Matthew 18 is one of those scripture references that Christians can easily toss at each other to reference something most all of us believe with our minds, but don’t necessarily rightly and truly practice with our hearts and actions—like Ephesians 5 or Exodus 20 or the whole book of Proverbs.
In fact,even though we’re only going to look at verses 15 to 17, Matthew 18 holds some of the most difficult images, parables and pictures of what life really and truly looks like in the Kingdom of God.
In verses 1 through 9 we’re told we need to become like little children in order to enter the Kingdom of Heaven—in other words, helpless, unable and no longer trying to do something that we cannot do, get to God on our own steam and own power.
Then we’re told that if we hinder someone who is trying to get in to see Jesus, it would be better for us to fling ourselves into the sea with our feet in a block of cement. In other words,
Don’t Prevent Anyone from getting to Jesus!
Then we’re told that the sins of the flesh are so bad, so death dealing to the whole body, that’s its better to deal death to our own bodies, our own members, than to face the judgment of God with that sin festering and flourishing.
Then, in verses 11 to 14 we’re compared to sheep. Not much of a step up because sheep are largely foolish, blind, stubborn, willing to follow anything that looks like a good mouthful.
On the other side of our text, in verses 21 to 35 we get a very stark, a very black and white
unnuanced picture of what God thinks about forgiveness. If you don’t forgive, Jesus winds it up, you won’t be forgiven.
Because forgiveness is the outward mark that you have internalized God’s forgiveness of you
and that you are in the kingdom of heaven.
So as we approach verses 15 to 19 there are some basic observations we can glean from this larger context.
One, the Christian person is to be as humble as a child, relying completely and totally on Jesus for every good thing. Two, the Christian person is to cut sin off in his or her own life First. Third, we are like sheep. We err and stray off in the wrong direction and get lost. It is Jesus who comes and finds us and brings us home to himself. Fourth, if you have been forgiven by Jesus, you have no business whatsoever being unforgiving to those around you.
You are not invited to continue in bitterness and unforgiveness because Jesus gave his life to pay the debt you owe. You can never pay him back, you therefore cannot require others to pay you back.
Ok, so let’s look at our text.
Verse 15, “Moreover, if your brother trespass or sin or offend against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone, if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother.
So there’s been an actual offense. Someone actually sinned against you. It happens some times. We sin against each other. But sometimes, and I think this is more common, we aren’t offended against, we take offense. We take something that someone else does, and, as if it was a great prize, we consider it in many and myriad different lights, decide that it makes us feel bad, and that therefore the other person has sinned. In fact, they have not sinned, but I,
when I do this, have taken offense.
An example of real sin would be someone coming up to you in coffee hour to tell you you’re a jerk, or that the way you did some thing or other in the church was bad and that you’re a bad person. If that happens, Matthew 18 rolls into motion.
But if someone just blinks at you funny, or doesn’t offer you a cup of coffee, or innocently wishes that the government did its work differently, or that the new traffic circle is being built badly, or that they wish the youth of today would be more respectful and they look cross wise at you while they say it, or their eye lid gets stuck and their face turns into a leer,
and you think to yourself, ‘Who are you to treat me this way!’ then, you have not been sinned against, you have taken offense and Matthew 18 does not roll into motion.
You can try to get it started but there’s not really been an offense so you’re probably more likely to sidle up to someone else at coffee hour and whisper, ‘You will not believe what ___ said to me just now. He is so off track and I just can’t have that kind of thing around me.’
There’s a special word for what just occurred, can anyone tell me what it is?
Its called Gossip.
And its such an awesome way to connect with people, isn’t it? It allows you and me, while we mush someone else into the ground, to feel really special and happy about ourselves. And then we might include one or two other people. Meanwhile, the person we’ve taken offense from doesn’t even know there’s a problem until we’ve worked ourselves into a froth
and told so many people that they finally hear it, and then they feel utterly wretched and there’s a huge huge problem to sort through.
You might be able to see why gossip over real sin is also very very damaging not just to the person being gossiped about, but to the whole body. They aren’t given a chance to repent and be restored. They are increasingly marginalized and alienated. And those gossiping fall into increasing sin and hardness. People might then feel bad for the person in sin who is being sinned against and line up against the gossipers. Pretty soon you have a church wide fight.
None of us are immune to this. We all like a little bit of news, don’t we, just for prayer, of course. And many many, if not all of us, are a little bit insecure about ourselves and so we might relish and feel better about ourselves to hear about the failings of others.
Today is the day to corporately arrest this and cut it off. If your eye offends, pluck it out, if your foot causes you to sin, cut it off, if your ear hears something juicy, read an improving book, like the Bible,and put it out of your mind,if your tongue is the vehicle of offense, bite down on it hard and remember that Jesus died that you might live.
Ok, so let’s narrow it down to a real offense. Someone really and truly hurt you. You could still be wrong, you could still have misunderstood, so you go to the person privately—not loudly in the narthex or parking lot, not ambushing them, not in front of anyone else—privately. And you say, “I could so so be wrong and have misunderstood, but when you told me in front of all those people that you think I’m doing a really rotten job organizing Sunday School and that I ought to have my head examined, it really hurt my feelings. Do you really feel that way?”
Now, you can see, it is possible that the person, while really hurting me, has given me something to look at in me. So I could still be wrong. We need to sit and work at it and talk
until we can understand and be at peace with each other. Here’s where 90% of Matthew 18 cases should be resolved and die. You hug, go up to communion together, completely move on and forget about the whole thing. But sometimes the matter just can’t be untangled. “No,” the person might say back to me. “You are killing the education of this church. You’re just a rotten rotten person. I’m not going to work it out with you.” Well, then, you go to your pastor, Matt, and you say, “I have a problem with someone and we’ve tried to work it out
and its just not going anywhere. Can you or someone else who knows and loves us both
but is impartial come and hear and help us discern what is going on?”
And Matt will say, “Absolutely.”
And then he or someone else that you trust and knows scripture and at least one other person who also knows scripture, will meet together to figure it out. Hopefully, in the course of meeting, the Education Program will be fixed, or whatever. But it may not happen. The two witnesses will be able to tell you if you need to just let it go and forgive on your own,
or that it needs to go to the larger body—probably the vestry, and that some kind of action be taken.
Now, you might think that my example is ridiculous. Why would I want to take someone’s criticism of me all the way up through all these steps, especially if sometimes I do a bad job.
I can forgive. The sin, you might think, needs to be a big deal, a real dispute—someone cheating someone of money or their wife or abusing their children or just being maliciously unkind. The offense needs to be big, so big that you need to hold that person truly accountable for their good and the good of the whole body.
Well, yes, a person in a big sin needs to be held accountable. But guess what, little sin becomes big sin when you don’t repent of it. A refusal to work it out with someone you have offended is called unrepentance. A refusal to work it out with someone who is trying to apologize when they’ve offended you is called unforgiveness.
Look at the story of the unforgiving servant. His offense was huge, the offense of his brother was very small. The size of the sin isn’t what matters, it’s the attitude of your heart to repent and forgive.
We’re on the cusp of a new church year. Over the next few months the leaves are going to change, the colors on the altar will change, routines will settle in and relationships will pick up again and we will carry on as the visible Body of Jesus to this city. And we will sin against each other, sometimes. Sunday by Sunday we will hear the Word of God preached, we will come to the table together, we will, every single one of us, have the chance to repent of our sins against God, and repent of our sins against each other. Every Sunday this year, after the sermon and the prayer of confession, we will all shake hands with each other (or, in flu season, nod in a meaningful and intensely friendly way) and say, ‘The peace of the Lord be always with you.’ This is not a vague wish. ‘I really hope you have God’s peace because you sure don’t have mine.’ This is a time to make a beeline to the person who you have a problem with and say, ‘I want you and I to have God’s peace between us. Can we talk later about something because I really want to have a good relationship with you.’ And if someone comes to you and says this, after your blood pressure falls back down to normal and you remind yourself that you’re not an antelope running away from the attacking lion but rather two people who have the love and power of Jesus between them to bring them to peace,
you say, ‘Oh absolutely. Let’s go downstairs after the service and talk.’ And, if you’re having trouble working up the guts to talk to the person you know you need to, you can come to the side altar for actual prayer, not gossip. You don’t need to give any details, the person standing there will pray for you to be able to do what God commands—forgive and love selflessly and work out the problems that you have.