Parable of the lost sheep
10 “Be careful that you don’t look down on one of these little ones. I say to you that their angels in heaven are always looking into the face of my Father who is in heaven. 12 What do you think? If someone had one hundred sheep and one of them wandered off, wouldn’t he leave the ninety-nine on the hillsides and go in search for the one that wandered off?13 If he finds it, I assure you that he is happier about having that one sheep than about the ninety-nine who didn’t wander off. 14 In the same way, my Father who is in heaven doesn’t want to lose one of these little ones.
Sinning brother or sister
15 “If your brother or sister sins against you, go and correct them when you are alone together. If they listen to you, then you’ve won over your brother or sister. 16 But if they won’t listen, take with you one or two others so that every word may be established by the mouth of two or three witnesses. 17 But if they still won’t pay attention, report it to the church. If they won’t pay attention even to the church, treat them as you would a Gentile and tax collector. 18 I assure you that whatever you fasten on earth will be fastened in heaven. And whatever you loosen on earth will be loosened in heaven.
Thoughts on the passage:
When Jesus is asked what the greatest commandment is, he says that we are to love God and to love our neighbor as ourselves. For Jesus, all 613 laws of the Old Testament can basically be summed up by these two simple commands: to love God and love our neighbors. In a time where love seems to be in short supply, I think it is good for us to explore again what Jesus means by this idea that we are supposed to love our neighbors. What is it about that command that makes it so central to the message of the gospel?
The passage for today contains something that we often refer to as the Rule of Christ. It contains important instruction on what we are supposed to do when another member of the church, our neighbors, sins against us. The idea behind the rule is that we first seek to tell them ourselves that what they are doing is wrong. If that does not work, then we bring one or two other people to try and reach a resolution. If that also does not work, then we bring the matter to the whole church. If even that group cannot solve the problem, then the church is to treat them as a gentile or a tax collector. They are now outside of the community, but not outside of Christ’s love. After all, Jesus spent much of his ministry trying to reach these very same people.
The Rule of Christ is very illuminating when it comes to the idea of loving our neighbors. First, it provides a mechanism for resolving differences within a community. We all know that it can sometimes be the hardest to love the people we live with all the time. Differences are inevitable in a group larger than one person and disagreements can lead to things being said or done that hurt or offend other members of the group. Finding ways to resolve those differences is key both to preserving relationships and when it comes to loving our neighbors.
I want to take a minute to highlight a couple of key points in the understanding of the Rule of Christ. First, the initial way of dealing with the problem is one on one. There are several reasons for this. One is that the person who is hurt (sinned against) is the one who can speak for their problems. They are the one that knows how they were harmed, and they are the only one who can say when the problem has been solved. The other reason to settle this one on one is that it helps to avoid escalating the situation. When more people get involved, it is easy to make a mountain out of a molehill. We are all defensive by nature. We are wired genetically for fight or flight, not forgiveness and resolution. The more the situation feels like a confrontation, the more our fight or flight instinct will kick in. Neither flight nor flight will help resolve things in a helpful and loving way.
Love is ultimately at the heart of the Rule of Christ. The whole theory is built around an idea of a loving community. When someone does something wrong, it harms the love in that community and there is a need to repair that love. How we approach that problem says a lot about the love that exists in the group. Do we leap to assumptions and convict the person before talking to them about it? Certainly, that would not say much about how loving we are as a group. Ignoring the problem is also equally problematic because it does not address the harm that a member of the group feels. The final goal of all of this is to restore love to our community.
The Rule of Christ is technically really the teachings in Matthew 18:15-18, but I included a larger section for our reading today. I think this larger context helps to frame this essential teaching. The Rule of Christ is all about restoring love to the community. It comes however, as a part of a larger message on the need for redemptive work. The reason we talk to the person who is sinning is that we want to find all of the lost sheep in the world. We care about everyone. We care about the person who is causing harm and we can care about the person who is harmed. The work of loving our neighbors means attending to the brokenness in our community and seeking to make that right. This is done both with a goal of redemption in mind, but also a recognition that there are ways that communities do need to be separated. Sometimes the most loving thing to do is to create separation.
One of the hardest things in the church is dealing with what it means to love our neighbor and forgive them when they sin against us. Jesus tells us we have to keep forgiving them, but this can run counter to what seems to be our best interests. I believe that this teaching from Matthew perhaps helps to shed some light on this very real challenge. It gives us an understanding of how we can both maintain community and also respect the need for space. In treating someone as a Gentile or tax collector we are able to both see them as outside our community but not outside of God’s grace.
When you become a pastor, you get to attend Clergy Session, which is a meeting of all the clergy in the Annual Conference. At one of the first meetings I attended we had a big discussion about what we were going to do about one of our fellow clergy members. This person was accused (and I think had even confessed) to inappropriate behavior with members of his congregation. There was some desire within the clergy to look for a way towards reconciliation. Seeking to mirror Christ’s great love and forgiveness, people were anxious to reach out in love to their fellow brother. In the end, however, we decided that we could not do this. While harm had been done to us as clergy, the greater harm was what had been done to the church members. We could not offer grace and restoration when that had not been addressed. It was a hard thing to do, but it was done out of love for all our neighbors, not just the one who was clergy.
Jesus reminds the disciples, and us, about the seriousness of the task that is laid upon us. What we fasten on earth will be fastened in heaven and what we loosen on earth will be loosened in heaven. We have serious work to do. Loving our neighbor is serious business and determining what love looks like is not easy. To do it we need to be grounded in the idea of what is the most loving things for everyone involved.
Most of you may know by now that in our family, I am the marshmallow and Pastor Marianne is the disciplinarian. She is far better at handing out consequences and sticking by them than I am. I am trying to get better at this, but it is not easy. The reason I want to get better is that I recognize that simply reacting with superficial love to my children is not the most helpful thing. Giving a child another cookie might seem like a loving act in the moment, but in the long run it can lead to problems such as obesity and diabetes. On the flip side, punishment that is arbitrary rather than restorative is also not helpful. The goal is to help our children be the best people they can be and that is done by acting with a deeper love than just resolving something in the moment.
We are called into act of loving our neighbors. One of our core values as a congregation is being committed to each other. This means we need to care for the well-being of each other. When we are harmed, we need to seek resolution. When we see others causing harm, we need to say something. I know that this can also be uncomfortable, but I will never tell you that being a Christian is easy and it is certainly not always comfortable.
I think one of the greatest challenges in our lives is knowing when we need to stop and talk to someone who is struggling and reach out to them in love. Jesus wants us to care for the lost sheep. When we see someone who is straying from the flock, do we sit by and watch? Or like Christ, do we reach out to them and try and bring them back in? When we see someone who is losing themselves to abusive habits like drugs and alcohol, do we reach out in love or do we watch them drift away? Being committed to each other means caring deeply about how we are doing. It means going beyond the superficial “hey, how’s it going” to asking the deeper question of “how is it with your soul.” That is why we encourage people to be a part of Connexion groups and why we encourage you to participate in fellowship time. Through our groups and through our community, we can build relationships where this deep love of neighbor is possible. It all starts and ends with that love we know from God. Christ reaches out to all of us when we are lost and never stops trying to bring us back into the family of God. We are called to do the same.
Questions to Ponder:
What does “love your neighbor” mean to you?
Who is someone you know who is good at extending love to his or her neighbors?
When is a time when someone reached out to you with love when you were not expecting it?
Ever-loving God, even when we stray, you love us, call to us, and seek to bring us back into the fold. Help us to show that same love to each other when we cause harm to one another. Help us to offer love in the midst of brokenness. Make us instruments of your peace and love. Amen