Sep 10 Gospel – Matthew 18:15-20; Sep 17 Gospel – Matthew 18:21-35
I was the Associate Pastor at a congregation that had previously had a pastor who was both a crook (literally – he dared not go to Florida because of pending fraud charges connected with skimming church funds) and a sexual predator. Not surprisingly he was smooth and very convincing. He still had a strong following in the congregation. Part of the difficulty in removing him was the denominational disciplinary system was not set up to deal well with a person who was that deceitful and convincing and unrepentant. Despite the wickedness, he was a good fund raiser, so tragically, another denomination gave him credentials and allowed him to serve a large and very prosperous congregation after he had been fired and defrocked by the PC(USA).
This is not a hard case. Someone like this needs to be both disciplined by the church and prosecuted by the state. But the starkness of the case highlights the difficulty of Jesus’ teaching in the two lectionary readings from Mt. 18. This week’s lesson about forgiveness is the second half of last week’s lesson about church discipline. This is Matthew writing toward the end of the first century looking back on Jesus’ teaching and recognizing that Jesus knew where this whole “church” thing was going. It was going to get organized, there would be bad apples, and eventually there would be problems.
Jesus’ solution is best describes as progressive discipline. There is need to work with the sinner in stages. Restoration is at first personal (“point out the fault when the two of you are alone” v. 15) and then discreet (“take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses” v. 16). If this informal approach does not work, the process of restoration becomes formal and ultimately public (“tell it to the church …” vv. 17f).
But in order to avoid this process becoming a series of witch hunts, this is immediately followed by the teaching on forgiveness. Peter asks, “How many times should I forgive” (v. 21)? Jesus’ answer, told in parable form, assumes that we are to forgive as we are forgiven. The specific teaching is that if I refuse to forgive as I have been forgiven then I am “a wicked servant.” When the forgiven servant refused to forgive others, the master sent him to jail until all his debts were paid. The last verse is chilling. “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart” (v. 25).
This is typical of the normal pattern of Jesus’ teaching. Rules and regulations are not dismissed as unimportant but are placed in the context of our heart, that is, our affections, attitudes, and desires. Trying to find that narrow path between being rule-bound and ignoring problems is delicate and difficult. Returning to the opening story, the pastor was fired and defrocked without a lot of information given to the church. His predatory sexual exploitations were not revealed because of the privacy of the victims. The possibility of fraud was not explained in detail because a thorough audit had not yet been completed and the Presbytery didn’t want to damage any possible case the state might have against him.
Because all the details were, for what seemed good reasons at the time, not made public (in contrast to “tell it to the church” v. 17), the gossip exploded and a significant portion of the congregation took his side (he was a smooth talker after all!) and opposed the presbytery. They accused the Presbytery and those who sided with the Presbytery of not being willing to forgive. In the rough and tumble context of real life, the proper application of Jesus’ teaching is not so obvious.
Successful application of both sides of this process (forgiveness and discipline), whether in an individual context or the formal context of church structure, requires the ability to discern the heart of both parties. While this passage is about the structures of our corporate church life, Jesus is saying less about that and more about the state of each of our hearts. (Again, this is the typical and normal pattern of Jesus’ teaching.) The implication of this text is that any criticism I have of another Christian, or another person in general, is a mirror revealing and then reflecting my hidden heart back to me. As individual Christians or more formally as congregations, any actions we take to “encourage,” “correct,” or “improve” others is as much about us as it is about them. Our salvation is not so much a thing that resides within me, it rather rides on interactions and relationships I have with others.