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The endlessness of forgiveness in Christ
We are in a great period of the liturgical calendar. As we bask in the Morning Star’s resurrection and await for the Spirit to descend, we are contemplating and considering how to be a community together. Tricia got us going with a conversation about conflict on Sunday. I want to add to the dialogue.
One of the many discourses of Christ that Matthew places is his famous Gospel, account is Matthew 18. Some call it “instructions for the church,” I might call it, “how to live in community. Matthew starts off with Jesus' basic rule of his backward kingdom (verse 3): “whoever takes the lowely position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” This is a radical expression, because children are all of little legal or moral standing. They aren’t hated in Ancient Palestine, but I’m not sure anyone would call them respected. Jesus answers the disciples incessant question about places of honor and being the greatest with this backward approach (fast-forward to chapter 20 to see him do this again when John and James ask for a special seat in Jesus’ Kingdom).
He then begins to consider children and those that society might call the “weak” ones. Jesus protects the young at heart and the young in faith, and if someone who is more experienced or considers themselves on a higher ground get in their way, well the Lord won’t hold back his judgement. The very kind of exaggeration Jesus makes in verse 6 and 8-9 are exactly that. They are meant to invoke a reaction and deliver a point. The modernists may disagree as they try to find literal meaning in the text, but I don't think Matthew’s audience takes it this way. Rather, Matthew is convicting the arrogant Jewish audience that belittles the least among them—the poor, the so-called pagans, and anyone else that doesn’t fit into their social class and status.
Jesus continues in this radical chapter and tells his audience that his Father in heaven is such a good shepherd (a powerful image to an audience that very much respected King David, also a shepherd) that he would go chasing after just a single sheep and leave the rest of the flock behind. It is a kind of play on the prophet Nathan’s exhortation of King David when the King sleeps with Bathsehba and kills Uriah. Nathan tells David about a wicked ruler who stole the single sheep of a poor shepherd to add to his huge flock of sheep Jesus is telling us that his father in heaven has the opposite mentality.
So after laying it on thick with imagery of humility and love, Jesus finally gets a little practical and offers us perhaps the most straightforward lesson about forgiveness. It seems like the figurative images end here because Jesus truly doesn’t want his message to be missed. Here’s what I’m learning from Jesus about conflict and forgiveness in Matthew 18.
It is not about getting justice, it is about giving love away. If someone has sinned against you and you go into the conflict ready for a battle where you achieve a just end, you may end up disappointed. It’s not about getting yours, but rather coming to an understanding so that forgiveness prevails.
Jesus plainly puts the burden on the individual who was sinned against. Sometimes we feel a sense of entitlement when we are hurt. We think the person that offended us should very well know that we are hurt and we wait for them to bring up the conversation and beg for forgiveness or apologize profusely. Jesus puts the burden on the individual who was sinned against. If you are sinned against, go and talk directly to the person about it. No one is a mind reader and although some people might approach you if they think they hurt you, that kind of anxiety does little to help someone work through a conflict.
Jesus expects you to have a degree of self-awareness. Sin is the key issue here. When approaching a conflict we move toward knowing how we are feeling, why we are hurting, and how someone else intersected with it. One person wondered what to do if they were hurting and they thought their pain was about a conflict with someone else, should they just “have it out” to figure it out? I’m not sure that’s so appropriate. I think we give it our best thought and use the resources around us to make ourselves as aware as possible.
Jesus sets out a very deliberate path to have a conflict, so tread carefully. Sometimes the less-than-assertive will feel ready and entitled to have a fight because they have held back for so long. So with their knuckles white and tears streaming down their face they start their screaming match. I suppose they might say, “I never get to do this!” That kind of outburst is rarely helpful, and doesn’t even make us feel much better (often more amped up). Jesus sets out a deliberate path and we should be as deliberate.
Don’t be quick to mediate, or as Murray Bowen would say, triangulate. If our friends are hurting and they are consulting us about their pain and what to do, I think we should help them go through Jesus’ process. Send them back to the person in question and don’t get involved preemptively. It can be tempting to do that. It feels validating to be trusted. Sometimes we think giving someone a board on which to vent is helpful for them. But we might be hurting the relationship ultimately. Jesus will eventually instruct us to include other people in our conflict, but there’s a time for that, don’t rush it.
It bears repeating: the end goal is forgiveness. After Jesus gives his disciples this exhortation they ask him how much they should forgive someone. It makes sense that they might want to ask Jesus exactly how many times they should go through this already generous procedure before they can be done with it. They are looking for a rule to follow, but Jesus’ rule is love. Even the notion that we should treat people that we don’t win over as pagans or tax collectors may be said in a tongue-in-cheek way since Matthew himself is a tax collector and Jesus clearly associates with “pagans” in the very same Gospel.