Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 10, 2023

Matthew 18:15-20 Commentary

If you have a gut reaction of fear, dread, or hopelessness when you read this message from Jesus, you’re not alone. Let’s be honest at the get-go: this passage has become its own clobber tool and a cover for a lot of sinful practices, structures, and further victimization of some of God’s beloved children. Frankly, it has allowed sin to continue in the family of faith.

As a preacher, when I feel overwhelmed with that hopelessness in relation to a text, when interpretations have gotten overly wrought and demanding, turning the spirit of the gospel into law, I pull a Mr. Rogers and look for the good. Remember that story about how his mother taught him as a boy to look for the people doing good when he was scared because bad things were happening? Well, I apply a similar tactic when looking at a difficult text: what is the good the God is doing?

Every time the number of people involved escalates in this passage, God’s desire to see repentance and restoration to the community is clear. The good news of God is that repentance is possible. And the good news of God is that he forms us into a community of accountability and support and gives us the mechanisms of repentance, reconciliation, truth-telling and reform as well as forgiveness. These practices allow people to turn from sin, back towards God and one another. Healing of all kinds of wounds, those we have inflicted and those which have caused us to inflict others, is possible among the family of faith because of Jesus Christ and his ways. This is truly very good news.

The context of these five verses in the Gospel of Matthew bolsters the message. Jesus has instructed his people to guard and self-discipline themselves so that they do not do harm to “the little ones” and he has talked about his willingness to go out and find the wayward ones. Next, he will tell a story about how important it is for his followers to keep practicing forgiveness. (But more on that next week!) Like these other passages in the same setting, Jesus’s words here aren’t a procedure to be followed in each and every situation. Instead, they represent something much more: the identity, character, and way of the family of faith, together.

The good of God in in this passage is that God does not leave us alone to our sin, but puts us together with others who might be able to see what we cannot about how we are living—people who are God’s agents of kindness that lead us to repentance. See the Textual Point below for some notes about verse 15 related to this. Jesus envisions people being able to stay together, and he recognizes that this will require risk-taking-truth-telling and a life-changing repentant attitude.

Jesus starts at the smallest level: one-on-one, person-honouring conversation that allows a person to follow the Spirit’s invitation to repentance without being publicly shamed for a sin they are repenting of. There are times an individual who has been harmed by another can safely have that sort of conversation with the one who has hurt them and it leads to a strengthening of their relationship as the process of truth-telling on both sides leads to restoration of relationship.

But other times, this doesn’t happen either because the person who has been sinned against is not able to (or should not because of power dynamics, safety, etc.) be part of this process, or the person who is sinning is so entrenched—we might even say bound—by their pattern that they can’t handle the truth. God’s good intent persists all the same, and Jesus instructs his family to keep involved in each other’s lives so that we might repent of what does not belong.

The need for repentance remains, and so Jesus tells his people to increase the circle of those coming around the sinner for accountability and as witnesses of what changed lives can look like. Out of God’s goodness, we do not give up on each other and the community of faith also become witnesses of whether we repent or not. An even more sobering thought but which is also good news is that according to Jesus himself in verse 20, he is also in our midst, witnessing to what we do or do not do.

Even when the sin needs to become public and most-widely known among the whole church, God’s good intent is to see the offending member stay in the fold. But if the person refuses to listen to the witness of the family of faith, and that family is truly walking in the discerning light of Christ and his ways (what it means to be in Jesus’s name), then the community’s act of grace is to treat that person as though they were not yet a Christian. The person has proven by persistent unwillingness to repent that he or she does not believe that basic truths about God and thus are “like a Gentile and a tax collector” who still need to receive and believe the good news.

Remember, Matthew himself was a tax collector before becoming a disciple, so even this description is marked by the goodness of God: the Gentile and the tax collector can receive the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ just as much as the Jew. Sometimes, we let them loose so that they might realize the truth about themselves: they are the beloved of God who can come home and find grace and forgiveness already waiting for them.

There is so much that needs to be said, especially in the complexly sinful church that we find ourselves in today. No sermon or commentary will feel complete, and this commentary is already longer than it ought to be. Returning to the homiletical questions of the good that God is doing in a passage at least re-centers ourselves as the community and points us to the things that matter. It’s why we commit to doing hard things like telling the truth to one another about our sins. If we don’t, will we truly know and proclaim the transforming grace of our Triune God?

Textual Points

Did you notice that little superscript note in the opening words of verse 15? If your Bible uses gender-inclusive language, there is one explaining that the original word for the offender is “brother,” underscoring how we view one another in the community of faith and why we care so much about standing with one another on the road to repentance.

The second superscript note is quite a bit more of a matter to wrestle with; the reliable manuscripts for the Gospel of Matthew differ on how this first phrase ends. Some of them stop at the word “sins,” while others include the prepositional phrase “against you.” One represents an interpersonal setting for the sin, while the other points to a more general experience of noting a fellow church member go wayward in lifestyle. It is this particular discrepancy in the ancient texts that seem, at least to me, to have opened up quite a bit of abuse. You’ll sometimes hear people say that victims of sexual abuse, for instance, shouldn’t be listened to if they haven’t gone to their accused and practiced the Matthew 18 principle. Even if Jesus spoke the words “against you,” though, it’s not rocket science to see how forcing a victim of the most heinous sins to go tell their perpetrator that they are sinning won’t work. If a rapist who is also a Christian doesn’t know that they have done wrong, that’s a scathing indictment of state of the church.

This procedural view of the text is a misuse of its spirit. As I outlined above, the overall theme of this passage is the community’s work to support the turn towards repentance by those who have done wrong. Jesus keeps underscoring the opportunity for the person who has done wrong to make it right. After all Jesus was the one who proclaimed from the very beginning of his public ministry, “Repent! The kingdom of God is near!”

Illustration Idea

Thousands of members of Southern Baptist Churches attend their denominational Convention to represent their churches on matters of policy, programs, and budget. These “Messengers” are not just ordained office bearers but can also be lay members who represent the church. In the summer of 2021 a significant event took place in the convention hall, and it felt a bit to me like Jesus’s intent in Matthew 18. The majority of those in attendance physically voted by waving yellow cards to launch a significant investigation into the way the denomination had covered up sexual abuse and failed to respond with justice and care. Together, the Messengers represented the community that heard the stories from victims, saw the lack of repentance at every level of the church, and called out the fault that needed to be corrected. Unfortunately (and unsurprisingly) the work of repentance and reform by the denomination has been slow.


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