In class this morning we were studying Matthew 18. There are at least four pericopes in this chapter which seem to form a coherent whole. These four cast in practical terms the answer to an age-long problem: how to get people to let go of themselves? From arguments over who is the greatest, to parables about searching for lost sheep, to indebted servants beating on their debtors, we are led along a revelation of the sort of measure God uses when dealing with us – what sorts of expectations he might have of us.
Do we want to be first? Why? What's the point? Do we not know that the shepherd himself leaves the flock and searches in desert places for one sheep who is missing.? Rather than simply writing that one off, the shepherd seeks earnestly for it. That sheep – and everyone like it – means a lot to that shepherd. Does he remain around those that are where they are supposed to be; those that have followed his voice recently? No, he leaves them there and searches for the one that is having trouble following his voice, which isn't where she is supposed to be. That one is precious. We are not called to comfortable right-hand seats but to work in spite of ourselves and our pride. Do we expect that God would treat us better if we sat at His right hand? Likely not if we treated others in ways that we would not want to be treated; not if the goodness of His grace did not register in our hearts.
Tucked among these three pericopes is the famous Matthew 18 church discipline text. Let's see, how do I gain satisfaction from my brother who has wronged me? Let's see….I have to first go to him, and then I take two witnesses, then I get to defend myself in front of the whole church against this offense I have suffered. If I don't get satisfaction from the church, I can have the church avoid him like the plague!
And so we please ourselves that we know Scripture…we know that this passage exists, and we can learn the steps in "church discipline." So far so good. We are a People of the Book. We can quote long passages with ease and on top of that, we can guide others to pertinent texts.
But then we must do something about it. Many times we Christians don't really want to use Scripture when it might slow us down; delay our getting our justification. Many times we simply accuse – in the halls, on the phone, in whispered conversation with the elders – those we have a complaint against. That Matthew 18 process simply is too cumbersome when we are feeling hurt.
But what's the point of knowing Scripture if we aren't going to use it? If we aren't going to do what it says? Most of us can't abide the embarrassment of being caught not "doing what the Bible says" at least where church and church relationships are concerned. And so we eventually either forget about the hurt, or if we simply can't, we invoke Matthew 18 to set the record straight. And so we go to our brother to accuse him of what he has done and that we demand satisfaction. Predictably, he ignores us, and we pick two of our friends (after telling about twenty) to confront him with us. Our antagonist, feeling somewhat ganged-up on, rebuffs all of us and so we feel compelled to tell the tale to the whole church (which we likely have already done in small group discussions or one-on-one) or the elders (I'm sure there's a reason for this non-Biblical substitution, but I don't know that it is consistent with Scripture). At this point, our nemesis is pretty much fed up with our stalking and creating a larger and larger spectacle that he simple stops coming to church. Finally, we can show to all that his character and faith have surely been suspect for some time since he can so easily backslide!
And we are proud that we have finally done what Scripture demands.
The problem of course, is that this section of Scripture isn't a legal text. While it seems to progress as one, its purpose is far from legal. In fact, its purpose isn't really to provide satisfaction to harmed parties. Oh, it may well do so if understood properly, but that isn't its primary import. Falling where it does, this text is informed by the texts that surround it and their points deal with humility – not justice. No, the purpose of Matthew 18 is not to guide church trials and recompense hurts. Its purpose for the steps is the reconciliation of relationships, and the realignment of brothers in their walking the faith. It may well be hard to see that purpose when we are feeling hurt and looking for justification in others' eyes. After all our pride takes umbrage at such turns of events and we apparently have every basis to demand those who hurt us come to judgment.
But God isn't overly concerned about our being recognized as being hurt or receiving recompense at others' expense. God would much rather we acknowledge, grasp, own, the great debt that we have been forgiven, learn humility from that, and extend the same mercy to others. We must approach Matthew 18 as the chapter presents itself to us. We are not at liberty to take this short passage, extract it from its supporting rationale, and then apply it to those with whom we have a beef so that we gain some advantage. Divine humility, living in our bodies, does not allow that. It is hard to argue for justification from a God who's Son died for us; a God who seeing our fault, does not drag us in front of tribunals but rather offers more of Himself for our transformation. We must come to own the Divine mercy, the steadfastness of love, the humble failure to demand justice for ourselves, if we hope to live as God would have us live – with Him, even in this life.
Knowing Scripture, and doing what it says can be laudable for Christians. But neither of those will suffice if we do not become the example we read of in Scripture. If we do not use the word to transform us into the likeness of the Word, we chase after a knowledge and accomplishments that are worth nothing. We are called, and we must pursue, to be Scripture not just know it, not just doing it. We must spend our lives being Scripture.