don’t sin. Now on the one hand, if we understand the importance of community, there certainly seems to be a sense in which we are all responsible for one another. There’s certainly a sense in which we should care about, and actually be responsible for, the spiritual well-being of one another.
However, the fear is – and perhaps the legitimate problem – that this passage can easily be interpreted as a license to judge. And the standards by which we judge – what we consider sin – is sometimes not biblical, but personal (what I think is right or wrong or proper).
So how do we reconcile the grace of God in Jesus with this apparent license to judge?
Now further, this seems to stand in contrast to what we read last week. Especially the verses where Jesus talks about the one wandering sheep.
12 “What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? 13 And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. 14 In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish.Matthew 18:12-14
Here, Jesus seems to be saying that we should do everything possible to make sure that no one, not even the littlest, is lost. And certainly Jesus went out of his way to bring into the kingdom those that others would consider unredeemable sinners. So don’t these two passages seem to contradict each other?
At this point, I want to say a couple of things.
Firstly, as we try to be good readers of the bible – that is, as we try to genuinely pay attention to what God says – when God says something, we should listen (I would argue that we must listen). Contrary to popular contemporary belief, I don’t believe that truth is something that we get to make up for ourselves. And neither is morality.
At the same time, human beings throughout history have been guilty of using scripture for our own purposes and not for God’s. We frequently take passages out of context, isolating verses or phrases to suit our purposes.
Therefore, one of the things that we can do, when we read a passage like this, is remember the context. What are the things that the gospel of Matthew is saying about Jesus, the Kingdom, and about true righteousness? How does this passage help us fit into that, help us understand that, help us be faithful to what God is doing?
So, to hopefully help us understand what’s going on here, we’re going to continue on in our passage today. Peter asks Jesus how many times he must forgive someone who sins against him. We don’t know if this is in response to the previous verses, but it may be – and there seems to be (at least to me) a logical connection. Jesus’ response is that the person must be forgiven seventy-seven times – a number indicating that there is no end to how many times forgiveness must be given. But again, how does this make sense in light of the previous verses where a person can (apparently) be judged, found wanting, and cast out or shunned by the community?
We may find some help in the parable that Jesus tells:
23 “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of goldwas brought to him. 25 Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.
26 “At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ 27 The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.
28 “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.
29 “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’
30 “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.
32 “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ 34 In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.Matthew 18:23-34
Without digging into the parable too much, the servant who owed money was forgiven by the king. However, this same servant refused to forgive the much smaller debt of a fellow servant. Because of his lack of mercy – his inability to show the same grace that he had received – ultimately, the servant falls under the king’s judgement.
Now this seems to say that if we refuse to forgive, we also will not be forgiven – indeed, that’s exactly what this says. (There is more to say about this – because how many of us can say that we have completely forgiven everyone?) But then, going back to vv. 15-20, shouldn’t we forgive the sinner rather than casting him out?
But if we read the parable – and I know that I have said that it can be problematic to turn parables into allegories – we can perhaps see that the king is God, the first servant is us, and the second servant (who went unforgiven) might be “the sinner” (I’m not suggesting Jesus is making this exact parallel – we’re merely using the second passage to help us understand the first). And in this parable, that second servant begs for forgiveness from the first.
But what we’re seeing in verses 15-20 is precisely the opposite. What we get is precisely a person who “will not listen,” who refuses to listen. What we’re seeing in vv. 15-20 is a person who doesn’t want to be part of the community, doesn’t want to be part of the body of Christ – the kingdom people – and who wants to do things their own way, according to their own wisdom.
In short, I believe that what we’re seeing here is the difference between a person who begs for forgiveness and a person who refuses it. I believe that, in the example of the unrepentant sinner, what we’re seeing is a not a person who has sinned (as we all do), a person who has rebelled (as we all have), or a person who has tried to go their own way (we still do that). Not that those things should be excused or treated lightly. But I believe what we’re seeing is a picture of a person who wants nothing to do with the kingdom of God.
Now, again, that’s not to discount what I believe is the message that the community has responsibilities towards the individual. I believe that it’s within community – and not as isolated individuals – that we are called to be a Christian. I believe that it’s within the community that we know God and that we grow in Christ. The community is called to disciple and sometimes to discipline. However, I don’t believe that the community is called to judge. And I recognize that this is a fine or a fuzzy distinction. But, practically speaking, at the very least, in this day and age, we need to recognize that discipling and discipline on one side is easily seen as judgement and condemnation on the other.
This is a matter that calls for much grace, wisdom, and love.
But this leads to a consideration of vv. 18-20 which we’ve so far kind of passed over.
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 that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”Matthew 18:18-20
We’re not going to spend time parsing these verses and I don’t want to suggest that they’re easy to fully understand. But I hope it’s sufficient to say that these verses at least seem to speak to the point just made – that it’s to a community that we are saved. That is to say, we are saved to be part of a people – a kingdom people.
What I want want to reiterate is the basic principle of reading things in context. And so far what we’ve seen in the gospel of Matthew is that Jesus is indeed the promised Messiah. And we’ve also seen that the kingdom that Jesus the Messiah is bringing is different than the kingdom that many/most were expecting. Part of that difference has to do with who belongs to the kingdom and how one belongs to the kingdom. And some of that has to do with what kind of kingdom people are willing to accept – which kingdom?
In short, I wonder if what we’re seeing here – especially in light of the verses that came before, which we looked at a couple of weeks ago (who is greatest in the kingdom, the wandering sheep) – is Jesus continuing his comment that anyone can belong to the Kingdom of God (unlike the religious leaders who put strict boundaries around the kingdom). Jesus says anyone can belong to the kingdom of God, but not if you don’t want to. Not if what you really want is a different kingdom.
We’ve discussed this numerous times, but most of us spend our lives trying to build our own kingdoms. Sometimes (hopefully not often), we even do this with a Christian veneer.
So in closing, I want to say just a couple of things:
Firstly, starting with the second part – the parable – the principle of grace applies not only from God to us, but from each of us to one another. Grace allows us to be part of that community and grace should be a defining characteristic of that community.
Secondly, considering the first part, I want to re-orient our perspective. Rather than thinking about what would we do if someone in the community sins, rather than worrying about how we judge and how we dispense discipline, I want us to consider the possibility that maybe we are the sinner. Maybe in Jesus’ example, we’re less often the ones who have to confront, but we’re the ones who need to be confronted – by the community, by the Holy Spirit, by the kingdom. How are we going to respond when the kingdom is presented to us and it’s not what we want or expect?
How are we going to respond to the truth revealed in scripture? How are we going to respond to the wisdom of those who have gone before us? How are we going to participate in the kingdom community for which Christ died? Will we insist on going our own way? Will we insist that everybody else has got it wrong and we are the only ones who truly understand? Or will we allow the Holy Spirit to continue to do His redeeming work in us?