The only access a believer has to another believer is through Christ — Bonhoeffer (Life Together but quoted from memory)
We have taken a bit of a time and place jump since last Sunday. To collect: Jesus has announced the church. It shall be built on the confession that Jesus is the Christ the Son of the most high God. That confession is confirmed on the mountain of Transfiguration as it already had been at Jesus’ Baptism.
To get up the mountain was not an easy climb. The physical mountain was one thing. It was a hill — a big hill — but a hill. No, the real climb, the real heavy climbing, was in grasping what Jesus taught after the founding of the church: The Son of Man must go the way the scriptures have foretold. He must suffer and die and on the third day he will be raised again. On Mount Transfiguration it is confirmed: He is the Christ the Son of the Blessed and church must listen to him. And immediately he begins to teach about his departure again, first as part of the John as Elijah speech, then in the exasperated saying: “How much longer am I to bear with you,” as if to say: The departure is soon, will there be enough time to teach you all you need to know and be? And again he says it outright in 18:22-23. It distresses the disciples, but they no longer argue. They have been told to listen and now the listening gets hard.
What follows immediately afterwards are teachings on how to be church together. How do we relate to the authorities? Do not offend them unnecessarily. Pay them their taxes if they are so interested in money. By charging taxes of you they prove that you are not one of them. (Matt 18:15) Then comes the question: How do you recognize greatness in the church, what examples will we follow? I know, the disciples asked “Who is . . . ,” but Jesus answers: “How do you recognize . . .“ After that Jesus instructs the church to engage in a conscious struggle with temptation and sin. The parable of the lost sheep follows but Matthew makes it a matter of God seeking the least and last of whom the Father is the protector. The church does well to remember that these have their own angel who pleads on the their behalf in heaven, dare we say, they have a “guardian angel.” (Matt 18:11) Despise them not, church, for the Father knows how you treat them.
After this sequence: Christ crucified and risen, relating to the world, greatness, resisting sin and temptation, care for the least, comes our text today. After it, there will be a parable: The unmerciful and unforgiving servant who will end his days in the hand of the jailer.
Already in 5:23-24 we have gotten a hint that Jesus believes that reconciliation is more important than sacrifice. Resolving festering conflict is more important than temple worship. There, it was a matter of ending feuds before they could escalate into blood feuds. Here, it is a matter of dissolving the tensions before a feud could even begin. The church shall have no feuds within her. For that reason, those who will not lay down their pride (18:3-4) and admit, at cost of personal honor, that they were wrong must be excluded. (18:17)
“Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am among them.” This is beautiful language and is used, maybe rightly, maybe not, to speak of worship. It is not so used here. No, here a sequence, almost cookbook like, of what to do when one member of the church offends another, is laid out. In the end, the church is to give judgement. (Matt 18:17) That judgement is binding. It is to be considered to have been made by heaven itself.
On the other hand, if the parties come to terms, to repentance of the offending side, as well as forgiveness of the offended side, if the matter is settled and forgiven, their prayers become much like the prayers of Job for his friends. (Job 42:8-9) The matter is settled here on earth and forgiven in heaven. Jesus himself will be the guarantor to that agreement and it is he to whom contempt is shown if the settlement is undone. (18:20) That seems to be the point of that verse in this context as well as the point of the parable that follows. That parable is next week’s work unless one transfers Holy Cross day.
What are we to say then? It seems in this pericope that heaven and church are linked. In this case they are linked by forgiveness. It is not heaven and earth. It is heaven and church since we are digging here in instructions to the church. In maintaining community by forgiving and repentance the church becomes a “thin place,” a place where heaven is at hand. But it is an ambiguous thin place as the parable points out: Heaven is witnessing (18:11) and woe to them against whom heaven will make complaint on account of their actions with other church members. (18:34-35)
By now the words “Yea, right,” (the only double positive making a negative) have crossed your mind and even lips. The idea that the church ought not have any feuds is easily countered by the simple existence of 20,000 Christian denominations of various stripe, many, though certainly not all, born out of the refusal to reconcile followed by the insistence that someone must be the tax collector. Woe to us indeed!
On what is this bounty of denominations and even congregations to be blamed? How did we get here? After all, Jesus did give us a vehicle to handle these things, is it defective? The answer to that might be found in the original question: “Who is the greatest?” (18:1-4) Underlying the entire procedure laid out in 18:15-20 is a Christian virtue: Humility. Underlying the plethora of denominations is a Christian vice: Pride.
At Children’s Hospital they ferry the children about in little red wagons instead of gurneys. It is an attempt to distract the kids from their misery. It works only to a point. A caring nurse was drawing a little red wagon through the hallway with a small boy in the backseat. He was crying loudly and inconsolably. It was not entirely clear what he was crying but he was loud about it. Who could blame him, he had IV’s and tubes running in and out of him.
The nurse made continued patient pleas to him: “We’ll see mom soon, I promise.” She rounded a corner and the scene changed entirely. A woman was rushing toward the wagon from the waiting room. “MOM!” The crying ended and little arms, IV tubes and wires attached, reached out and up. “MOM!” The tears flowed again but he misery suddenly had become bearable. An urgent embrace was eminent. Arms were stretched out from mother and child. “Mom . . . “ Agony seemed to have ended.
He could not have been older than 5 if that. In his misery he was not ashamed, not proud. He cried out for his peace and comfort: mom. He was the little child. Obsolete children are transported on gurneys, safely sedated so they don’t make fools of themselves. We wouldn’t have it any other way. The adults who act even remotely like this young boy tend to have closed head injuries and are thoroughly out of their minds.
The church has written Matthew 18:15-20 into her constitutions, at least by reference. It would have been far superior had she added the instruction on how greatness is measured and how humility is recognized. Minus humility, all that is left is a cookbook procedure. Even at our finest, it will lead to division. Pride will always say: “He said that you need to let them be gentiles and tax collectors if they don’t listen,” and will see that as the goal. Humility will go looking to heal a breech and bring the distant home for that is God’s goal. (18:14)