My friend and colleague Evan Garner wrote this morning about the importance of reading lectionary passages within their larger context. This is an important rule for preachers, and one that I often, in haste, ignore. Reading his post this morning inspired me to look around within the context of Matthew 18 to see what Jesus is up to that would bring about this teaching on discipline within the Church. (For those following along, this is that third usage of this word in Matthew, but the Greek actually lacks ekklesia here. The NRSV’s commitment to inclusive language created the situation in which the Greek word for “brother” is translated as “a member of the church.”) This lesson follows on the heels of the Parable of the lost sheep. There Jesus shows just how ridiculous and extravagant God’s desire for reconciliation really is.
“If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray?” Well, actually no, Jesus, that seems like a really good way to lose 100 sheep instead of one. And yet, this is what the Kingdom of God is like. God desires the restoration of every human being into right relationship that in Christ, God set forth to find every stray soul wandering the countryside. Immediately after this parable, Jesus begins our lesson for Sunday. It is helpful, as Evan points out, to note that this story about disciple comes withing a larger context of forgiveness.
It is also helpful to take note of content as well. Many Christians are familiar with this text, especially the first line, “If another member of the church sins against you,” but how many of us pay attention to the footnotes? In my HarperCollins Study Bible, footnote n comes right after the word you and reads, “Other ancient authorities lack against you.” Isn’t that interesting? Perhaps this isn’t a lesson in how to deal with one-to-one interactions, but a more general rule about how the church should handle sin. Digging deeper, I pulled out Bruce Metzger’s A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament 2nd ed. and found that the United Bible Society, as it put together its fourth edition of a Greek New Testament, chose to put the Greek words translated as “against you” in brackets, denoting that they are unsure of their place in the original text.
So what? You might rightfully ask, and I’m glad you did. This lesson has long been used in unhelpful ways, usually as the result of the words “against you.” Rather than being a tool for one church member to take issue with another, this lesson, when it lacks “against you” becomes a call to the whole church to a) be honest about sin, b) name it when we see it, but yet c) to offer grace continually. Recalling that Matthew was a tax collector, who was invited by Jesus into his inner circle, those who followed in his tradition and finally put this Gospel to parchment would have taken note that the culmination of Jesus teaching on church discipline was to treat the unrepentant sinner like a Gentile and a tax collector. The call here isn’t to harsh excommunication of one who has sinned against you, but a loving invitation to repentance for all who continue to live in sin. Thanks be to God that we are treated as Gentiles and tax collectors in need of forgiveness and lost sheep in need of being found.