There are two ways to read Sunday’s gospel lesson (Matthew 18:15-20)—as a passage about excommunication or a passage about reconciliation. All week long, I’ve been reading it as if Jesus were setting up a structure for kicking unrepentant troublemakers out of the church.
Someone sins against you? Go to that person in private. Still no agreement? Take someone with you and confront that person. Still nothing? Bring the matter before the whole church. If that doesn’t work, kick that person out!
In some ways, that’s true. In this passage, Jesus outlines a process for excommunicating those who refuse to live by the community’s standards. It’s elaborate. There are clearly defined steps. There is a substantial consequence—treat that person as a Gentile and tax collector. And, if it weren’t for the rest of Matthew 18, I’d think I was supposed to preach a sermon on slamming the door in someone’s face.
Take a minute and read these verses from the surrounding text:
- “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (18:3)
- “What do you think? If a man 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?” (18:12)
- “Then Peter came up and said to him, ‘Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.’” (18:21-22)
- “…So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” (18:35)
Somehow, this Sunday’s passage—even though it’s about the consequences due an unrepentant person—is built upon the importance of forgiveness. Taken in isolation, it sounds final and harsh and condemnatory. Taken in the context of Matthew 18, it becomes a passage that pushes the limits of forgiveness.
Next Sunday’s lesson (18:21-35) is the exchange between Jesus and Peter about forgiveness and the parable of the unforgiving servant. As it was a few weeks ago, when one week’s gospel lesson (Peter’s confession of Jesus as the messiah) anticipated the following week’s lesson (Jesus’ prediction of his death), it’s easy for the preacher to steal next week’s thunder and preach on both from the start. For the sake of my colleague, who will climb into the pulpit next Sunday, I will try my best to leave Peter’s question about how many times we should forgive out of this week’s sermon, but I have to build that sermon on forgiveness. It’s what the passage is really about.