(for the Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost, September 7, 2014)
‘Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven. What do you think? If a shepherd 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? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.
‘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. 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. 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. 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. 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. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.’ (Matthew 18:10-20, NRSV).
Our passage begins with Jesus asking something of his hearers: ‘Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones’.
It is an instruction with its own internal logic. Heaven’s angels constantly see these ‘little ones’ and the Father’s face. God knows and cares not just for you. God cares for us all.
Despising anyone – especially one without power – is far from the desire of God.
Jesus’ clarifying parable opens with two questions: ‘What do you think? If a shepherd 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?’
I wonder how his audience answered. Perhaps some thought leaving ninety-nine in pursuit of one was inherently flawed. If one is valuable how much more ninety-nine? Maybe some consider rebuke rather than ‘rejoicing’ appropriate.
Such a response would be fair. After all, Jesus did ask: ‘What do you think? ‘ We all too often ‘think’ very differently to God. Maybe this is why Jesus invites us to consider the thought of God: ‘…it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.’
Only after this parable does Jesus teach on the minefield of ‘sin’ and ‘church’. The heavenly desire to lose none is supposed to colour the way we hear what is coming. The purpose of these awkward conversations really is to create a church who, like their leader, are eager to’regain’.
This will not happen with a pride-quashing wall of self-righteous zealots blindsiding unsuspecting, and unprepared individuals. On the contrary. Restoration must begin with a single secret conversation initiated exclusively by the one offended towards the one who – knowingly or unknowingly – caused offence. Within this cone-of-silence both can learn without the back-arching defensiveness that accompanies a gossip-revealing team approach.
Only after this fails are others called.
Even the they are not side-takers. They are ‘witnesses’. They listen carefully. They establish truth. Their presence must ensure that no voice is oppressed.Only after the exhaustion and failure of these secret, balance-finding conversations are more public avenues pursued.
The ultimate goal is still a heavenly party centred around the one who is found.
Of course the other purpose of this passage is to be regained. We hear selectively if we only put ourselves in the position of those who ‘point out the fault’. At some stage each one of us is likely to need the gaze-redirecting finger of those we sin against.
And no matter how impossible the situation may seem Jesus’ promise is constant: ‘…where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.’ Make no mistake, God’s Messiah joins every one of these interactions.
And that makes it impossible for us to obey Jesus’ teaching alone!