Scripture readings: Ex. 12:1-14 and Ps. 149 (or Ezek. 33:7-11 and Ps. 119:33-40) Rom. 13:8-14; Matt.18:15-20 Sermon by Ted Johnston from Matt. 18:10-20 and Rom. 13:8-10
EXHORTATION TO RADICAL GRACE
In our readings today from Ex. 12, Ezek. 33, Rom. 13 and Matt. 18, we are confronted with the way of the Lord, which often is quite different and thus at odds with the way of the world. But a merciful God covers our sin (Ex. 12) and sends us teachers (“watchmen”) who call us to a better way (Ezek. 33), which is the way of love (Rom. 13). That way is perfectly exemplified in the radical grace lived and taught by Jesus (Matt. 18).
In today’s sermon we’ll focus on Matthew 18:10-20, which follows Matthew 18:1 where Jesus’ disciples asked him, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” In the rest of the chapter, Jesus answers their question in a way that is radical and thus unexpected. Jesus takes the normal order of things and turns it upside-down.
The upside-down values of Jesus
In Matthew 18:2-5, Jesus shows that the way of the kingdom of heaven contrasts sharply with the ways of the kingdoms of the world, including humanly devised religions.
The way of Jesus and his kingdom is the way of radical grace. Jesus makes that point by noting that the citizens of his Father’s kingdom will not be the powerful, elite and influential people, but those who, like “little children,” are without power and guile. Jesus welcomes such into his Father’s kingdom and urges his disciples to join him in doing so—join him in living the way of radical grace. Note Jesus’ admonition:
See that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that their angels in heaven continually see the face of My Father who is in heaven. For the Son of Man has come to save that which was lost. (Matt. 18:10-11, NASB)
Jesus is urging his followers to reject false understandings of “greatness”—ones that would cause them to look down on “little ones” who actually are “great” based on kingdom values. These little ones are great, not because of any merit of their own, but precisely because they are “little.” The Son of Man is out searching for these little ones who are said to be “lost” (note that verse 11 is a footnote in the NIV—that verse is not in the oldest manuscripts, though it is consistent with the point Jesus is making here). Jesus’ exhortation is not about the qualifications of the people being sought, but about the love and grace of the person who is doing the seeking. It’s also about an invitation to the followers of Jesus to embrace his values and join him in seeking the lost.
The Parable of the Wandering Sheep
This exhortation from Jesus is preceded (in Matthew 18:6-9) with a warning: Woe to anyone who would strip any of these little ones of the grace that God has given them, thus causing them to stumble. To emphasize this exhortation and warning, Jesus then tells his disciples what has come to be known as The Parable of the Wandering Sheep.
Let’s take a look, starting in chapter 18, verse 12:
What do you think? If any man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go and search for the one that is straying? If it turns out that he finds it, truly I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine which have not gone astray. So it is not the will of your Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones perish. (Matt. 18:12-14, NASB)
Instead of looking down on and rejecting the lost and least (lowly and powerless), Jesus (and his followers with him), seek after such little ones. They do so not as a religious, law-based obligation, but out of grace and love, yielding great joy. Jesus’ heart here is the heart of the Father who is not willing that any people (represented as sheep) should be lost (and the Greek word translated “lost” can also mean “perish”).
Like his heavenly Father, Jesus is full of grace—in fact, Jesus is grace personified. Rather than shunning the lost, or requiring that they come after him; Jesus goes seeking after them. This grace-filled move on Jesus’ part creates a response of gratitude and trust. But even then, Jesus puts the lost sheep on his shoulders and carries them home. The point is clear: God saves by his initiative and power; we do not save ourselves.
Sometimes, Jesus takes radical action to call a wandering sheep back to himself. But note that the motive is always love for the sheep. In love, God sometimes disciplines his children, and that can be painful, though it’s always for their good, their salvation.
The Father’s tender care for humanity is emphasized in Matt. 18:10, which implies that each individual has an angel that represents them in heaven—what we’d call a “guardian angel.” That idea is found in the Bible only here, though elsewhere angels guard nations (Dan. 12:1) and churches (Rev 1:20). We can’t build a doctrine on this verse, but we can take comfort knowing that God watches out for us all—including those who are lost!
That is God’s heart of love and grace toward all people. What’s ours?
Instruction in Jesus’ way of radical grace
Jesus’ words here were, no doubt, hard for his disciples to swallow. You can just hear them: “But Jesus, what about a little one who is a sinner? Must we overlook their sin and accept them into our community with no conditions?” Note Jesus’ reply beginning in chapter 18, verse 15:
If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven. (Matthew 18:15-18, NASB)
Here Jesus explains how the principles he shared in Matt. 18:10–14 work out in a particular case. God’s grace, and his discipline of those he loves (all people), are not at odds. The context is within the fellowship of what we refer to as the church, though these principles apply elsewhere.
Jesus’ words are addressed to “you” (singular), the individual who is aware of the other person’s sin. Some translations (such as the NKJV) have in v. 15 the phrase “against you.” But that phrase is not in the earliest manuscripts. Adding it in incorrectly restricts the scope of what Jesus is saying here. He is addressing the danger a particular sinner (“lost sheep”) is in, and the responsibility that his disciples have in reaching out to help that sinner—to seek and save the lost sheep. The goal in going is not to punish, but to “win” them back—to see them restored and thus healed.
Like Jesus, who loves and seeks after sinners (Jesus’ love is active!), we are, in love and for love, to join him in doing the seeking! We are not to wait for the sinner to come groveling to us, seeking forgiveness. We are to take the initiative and go to the person.
We are reminded here that, because of what Jesus has accomplished through his incarnation, life, ministry, death, resurrection and ascension, all people everywhere are reconciled to God—God has forgiven and therefore accepted all. No one needs to earn what has already been given—they just need to reach back to the God, who already has wrapped his loving, forgiving arms around them. That, dear ones, is radical grace!
That being the reality, as followers of Jesus (those who have come to understand and so live into this grace) our job—our divine calling—is to seek out sinners and declare to them their forgiveness and acceptance.
How do we seek after them? Jesus says that we should minimize that amount of publicity, going one-on-one, or with a couple of other disciples. There is no need for fanfare, and certainly no need for coercive tactics! If the person we are seeking to connect with is a follower of Jesus caught up in some sin (they have gone “wandering”), and this initial outreach to them does not help, then (and only then) do we take this matter to the church in an official way. Should the offending disciple not respond to an appeal from the church, then the remaining course open to the church is to sever fellowship. Note, however, that the goal of this last-ditch step is not punishment but a strategy to bring about restoration.
The Great Shepherd’s discipline of his wandering sheep is always for their restoration. Even if Jesus has to discipline one of them, such discipline is always adminstered in love, with an eye toward restoration.
In taking disciplinary action, the church is exercising delegated authority in the same way Peter was given authority from Jesus in Matt. 16:19 (note that in Matt. 18:18, the word “you” is plural). The idea that the church on earth may bring the authority of heaven to bear on a particular situation involving discipline is continued in Matt. 18:19–20 (NASB):
Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven. For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.
The point is that the continued presence of Jesus among his people in situations where church discipline is being exercised ensures that their united prayers are effective. They are effective because they are in line with the truth that is in Jesus—the truth of the forgiveness and acceptance of all humanity in and through the Messiah.
But what about Jesus’ statement back in Matt. 18:17 (NASB) that an unrepentant sinning brother is to be treated as a “Gentile” (“pagan” in the NIV) or “tax collector”? This must be understood in the context of what we’ve already learned about Jesus, who is a friend of tax-collectors and sinners, and is lovingly sympathetic toward Gentiles. This statement is likely a traditional Jewish expression for ostracism, which Jesus here radically reinterprets, perhaps with a bit of humor and sarcasm thrown in.
I imagine that at this point in their journey with Jesus, his disciples were deeply troubled by their Lord’s call to live the way of radical grace. It would have sounded strange to them because this was not the way they had been taught by the Jewish teachers of the law—teaching that emphasized retribution and other ways in which people would get from God “what they deserved.” Jesus’ way is radically different—it’s the way of getting what you don’t deserve—God’s grace—the way the apostle Paul describes in today’s reading in the book of Romans:
Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law. For this, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and if there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. (Romans 13:8-10, NASB)
Negatively speaking, love does no wrong to another person—it never seeks their harm, retribution or vengeance. In that way, love fulfills what the Law of Moses pointed to. Positively, love actively seeks after those who are lost (perishing)—it seeks their rescue—it seeks to bring them home. Paul applies this teaching in Romans 14 where he addresses reaching out in love to those whose faith is “weak.”
We are reminded today by our Lord of the way he is, and therefore the way he lives—the way of radical grace. We hear his exhortation to join him in his way of life, loving the lost and least, reaching out to them with grace, telling them of the Lord’s forgiveness and acceptance and his invitation to become one of his followers, who will then join him in his mission of rescuing the lost and bringing them home.
May we hear and obey our Lord’s word. Amen.