[September 16, 2012] In this chapter all the verses hang together. In verses 1-14 the central term for the disciple is the “little one”; in verses 15-35 it is the “sibling.” Nevertheless, the contents are not sharply divided. In verses 1-4 Jesus says we are to be humble like a little child in the midst of adults with respect to each other. In verses 5-9 He speaks of all the disciples—His believers—as little ones and says that we how we treat one another is how we treat Him; so we are to treat each other as if even the “least of these” were Him. And therefore we must not by any means offend or stumble any other believer without coming under the heavy hand of the Father’s governmental discipline.
Verses 10-14 introduce verses 15-18. I cannot even secretly despise a fellow disciple, one of these little ones, without drawing the Father’s attention. If our fellow disciple goes astray and is in danger with respect to the Father’s government (the kingdom of the heavens), we not only cannot despise that one, but—while keeping ourselves humble towards them (like the little child in the presence of an adult)—we each are responsible for bringing that one back (like a shepherd with respect to a lost sheep).
“If Your Sibling Sins Against You” (Matthew 18:15-18)
Verses 15-18 go one step further. What if my sibling sins against me? Am I not to simply bear it? Is not the “Christian” thing to do to simply suffer it? Wisely Jesus says No. If we attempt to ignore it and suffer in silence, we cause harm to ourselves. Whether we like it or not, we make ourselves vulnerable to resentment and bitterness. By our grim determination we suppress these feelings which nevertheless fester beneath the surface and grow, even if we deny them and thus make ourselves unaware of them. Then they begin to manifest themselves subconsciously in our behavior. It may be by symbolic actions (of which we are not aware), by passive aggression, by accidental behaviors, or other means. This is not the right way to handle our sibling when they sin against us.
By not addressing their sin against us we also cause harm to our sibling. It means that we do not care enough about them to bring it to their attention. If indeed they offend me and cause me to stumble, then the words of Jesus in verses 6-9 apply to them: they come under the Father’s severe judgment. If this pleases us, something is wrong with us; if we do not care, something is also wrong with us. If we love our sibling, we will quickly seek to rectify the situation before any harm comes to him or her. But by ignoring their offense against us, we also “train” ourselves not to care about their spiritual well-being; we make ourselves calloused toward them. This also causes harm to ourselves.
By not addressing the sin of my sibling against me, not only do I cause harm to myself and not only do I allow harm to my sibling, but what has happened between the two of us affects the entire church. By holding on to a grievance, we destroy the nature of the church—which is founded on grace—and thus cut off the life of the church and prevent its growth, and we block the work of the church. The discord between two siblings affects everyone. The church exists in the world under the condition of warfare. Imagine if soldiers were allowed to cater to their pet grievances. The misbehavior of one soldier would endanger the entire unit. In other words, while the church continues to exist on the basis of grace (and each member thereof), with respect to the kingdom of the heavens the siblings are all affected by the governing hand of the Father.
Leviticus 19:16-18 says, “You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, nor shall you profit by the blood of your neighbor; I am YHWH. You shall not hate your sibling in your heart; you shall surely reprove your fellow countryman, so that you do not bring sin upon yourself because of him. You shall not take vengeance nor bear a grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am YHWH.”
So Jesus says, deal with the issue that has arisen. Jesus does not say, “If you observe your sibling sinning” (as if we were their judge), but, “If your sibling sins against you.” Then, He says, attempt to deal with it privately, between the two of you. Do not bring the matter to the attention of any others. Or if you must, do so confidentially and do not get them directly involved. If there is a misunderstanding, for there are always two points of view, then clear it up. Jesus says, “If he hears you, you have gained your sibling.” He does not say, “If he obeys you.” To “hear” means that you have come to an understanding. Perhaps the harm was not intended. Perhaps you did something to your sibling of which you were not aware and their sin against you was their reaction. The situation is more complicated than it seemed at first. In any case, “if he hears you” means that the two of you have become reconciled.
If the sibling does not “hear” you, then it is necessary to get third party help. Again, this is private, even though another person has become involved. The third party should be someone who is trustworthy and not a gossip. In Deuteronomy 19:15 a witness was to be brought in, not as in a criminal proceeding, but that the “matter may be established,” that is, to establish the full truth and so avoid a serious misjudgment. When there are two points of view and the two cannot be reconciled, a third party of “one or two more” may help the two parties overcome the impasse. By offering an outside point of view, they may help them see what they are not able to see on their own. Hopefully, reconciliation can be achieved.
If, however, one party is obstinate and refuses to “hear” and thus be reconciled, then the issue—because it affects the entire church—becomes a matter that concerns the entire church. “Tell it to the church.” This makes it clear to the obstinate party that two believers cannot act as if the issue between them is “private.” We are not allowed to have private grievances that we harbor and tend to and maintain like personal pets. We have to become free of them if we are to also participate in the life of the church. If we do not, we poison the life of the church in which others are participating.
This making public (to the church, or perhaps the elders of the church as in James 5:14; see verse 16) of a seeming private matter violates our modern sensitivities. This fact alone tells us something about the nature of the church. How we treat one another in the church is taken out of the realm of “normal” human relations and becomes a matter of primary importance. How we treat one another “between you and him alone” in the church (that is, in our personal dealings) is private only in the sense that others do not need to know what goes on. It is not private in its affect, and therefore must be dealt with immediately. How we treat one another in our personal interactions affects the entire church. This may also be true of the larger society, but Jesus takes a very special interest in the society of the church and lets us know that we must also. It is not without consequence, for we are directly affected by the government of the kingdom of the heavens. Our relations to one another in the church are not just “personal” in the sense we are used to thinking; nor are they private in their affect. Even our most personal and private relations and interactions with another believer, whoever they are (even the “least of these”), is sacred and receives special attention from the Father. And they affect the entire church, no matter how secret. (Of course this is painful. But that fact does not make it less true.)
“Let him be to you just like the gentile and the tax collector.” This does not mean that we shun, malign or mistreat them. It simply means that—even though they are members of the church in fact, that is, in terms of possessing spiritual life—they are not participants in the life of the church, because they refuse to be. Even though they are “secretly” a believer, they refuse to own it, and therefore we are to treat them accordingly, that is, as if they were an unbeliever. Perhaps this has the affect of warning or shaming them; we however do not have to have this intention. Rather we are sadly reacting to what actually already pertains because of their behavior. Our feeling is one of loss or grief. On the basis of verses 11-14, nevertheless, the desired outcome is still their reconciliation, perhaps by forcing upon their attention the seriousness of the problem with respect to their relationship to the entire church.
Unfortunately, the affect is often to further alienate them. For this reason, even though the sibling has sinned against another (verse 15) and has caused offense (verse 6), and even though the church “cuts them off” or “plucks them out” and casts them from it (verses 8-9), we must not “despise” this little one who has gone astray. (No further action is required of the church to cast them out than to let them be to us as an unbeliever: we do not need to “excommunicate” them.) Even though they have been “cast out,” we must still “go and seek the one that has gone astray.” So the matter must not end when we have cast them out (in the sense that we now “let them be to [us] just like the gentile and the tax collector”).
Nevertheless, if the church is to “let [the sibling] be to you just like the gentile and the tax collector,” that is a decision it has made—a decision to recognize something that has happened among them. Likewise, something has happened if the siblings are reconciled and the church is healed. “Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on the earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on the earth shall have been loosed in heaven.” The reconciliation or disruption in the life of the church that is visible manifests what is invisible. What is earthly manifests what is heavenly. This matter of the life and harmony of the church is not merely practical. It affects the unseen realm of the kingdom of the heavens; or rather, the matter that has taken place is spiritual and unseen. The visible affect on the individual believers and on the church is the manifestation of what is really taking place. What is really taking place takes place in the realm of heaven, in the sight of the Father, and affects us with respect to the Father’s government over us, and affects us with respect to the kingdom of the heavens. Our visible and practical actions should accord with this and follow it.
The Prayer of the Church (18:19-20)
“Again, truly I say to you that if two of you are in harmony on earth concerning any matter for which they ask, it will be done for them from My Father who is in the heavens. For where there are two or three gathered into My name, there am I in their midst.” These words need to be connected to the words that precede them. If my sibling sins against me, then the “two of you” are not in harmony on earth. Immediately reconciliation must take place, even if a third party must be brought in or, if that does not work, the entire church. Not only the siblings in their interactions with each other but the entire church must be in harmony and pray in symphony.
What the two or three ask for, in this context, is the reconciliation and harmony of the church and every believer in it. It is also for the one who has gone astray. As believers we must pray for one another, not that we may have this or that thing, but that we may always be in this bond of love established in humility. We must pray for this harmony, but our prayer also depends on this harmony.
In other words, we are back where we were in 4:17—8:1. Being a disciple of Jesus means that by His calling and our response of fidelity (faith), we enter the sphere of His own Person. We cannot be a disciple unless we gather with fellow disciples “into [His] name,” for then He is in the midst of us. We are not disciples apart from the church, His qahal, the gathering that He has called. For, we are not disciples outside of the sphere of His own Person. While we are not always gathered physically, that gathering defines us. To be faithful to His Person it is not enough to simply “believe” certain doctrines. We must commit to Him by this act, by adhering to His qahal, by baptism and participation in His church in love. To participate in His church is the visible act that corresponds to our entering the sphere of His Person. The outward act does not effect the spiritual fact, but the spiritual fact does have this corresponding visible action, which is to gather in His name. The heavenly is manifested in the earthly gathering (though the earthly gathering may not manifest a corresponding heavenly fact).
Two or three gathering is not the church. The one or two witnesses gathering with the two who need reconciliation do not make the church, for in the next verse they bring the matter to the church. Nevertheless, the two or three gathered in His name asking in harmony is a participation in the life of the church. The entire church gathers in His name and is supposed to be in harmony in their life and prayers. Even when the church is not in harmony, however, it nevertheless remains the church. But its life is disrupted and therefore its prayers are hindered. Nevertheless, if two or three embody the harmony that is proper to the life of the church, their prayers for the church are effective.
When Jesus says, “concerning any matter for which they ask,” He assumes the harmony in which they ask, a harmony that exists only because they are gathered in His name and are operating in the sphere of His Person. In other words, the range of their prayers is the same as the range in 7:7-11, which is summarized in the petitions of 6:9-13 (the Lord’s Prayer). Whatever they ask under these conditions “will be done for them from My Father who is in the heavens.”
Within the context of the entire New Testament, we can say that the Holy Spirit forms these prayers in them and the Son, abiding in the Holy Spirit, prays these prayers to the Father. Prayer is our participation in the life of the Trinity. When God wills something to be done with respect to the kingdom of the heavens (His overcoming rule), then God accomplishes it. Our prayer creates the condition of consent and cooperation on the part of creation appropriate for God to accomplish the divine will. Our prayer is part of what is accomplished. When it comes to the establishment of God’s kingdom, God does not act without this consent and cooperation; nevertheless, that consent and cooperation is itself the act of the Holy Spirit. It is the beginning of its accomplishment.
For those who pay attention to gender dynamics (I do), notice that while the transcendent ruling of the Father has a masculine quality to it (to speak in human terms), nothing is accomplished—positively—apart from the immanent feminine work of the Holy Spirit, both providentially within the creation and within us, in our spirits. The Holy Spirit woos, weds and loves the Son, on the one hand, and, on the other, gives birth to the Son in us and nurtures our growth. The role of the Son is both masculine and feminine depending on the context. Nor is the Father always masculine; the Father also can be a fecund and compassionate Mother depending on the context.
Forgiving One Another (18:21-35)