Listen to the audio of today’s Reflection:

Matthew 18:10-17

The Parable of the Wandering Sheep

     10 “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.

     12 “What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? 13 And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. 14 In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish.

Dealing With Sin in the Church

     15 “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. 16 But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ 17 If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

Our lectionary for each day includes two psalms, one reading from the rest of the Old Testament, one reading from the gospels, and one from the rest of the New Testament. We base most of our Reflections on the gospel readings, for reasons that might be obvious: We’re followers of Jesus, and the gospels tell us about his life and teachings.

But for the last few days, our Reflections have been based on passages from Paul’s Letter to the Romans, which is a very important book, especially for Protestant theology. Now the lectionary listing of gospel passages has a couple that seem especially important for us to think about, so we’ll be switching back and forth between Romans and Matthew for the next couple of days.

Today’s listed gospel reading from Matthew includes these two paragraphs, which are usually considered separately. (You can tell that’s the case because they each have their own heading.) But it’s hard not to suspect that Jesus might have intended for us to think about them together. Or at least the Holy Spirit guided Matthew to put them together. There sems to be a connection between the things Jesus says in the two passages.

The first four verses (11-14) are Matthew’s account of the Parable of the Lost Sheep. You might remember that when Luke relates the parable, he tells us that Jesus told it in response to criticism from the religious leadership who said he was spending too much time with sinful people.

In the parable, a man has a whole flock of sheep, and one wanders away. So the shepherd searches for the lost sheep until it’s found, and then celebrates its safe return. The point Jesus was making, it seems to me, is that God never gives up on bringing back to his flock a person who has wandered away – no matter how sinful that person might be. The shepherd’s search for the lost sheep can be understood as a metaphor for God’s coming into the world in the form of Jesus. He came into this dirty and dangerous world to search for lost people like us and bring us back to his fold.

In the second part of our reading (verses 15-17) Jesus tells us how we are to respond when another follower of Jesus sins against us. His teaching would probably be useful in being reconciled to anyone who sins against us – even if that person is not a Christian, but it’s clear from what Jesus says here that life in the church is what he’s talking about.

Jesus says we should first approach the person privately and explain to them how we think we’ve been sinned against. If that doesn’t work, we’re to come back with a couple of other believers who can serve as mediators. If that effort at reconciliation still doesn’t work, we’re to take the matter to the church as a whole. It’s only when even the voice of the whole church has been rejected that we are to cut our ties with the person who has sinned against us.

By that time, the person would have rejected our attempts at restoring the relationship, then rejected the counsel of other believers and the authority of the church as a whole. In that case, Jesus said we should just think of them as someone outside the community of faith.

You might see why these passages seem connected. It seems that Jesus might want us to be as committed to reconciliation with others we’re alienated from as he is to bringing back sinners to God’s flock. Jesus understood that the purpose of his mission to this world was to “seek and save the lost.” If that was his mission, then presumably that’s the mission of his followers, as well. And seeking and saving the lost would seem to include those who are lost to the community of faith because of our sins against one another.

It’s probably true that one of the things that most grieves the heart of God is when there is discord within the community of faith. And more often than not, that kind of discord is over some matter that will look awfully trivial a few years down the road. But if we fail to deal with our offenses against each other right away, even a small offense can fester into a serious problem. Too often, one party or the other winds up lost to the church, and maybe even to the faith.

In our congregation, we have a custom we observe on the day we receive a new member. We tell them as we welcome them that we’re bound to offend them. We’re clumsy and sinful people, and it’s inevitable that we’ll do and say things to sin against one another. We think it’s helpful to make that clear up front. We ask their forgiveness in advance, and we promise to forgive them, as well, when they sin against us.

Apparently, Jesus wanted his followers to understand that even among people trying to live Christ-like lives, sinning against each other is inevitable. So he told us in advance how to take persistent and intentional steps to restore our relationships when that happens, so that no sheep are lost from the flock.

Let’s pray. Lord, you know that our sinful anger and pride and selfishness too often come between us and our brothers and sisters in Jesus. When that happens, touch our hearts, and help us to be more committed to restoring our relationships than we are to being proved right. Amen.

Grace and Peace,