To fully understand what Jesus is telling his disciples in chapter 18, verses 15-20 about disciplining members of the church, we need to go back to verses 1-14. Now on first glance, when we read that the disciples asked Jesus, “who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” the first person that may come to mind is Pastor Jeff, but that’s not the greatness Jesus is telling his disciples about. Jesus is telling us that true greatness begins with the humility of a child, and that when we welcome someone with the humility of a child we are welcoming Jesus himself.
Craig Blomberg describes this state of humility as an objective rather than subjective state, saying, “children do depend almost entirely on the adult world for their protection and provision…. would-be disciples must share their condition of utter dependence… on God.” Next, building on child-like humility, Jesus warns that it would be better for those who attempt to act as a stumbling block to those humble children seeking Him, here Jesus is using humble children to describe all His followers, to tie a millstone around their neck and drown in the sea.
That’s right, verse 6, chapter 18, Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus is telling us to drown ourselves should we attempt to become a stumbling block to anyone coming to Him. To be clear, Jesus is not saying that one act of impeding a would be disciple leads to this fate. Jesus is speaking of a life-style “characterized by causing others to sin is incompatible with true discipleship.”
Finally, after Jesus warns us about causing those who seek Him with humility with a Goodfellas-type fate, he tells his disciples that God rejoices when a lost sheep, that is to say a lost follower, or someone who has strayed returns.
We can all acknowledge that church drama, usually caused by two people in a game of outdoing one’s sin against the other, is some of the worse drama out there. I have been in conversations with people about why they left a church to join a new one, and other than the obvious things such as desiring an awesome worship pastor or moving for a job, the top reason someone leaves a faith community, distancing themselves from the body of Christ, fracturing the body of Christ, is unresolved drama stemming from sin. Sadder, is that this unresolved sin typically begins as a something small, a “you sat in my pew” offense that had it been resolved at the moment of the offense or within a reasonable amount of time, the body of Christ would not have been fractured. And yet, in a time when the church is fracturing due to other unresolved sin, we are failing to listen to Jesus’ instructions for how to identify and move past our own individual conflicts.
The only way to prevent the festering of sin from occurring is to confront it when it is present – confronting it immediately. The prevention of festering conflict, confronting other members of the body of Christ when sin is present, is an obligation each of us has as members of Christ’s body, as members of Mount Olivet, because when someone sins against us as an individual they are in turn sinning against the entirety of Christ’s body.
Jesus is speaking these words with echoes of Leviticus 19 in his ears, “You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love (not love in an emotional sense but rather as a verb) your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.”
Stanley Hauerwas suggests that the three-part confrontation of sin that Jesus outlined was not merely a recommendation. Hauerwas said Jesus’ style of confronting sin is, “an indication of the kind of community that Jesus has called into existence.” Because we love God, and we love one another, and it is God’s love that binds us together, we must “refuse to risk the loss” of one person to sin. This is why Jesus tells us that our “Father in heaven” rejoices when one of the lost sheep returns.
Yet, Jesus tells us there will be a time when it may become necessary to let that person go, to “be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” Gentiles were those outside the Jewish community. “Gentile” is broad term describing someone who was not Jewish. In Palestine at this time large numbers of Greeks, Romans, and Persians were present, and because they did not follow Jewish purity laws and men in these groups were not circumcised they were considered outsiders.
Tax collectors are another story. Tax collectors were not welcome in many Jewish communities because of their colluding with the occupying Roman Empire. In many cases, colluding Jewish tax collectors collected more than was required by the Roman Empire, lining their pockets at the expense of their Jewish sisters and brothers.
The process, the work Jesus outlines is an invitation to participate in Holy reconciliation. This is not confronting sin for the sake of creating church drama, but instead how we are to live peaceably with one another. The purpose of Jesus’ three-steps is not to eliminate all sin within a community but rather to deal with sin before it reaches telenovela proportions.
Former Arch Bishop of Canterbury and New Testament scholar N.T. Wright argues that us gathered here this morning fall into one of two categories: we either love or hate soap operas. And I will confess to you this morning that while I have never watched an entire soap opera, I can tell you without a doubt in my being that I fall into the later of the two categories. Wright argues that soap operas do offer value to us as the body of Christ (even if half of us hate them). He suggests (and I am taking him at his word on this one because I have never seen one outside of a dentist office) soap operas, “offer models for how to engage in conflict and disagreement with clarity and honesty.”
As we engage in the work of confronting sin, the work of Holy reconciliation Christ himself is present: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” When we confront someone’s sin we are doing so not to say “got ya” or to prove something. Rather, we are confronting sin to strengthen the body of Christ. Reconciliation, the strengthening of Christ’s body, is not something we can do alone. If that were the case Jesus would not have outlined this for his disciples and we would not have died on the cross, reconciling us with God.
There is a problem that may occur for many of us engaged in the work of Holy reconciliation when we fail to realize that in some cases we are the one who was offended by sin and, at times, we are the offender. In order for us to realize this we need, desperately need, the child-like humility Jesus spoke of prior to our reading this morning: “Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” This begins at the individual level: how have I sinned against the person on the other side of the room, or upstairs? The sin may not be immediately apparent, or even have been intentional, which is why Jesus tells us that humility is required.
But what about communities? Can an entire community sin against another community?
We have seen the painful truth of sin front and center since August 12th when violence and hate were on display in Charlottesville. The Church is confronting the sin of bigotry and racism and must continue to do so. The Church has played a role in fueling the sin of bigotry and racism and we must not determine what our role is, aside from from confession, in the process of Holy reconciliation.
We are witnessing it again as we as a nation tell an entire group of people them may have to leave the only home they’ve known because of identity politics. This is a time when the church must put politics aside and confront the sin of race-based fear, leveraging the power of our global enterprise. We know these are sin, and we call them as such. But what if it is not that obvious? This is when communities, whether the sin occurred last week or 50 years ago, need to be willing to humbly confront one another with a willingness to repent and seek forgiveness. Churches across the nation are examining their own roles in keeping communities segregated and engaging in the process of Holy reconciliation.
We see entire communities, nations, doing this after the genocide that occurred in Rwanda in 1994 when the realization that doing nothing was more wrong than losing political capital. There are times when this community will, for whatever reason, willingly or unknowingly, do something that causes harm to a group of people. We will sin against our sisters and brothers. But when they come to us to report the offense, how we will respond?
Every week we pray a prayer as gather around the table where we ask forgiveness of our own sins: “forgive us our debts as we forgiven those our debtors,”addressing our own sin before we confront the sins of others. Jesus taught us to look to ourselves first, humbly seeking forgiveness and repenting. Jesus is telling us that Holy reconciliation is a two-way street.
We find hope in Christ’s own ministry as he ministered to the Gentiles and ate with tax collectors.
“He entered Jericho and was passing through it. 2 A man was there named Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was rich. 3 He was trying to see who Jesus was, but on account of the crowd he could not, because he was short in stature. 4 So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree to see him, because he was going to pass that way. 5 When Jesus came to the place, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, hurry and come down; for I must stay at your house today.” 6 So he hurried down and was happy to welcome him. 7 All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” 8 Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” 9 Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. 10 For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.”
Zacchaeus was not just a tax collector, he was the chief tax collector. To be associated with with a tax collector is the same as to be associated with an unclean person, a sinner (we can look to the Levitic laws for an explanation of why this was the cultural norm). Earlier in the Matthew’s gospel Jesus is criticized by the Pharisees for his willingness to eat with the unclean.
When Zacchaeus encountered the living Christ he was compelled to seek reconciliation and forgiveness. Coming down from his perch in a tree, Zacchaeus showed his willingness to not only repent of his sin but willing to make things right is the humility Jesus spoke of.
We are not lost to sin, Zacchaeus shows us there is hope. Communities confronting their own role in sinful behavior, going through the process of Holy reconciliation gives us hope. When we are the offender, or the offended, confronting the sin of another, Jesus is present in that moment. Even if more confrontation is required or if we end up like Zacchaeus, being called down from a tree and back into the life of the community, Christ is willing to meet us. The body of Christ is calling us down from our tree.