Matthew 18 (AD 29)
We’d like to think that we wouldn’t ask boneheaded self-serving questions like the disciples did. But let’s be honest – we absolutely would. “Who…is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” is a classic of its type: a cross between mindless trivia and self-absorbed ambition. Jesus’ illustration of needing to go to him like a child, is pointing out the humility and trust that is required. Not an unthinking trust, but the exact kind of trust that a child has for their parents. A trust that says, ‘This person has fed me, protected me, kept me warm and held me for my entire life. I’m going to stick with them, whatever else happens.’
Many Christians are similarly vulnerable. Clinging on, knowing enough, holding on to God, trusting him, but prone to getting tripped up or to wandering off. Jesus had a couple of things to say about that:
- If you cause a weak Christian, or someone coming to God, to move away from God, you’d be better off not existing, than face what’s coming to you as punishment from God.
- You must look after those who are wandering away from God for any reason, such as discouragement, criticism, suffering, rebellion or foolishness.
And our care for people is not restricted to encouraging and building them up. It includes the need for pointing out their sin, as Jesus goes on to say. No matter how uncomfortable we may find it, or how much we may wrongly task our Elders with doing all of it, it is the job of all of us. The example is not of someone who commits A sin, but of someone who has adopted a sinful pattern, who is unrepentantly sinning. (We know this because in the example given, the person does not initially accept that what they are doing is sinful at all.)
The object is to persuade the person that what they are doing is sinful, so that they will repent and turn back to God. Failure to do so means that the best way we can help them, is to show them that they have no basis for thinking they are right with God. That’s where church discipline, in a context of a deeply loving and supportive church, is so important.
If we are caring for people in the way Jesus was talking about in the first part of the passage, then holding them at arms-length in the way Jesus talks about in the second half of the passage can be devastating and wonderfully convicting. If we are not massively invested in caring for people, then holding them at arms-length will never help them but merely cause them confusion and great pain, wondering why those who never looked out for them before, look out for them even less, now.