Matthew 18:15–20 (NRSV)
Reproving Another Who Sins
15 “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. 16 But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and 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, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
If you have spent any time around people, chances are one of them have made you upset at some point. I would probably go so far as saying everyone that you spend any significant amount of time around has upset you at least once…a day. That is just one of the joys of humanity. People. People that have their own opinions that may or may not agree with yours. People who squeeze the toothpaste tubes incorrectly, or may fold towels in some crazy manner. People who wear mismatched sock or since that is trendy now, people that wear matching socks. People are annoying.
I work in retail and if I have learned anything from that experience is that people are weird. Just yesterday while I was trying to go to lunch a person followed me around the store while I was making my selections telling me how they would shop at our competitors because our electric carts were terrible. Of course, this terrible cart was keeping up with me so it must not have been too bad. I let them know that I would inform the manager and he apologized and we went on with our life. But at times someone might just say something or do something that we just cannot let go of. Every time we hear their voice, we enter a time warp that takes us back to that one day in August in 1997 when they said that one thing that was so totally wrong yet everyone took their side without even listening. Yes, someone did say something in 1997 and I am working through it.
Humans have struggled with this for centuries. Probably since the beginning of time. Wars have been fought because someone said something that was misinterpreted and that person did not apologize and suddenly every nation in the world is dropping bombs on one another, killing soldiers and civilians for no other reason than a misunderstanding or a poorly thought out plan sometime in our shared history. Yes, I have simplified world history into something minor, but if you were to pull back the layers you would probably find something similar that was blown out of proportion. Some historians think that World War II never would have happened if Adolph Hitler was accepted into art school, and that that rejection sparked the spiral of hatred. This is a futile game of what if, but it does make one think.
We get offended and triggered. We walk around in this emotional state cycling between offending and being offended. This cycle continues to stretch our social fabric to the point of ripping it completely in half, or if we were to really be honest the fabric would not be neat halves but confetti. These cycles have been turning since the dawn of ages. It is the way of the world. The cycle of revenge, greed, selfishness, and taking care of number one has plagued cultures. Leading to the rise and fall of empires.
All of this is sin. It is the fruit of the sinfulness of humanity. Sin entered the world because one-man misinterpreted God’s word, because one woman listened to the voice of another and decided that she deserved better. Sin is broken relationships between God and mankind, and between humanity itself. These relationships are fractured because we assume, misinterpret, fail to listen, and exploit for our own gains instead of mutual benefit. I know some do not like my simplistic thought what sin is, but it is my perspective. I understand things in a systematic point of view. My education is in crop science and Ministry. I have training in genetics which study the way different protein coding of DNA work together to bring about desired results, the very same thing applies to the systems theory of social interaction each person within a system or family work together to bring about the people we are today. Everything in my perspective is connected within a system, no one is self-made, and no one is insignificant.
The world is caught up in this crazy cycle of sin, retaliation, revenge and greed. We are drowning and broken in the torrents of a raging storm of selfishness. With that I must take what I can for me and those like me… or who like me. Jesus came to redeem this system. To ease that disease, to throw a stick in the spokes of the cycle, and initiate a new kind of life and lifestyle. God so loved the world, John said in his Gospel, that he sent his son not to condemn the world but to save the world. This salvation comes through belief that the cycles and systems we have always known from the world around can be changed and entrust our lives to a new life, a new kingdom or nation which means a new kind of people. This is offered to all people of every tribe and nation, just through belief, but the world likes their current state so they reject this new life and condemn themselves and those that follow to yet another cycle of brokenness and sin.
Jesus came living a full human life to show us what this new life could be life if we only believe, and he died on the cross taking on our sinfulness though he did not sin himself, breaking that cycle and providing us with a new hope restored life through His resurrection. Life after death, hope after failure, peace after war.
It is great in theory, but there are still people. There are still people who will follow us around complaining. There are still people that keep talking and keep hammering in a heart piercing stake. They were right there in the group of disciples and they are right here with us. If we were to read the verses prior the disciples ask Jesus who the greatest is. In other accounts, this debate is sparked by James and John asking (Or the mother asking) if they could have the seats of honor at the right and left hand side of Jesus when the kingdom comes. Of course, the others in the group do not want to be under these two because they are just as good and the debate and words are spoken. Imagine the offense Peter and Andrew might have harbored toward their friends? They too were there from the beginning, in fact they were first to be called by Jesus. Jesus knows this tension, he knows the petty things spoken and unspoken that have driven wedges in the relationships of the disciples. He knows the actions and inactions that they have participated in. They continue this debate and ask Jesus who is the greatest, and Jesus calls over a child. He tells them that they must become like a child, they must welcome a child and to do so they welcome Him, and that they must not cause children to stumble.
I have thought about this a great deal over the years. I thought this means that I must be perfect, and live a completely righteous life so that those around me could not say that it was me that caused them to go the wrong way. I say I thought that because my understanding has grown. It is one thing to tell a child not to do something, it is another to teach why or to show them a better way. This is the reason children constantly ask why. They are asking us to teach them to show them how to live, what are we showing them?
What have I shown my children? What have I shown all the people around me? I know that I have made mistakes and it is very possible that my mistakes could cause someone to stumble. I also know that others have caused me to stumble as well. This entire chapter speaks about this new life that Jesus came to bring, a lifestyle not directed by sin, but forgiveness, restoration and reconciliation.
Jesus tells them if someone in the church sins against you, go to them and talk about it. Why? They were the ones that offended you, shouldn’t they have to beg for your forgiveness? No, that is the world system still active in your life. Jesus came to restore and redeem the world, to bring it back to what it was intended to be. If someone sins against you, we need to do what we can to redeem the relationship.
There is a reason for this. We are all aware that the rate of divorce in America is around 50%, and that of those around 80% occur within the first five years of marriage. Most would say that money is the number one reason for this happening, but that is not quite true. The number one reason causing divorce is unrealized expectations. We expect a spouse to do something, we assume they know the expectation and when they do not fulfill the expectation we get upset. Many of these marriages could have been preserved if people voiced those expectations to one another, and did not assume that the other party automatically knew. Even to this day I hear my grandparents arguing about assumptions and expectations that they do not voice. My grandfather will point to the salt at the table and my grandmother will hand him the salt while telling him that he never talks and how can she possibly know what he wants or needs if he doesn’t speak. They have been married a few years and my grandpa got the salt he needed so I am guessing they probably understand each other more than they think, but there is an unrealized expectation still working in their lives.
Would you be surprised to know that the rate of divorce has decreased over the past thirty years? Part of the reason why is because many ministers require counseling before they perform the wedding, and the main thing spoken about in those sessions deal with voicing these assumed expectations. They also attribute it to people waiting till they are older to get married. If someone sins against you go talk to them clear the air, see if it is something that was misunderstood or if that person is just a jerk. If this does not work take the next step, bring someone else into the conversation.
I spoke earlier that I have a systems perspective because of the education that I have obtained. This means that there are layers to every problem that we have, and sometimes it takes someone else to help us get to the root cause of problems. Sometimes a simple rephrasing of a question can open the eyes of everyone involved. Most of you know that my little sister died right around Halloween in 1997, for years I would get depressed around this time of year and would tend to argue more during this season of the year. I never really understood why until someone asked me when she died, the question did not pertain to the issue I was discussing but it opened my eyes that after all these years I was still mourning her absence. Then I was irritable and struggling during the spring one year. I didn’t know why but I was substituting and a student asked about my family and I told them that I had a sister that died. This student asked how old she was and when she was born and it dawned on me that she would have been graduating that year again I was mourning her loss. I would not have realized it if someone did not ask the question they did. We cannot always fix things on our own sometimes we need help to work through the messes in our heads and in our relationships.
Jesus then says if there is still no reconciliation after then bring the matter to the church make the sin public. Our culture tends to jump straight to making things public first, with our mindset of seeing people in court if we do not get our way. We like this so much that if you are at home during the day you might be able to catch a court case or too with a celebrity judge. But making offense public is not to shame but to restore life. If someone is struggling with substance abuse issues they will often continue to struggle alone, but if they make it public they will often find support to help them overcome. The community of believers is a powerful force. The prayers of the saints can inspire give us strength to continue to try, it can give us hope when we once found hopelessness. That is one of the reasons we gather together, because we are stronger together.
But there are times that even the church may not be able bring restoration. This is probably the hardest place to be. Jesus then tells us to treat them like a gentile and tax collector among you. I struggle with this. For many years I assumed that this meant we could just write them off and forget about it, but that is not the case. Jesus ate with the tax collectors and sinners, he even invited a tax collector to join his disciples. That very man is the one that wrote this gospel account. So how are we to treat those that reject the church? We witness to them, we share the good news of the kingdom of God with them. We allow the Spirit to work in their lives as we share with them how God has worked in ours. We pray for repentance and that they will return, but we continue to engage. The only difference is that they rejected the church, so they are no longer leaders among us but are restarting the journey at the beginning.
Jesus then for the second time tell the disciples whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. I want us to look at this closer. The key is you. You bind and you loose and God goes along with it. But what is bound and what is loose? Again, the key is you. You are the one that starts the restoration process with those that sin against you because you are the one that realizes that you have been offended. I have offended many people with words that I have said and very few of them have ever told me that I offended them. As far as I know their lives just took a different path and that no longer included me. I do not know why and to be honest I’m so busy some of them I did not even notice were no longer speaking to me. My offense does not keep me bound, but their grudge binds them. And the people that offended me have no clue that I have spent years boiling over the words they have said. They are going on with their lives while is stew. I am bound until I forgive and work at restoring the brokenness.
Sin leads to brokenness within all our relationships. Brokenness then leads us into a cycle of revenge in various forms that produces more brokenness. We are all aware of this, we see it every day on the news, and we read about it in the history books. But we can break that cycle through Christ. Through Christ we can forgive because through him we are forgiven. But are we willing to trust Christ with the restoration of our relationships? Are we willing to take that bold step to talk with someone instead of sticking it to them? And are we willing to continue to share even when they reject us? Are we bound or free? As we enter this time of open worship let us examine our grudges, and ask ourselves if they are important enough to bind us in heaven as they are binding us on earth. If it is something that is important then let us follow Jesus and take steps to restore relationships. Because the system will not change unless we are willing to take that first step.