One of the hazards of studying the Bible is that you sometimes discover things that erode some of your cherished, if naive, beliefs. Just before the passage from Matthew for today, we hear the parable of the lost sheep. Comparisons between human beings and sheep are not altogether flattering. But when I feel lost, I love to think of God on the search for me.
But a little Bible study reminds me to read Matthew 18 in its historical context. This chapter is an operating manual for first century church leaders. From that point of view, Matthew’s version of the parable of the lost sheep is directed to congregational leaders: one of their jobs is to seek members who are in danger of being lost,
Actually, the word Matthew uses is not “lost” but “astray.” The Greek is planao, from which we get our word “planet,” wanderer. In the first century it frequently referred to people who wander from God’s ways into idolatry, injustice, violence. When people stray, they hurt themselves and their communities.
So Matthew admonishes Christian leaders to seek people who wander.
How do we seek those who stray? Matthew answers that question with a three step procedure. (1) When someone sins, go by yourself to them and point out their fault. (2) If they don’t listen, take two or three people with you. (3) If they turn away, bring it to the church, and if they still refuse, “Let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” This procedure is adapted from standard practices in Judaism for dealing with persons in a community who violate the community’s norms and expectations.
When I first read this passage I thought, “Uh huh. Yeah. Right.” Most of our congregations have been nurtured on the principle of unconditional acceptance. We value plurality and difference and respect for the other. Who has the right to say what is in or out? The tachometer on my hermeneutic of suspicion pops its needle. What kind of person so much wants to control community life that they devise a procedure that takes only three verses to put people on the street?
Yet one of the highest values in Judaism (and one that is carried into early Christianity) is life in community that embodies God’s love and will for justice. Every relationship and situation within the community is to mediate love. Every relationship and situation is to embody justice — that is, a community of mutuality and support and abundance for all.
This life in community is not for its own sake. As God said to Abraham and Sarah, “I will bless you [so that] in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:1-3). Later God says to Israel, “You are a light to the nations” (Isaiah 42:6). The quality of community life in the church is supposed to be a model for the way in which God’s love and justice make it possible for all people to live together.
A problem: Christians do not always live up to the best of who we are. We can lose sight of God’s grace and the community that God empowers us to be. Our text tolls out the heavy duty language of “sin” to describe such situations. “If another member sins against you.” To sin against, in this setting, is to create conditions that hinder God’s love and justice from being expressed fully. Even when surrounded by stained glass, Christians can stray. A congregation can be less a light to the world than a mirror of the idolatry, injustice and violence of contemporary North America.
People who stray are hurt. They are less than God wants them to be theologically, ethically, socially or psychologically. Their presence makes a community less than God wants it to be. Such people are toxins in the social world of the congregation. Toxic people damage themselves and damage others.
What do you do when you encounter such a person or group in Christian community?
(1) If someone sins, i.e., if someone interferes with their own capacity to receive God’s love and live according to justice, go to them privately. Try not to bring public shame upon them, or upon the community. Try to help them see the danger in the drift of their straying. Try to help them see the direction that leads to blessing.
(2) If they do not respond, then take two or three others, and talk with the toxic person again. More people may be able to offer more perspectives from which to consider the matter. How many times my spouse helps me see a situation in the family from a point of view that changes my own sense of what I need to do in relationship to it!
(3) If the person still does not change, then take the situation to the community as a whole, and if the person refuses to listen, i.e., refuses to repent, then “let such a one be to you as a gentile and a tax collector.” Remove them from the community.
Strong stuff. Yet, those who hear this material with the ears attuned to Judaism know that in the Jewish community, judgment is not an end in itself but is to awaken sinners to the seriousness of their plight so that they can return to God’s ways.
Saying “No” is actually a form of pastoral care motivated by the highest concern for the person and for the community. Matthew does not want a person like you or me to continue in the church under the illusion that they are living under the umbrella of God’s purposes, when they are really on a road to destruction. Matthew does not want the whole community to be destroyed by the dysfunction of the few.
My Dean, Clark Williamson illustrates. A child with long hair is dancing around a kitchen in which someone is boiling water for spaghetti with the front gas burner on high. As the child circles near the stove, the hair is flying. One more turn, and the hair will pass through the flaming gas. What do you do? Before it is too late, you cry, “Stop!”
The practice of confronting people with their difficulties in community is filled with opportunities for abuse. Leaders can build up their own power and marginalize others. We can judge another person on the basis of our own idiosyncrasies. A witch hunt mentality can easily start. Pastors can use such procedures to get rid of difficult members.
But the fact that the church is community centered in conversation seeking to identify the divine presence and leading means that the dialogue should take place across a very wide spectrum. The opportunities for correction are many.
Is it hard to imagine that our churches could carry out such in-house discipline? Not long ago, congregations did this very thing. When my spouse was interim pastor of a congregation in Terre Haute, Indiana, she read church records that date to the early 1800s. She found several cases that are like that of a Brother Harris.
Brother Harris had been a responsible member of the community, but turned to drink. They counseled Brother Harris. He had lost several jobs and depended upon charity for income. On the streets at night, his loud voice disturbed the peace of the community. He beat his wife and bloodied his children.
They met with him several times, and admonished him to change his ways. When he refused, they denied him access to the Breaking of the Bread.
Several years later, Brother Harris appears again in the church records. He has reformed his habits. He is no longer drinking. He is working steadily. He is contributing to charity. He is restored to the Lord’s Table. And if I recall the record correctly, it says, “The light of the glory of God shines round his face.”
Church discipline as pastoral care. I admit that the idea of this kind of thing taking place in my church makes my stomach weak, my breath come fast and shallow and my heart constrict. What if I have to go to someone? What if someone comes to me?
Jesus says, “Where two are three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.” We never go to others truly alone. We never receive messengers from the community truly alone. Even as I speak, Jesus is in our midst strengthening us to speak and to listen.

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