Text: Matthew 18:1-20
Date: Pentecost XIV (Proper 18A) + 9/10/17
In my first parish as a pastor they used to have voters’ meetings every month, a sign, by the way, that there was very little trust of one another. There was one gentleman, I don’t know why he always attended the meetings because, at some point there would be a heated discussion. A lot of the time the issue wasn’t even one of doctrine or of a program aimed at helping someone in need but one of much less importance and significance. I remember one heated discussion on what color the new phones ought to be! Anyway, it didn’t seem to matter what the particular issue was but this man would, (believe me) every month, get so worked up he would issue one final blast and then stomp out of the meeting, slamming the door behind him. There were other incidents in that and other congregations I served where someone had sinful, offensive thoughts or words against someone else calling for the need of repentance and forgiveness. How many times have we heard, when confronted with some difficult situation, someone calling out “Matthew 18!”? In this chapter of Matthew’s gospel, we seem to be attracted to these verses where our Lord gives an outline of the Christian way of calling forth someone away from their sin and toward the way of repentance and faith. Unfortunately, we quite often think of the words more from an attitude of how to punish or get back at someone who has offended us but maybe “in a little more Christian way.”
And these words do offer helpful, God-pleasing procedures for dealing with someone, Jesus calls him “your brother,” who either has sinned against you or someone else or maybe is falling away from Christian faith and love and needs to be called back from their sinful ways in repentance and faith. The first step is to approach the person privately, one on one. And then the Lord doesn’t say you do this only once! It may be even a lifetime of praying for and reaching out to the brother who has fallen into sin. The goal is always, “If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.” There may come a time, however, when the brother becomes obstinate, rejecting your care. Then Jesus talks about taking “one or two others along with you” as witnesses. But here again we wrongly think these others are chosen because they happen to agree with you, sort of like ganging up on the brother. But these are, rather, to be witnesses for God between the two of you in the discussion. It may be that your perception of the other person’s situation is not completely accurate. The third step is to “tell it to the church,” the Christian community or congregation. It is my experience that the process rarely goes beyond this to excommunication, not because usually the brother finally awakens to their sin and need and repents and returns to the fellowship but usually because the brother completely rejects you and cuts himself off from any further help.
So much for a mini lesson in Christian discipline. What really bothers me, however, is that so far we are talking about us, ourselves, what we ought to do. So I really struggled with this popular treatment of Matthew 18 insisting that we discover, rather, what these words are saying or revealing not about us and what we should do, but about Jesus and our identity by faith in Him.
That’s when I began to discover the importance of the first words of this chapter. Yes, Jesus is addressing yet another misdirected question of the disciples, this time the question, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Were they beginning to get caught up in a little pride over being Jesus’ chosen disciples? Or is it possible that some of them were beginning to be a little jealous, jealous of Peter who the Lord commended for his confession of faith, or maybe offended at Peter, James and John as the inner circle of disciples who had then by themselves witnessed some special revelation of Jesus which they would only later reveal to the others as the Transfiguration and the appearance of Moses and Elijah?
Whatever the cause of this strange question, Jesus’ immediate answer was to call a child to himself and have him (or her?) stand “in the midst of them,” then saying with the formula of authority, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”
Now we ought to know that Jesus isn’t telling us to be childish, as we know children can also be obstinate, selfish, or disobedient. No. To humbly “become like children” is to see yourself as and to act in utter dependence and neediness. Children are completely dependent upon their parents, their mother and father, to provide for their safety and protection from harm and their nurture for the basic things of life such as food and clothing and, we should add, love and security. So, the greatest in the kingdom of heaven is the one who is utterly dependent on God, unable even to believe or to pray except as God Himself enables you by His Spirit to repentance and faith.
With this definition, now, who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? The answer, of course, is Jesus Himself. But not because of His glorious identity as God, the very Son of God; not because He could miraculously heal the sick, tame the waves of the sea, or feed thousands in the wilderness with but meager resources; not because He would stride into the Holy City and be welcomed as the Son of David, the King who comes in the name of the Lord. It was because, at the beginning, He came to us as a child, an infant, completely dependent on His earthly parents, Mary and Joseph, weak and in need of everything. Even throughout His earthly ministry He had no real estate He could call His own. But even more so, when His final, chief accomplishment would be done, from the cross He would say, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Did He say also the rest of Psalm 22, saying, “Why are you so far from saving me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night, but I find no rest” (Ps 22:1-2)? Dependent on God like a child to the end, as He prayed, “not my will but Yours be done,” this is what made Him the greatest.
So now you who are baptized have been baptized into His death. By repentance and faith you now admit the total depravity of our sinful self on the one hand and your total dependence on God on the other. It is when you thus become like the children of God that you are then able to see others in need with regard to their struggle against sin. When you can see others, not only of the household of God but even of everyone of all nations, as children struggling for life, that you can have compassion on all in any need, whether that be of their own sinful making or of just the normal needs of anyone and everyone seeking help and healing and light in the darkness. Jesus is the light of the world. You are light in Him. That light is, finally, the grace and mercy God has declared and provided for the entire world for our salvation.
Children. Dependent on God for everything, now filled with the compassion of our Savior for others. In Christ, you are the greatest.