“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. 16 But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19 Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Like so many other passages in the Bible, this one has the potential to be misused—even abused—by those trust not in Jesus but instead in a clear-cut formula for good discipleship. I’ve seen this passage on conflict resolution in the church used to kick people out, to exclude, to justify holding grudges against some who disagree, to isolate people from the rest of their church community.
If they get called out on this very un-Christ-like behavior, the reply is always, “But I followed the steps in Matthew 18! That makes it right!”
The Bible is a funny thing. It is an amazing gift of loving grace, yet can easily be used to justify truly hateful actions.
The same with this text. This isn’t a stand alone roadmap for dealing with people we may find offensive. It’s part of a larger section where Jesus teaches the priorities of the what Matthew calls the “kingdom of heaven.” Feed the hungry, forgive the sinner, include the outcast, use your power on behalf of those who have none.
In other words, the kingdom of heaven is showing God’s love and compassion in this world.
This section on dealing with difficulty within the church is a continuation of that same theme. In order to defend the interests of the least in our world, we have to be clear about that within the church too. We don’t kick people out for being sinners or having faults. We embrace them and include them and listen to them and treat them.
Whenever we turn scripture into a clear formula for discipleship, we’ve already missed the point. Discipleship is trusting and following Jesus, not trusting and following a series of steps or a formula. The kingdom of heaven isn’t like chemistry or math. There are no set formulas that, if we follow them, will give us the right discipleship answer. Rather, the kingdom of heaven is kind of like giving us a pile of crayons and Legos and string and saying, “Show God’s love.”
Jesus’ intention in most of Matthew is that we’re all in this kingdom of heaven thing together, not so that we can be lifted up above others, or push others down below us. But so that we can help each other love the world. Discipleship is how we love the world together, not how closely we can follow a righteousness formula.
This series of reconciliation steps in this text has more to do with overcoming the obstacles that come from living within a community. We do that so we can love the world better. It really has very little to do with knowing when to kick someone out of the church. We love the world better as a community than individually. This text reminds us that showing the kingdom of heaven in the world is what we need to keep foremost in mind.
So what about the binding and loosing part? “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Anyone ever struggle with what that means? Alright! Jesus says I can forgive anyone I want, or send anyone who bugs me into eternal hellfire and damnation! Whoopee! This power is awesome!
Uhmm… Maybe we need to take another look in the context of what’s happening in Matthew’s gospel.
Matthew records Jesus spending several chapters leading up to this one trying to explain the “kingdom of heaven.” Nobody gets it, but essentially it’s the job of his disciples to recognize the kingdom of heaven is present whenever God’s unconditional love and compassion show up. Even when they don’t always make sense in this world. His disciples are those that strive to reveal that kingdom of heaven everywhere and to everyone.
What we do here in this life on earth should reflect this kingdom of heaven. So, of course, we want to stick close to those things and those people that help us. We attach ourselves—bind ourselves—to those things. And we stay away from—loose from us—those things that deter us from those things.
Today, throughout the ELCA, we are participating in “God’s Work, Our Hands” Sunday. A day where we, all of us Lutherans together in one big ol’ community, bind ourselves to acts of service, compassion, and love. We do so because bringing love and service into our communities reveals the kingdom of heaven there. We get to join in, participate with God in kingdom of heaven work. Matthew’s Jesus would be really happy!
We’ve done this in a whole lot of different ways over the years. This year is a different way of showing God’s love and compassion still.
Neighborhood service through local government. How wonderful it would be if participants in city, county, and state governments had the kingdom of heaven foremost in their hearts and minds. This is different than having a Christian government. What we’re striving for is some people, who feel called to do so, have a kingdom of heaven perspective—God’s love and compassion—as one of the voices present when information is gathered, service is done, or decisions are made among us.
As we do this together—this revealing and participating in the compassionate kingdom of heaven, because, as Jesus says, even if it’s only two or three of us—Jesus is there among us.