Last week we looked at Jesus’ parables on the Kingdom of God, which was one of his main messages. He was transitioning the Jewish people from the Law and the Prophets to a new spiritual kingdom. In Matthew 13 Jesus shared 7 parables helping us to understand the importance of God’s Word being received into our lives. Also, there is great value in encountering God’s Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. Jesus exhorts us to passionately seek the kingdom with great joy. This morning we will look at Matthew 18 and see Jesus giving some teaching and speaking in story form. This back and forth style leads Jesus to introduce two parables that speak to humility and forgiveness.
Teaching on Humility
At one point in Jesus’ ministry the disciples come and ask a question relating to the Kingdom of God, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (Matt 18:1) In Mark and Luke this question comes out of a quarrel among the disciples. In essence, they were vying for position in this new-found spiritual kingdom. This question opens up new conversation as to how to approach the Kingdom of Heaven. Humility is key as Jesus speaks of becoming like little children in addressing their argument. This would challenge any grown up who thinks they have it all together; in other words, become like little children. Jesus goes even further by stating – “if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea” (Matt 18:6). In relation to sin, Jesus uses a hyperbole or exaggeration to make his point even more dramatic. If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off. Or if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out (Matt 18:7-9).
The Parable of the Lost Sheep
In the context of the Kingdom of God and “little ones” which speak of humility, Jesus tells a parable about lost sheep. Jesus reminds the disciples that angels are looking over these little ones and keeping track of how they are treated, so to speak. Then he shares this parable. “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, I tell you the truth, 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 be lost” (Matt 18:12-14).
Just moments before this parable, Jesus was exhorting the disciples to humility as a means to greatness. Now he speaks about sheep with humility still in their thoughts; sheep represented the people of God and Jesus desires humility to be their signifying characteristic.
Jesus also warned the disciples about causing a child to sin. Now in the parable he speaks of one sheep wandering away from the flock. Jesus is wanting the disciples to understand the connection between teaching and this parable. Sin will cause you to wander away from God. I believe Jesus is saying that children have great value and if one of those “little sheep” wander away we must go and find that one that got lost on the way. In the parallel passage in Luke 15:6-7 Jesus states – “Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ 7 I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent”.
Humility and joy go hand in hand. Humility and innocence and trust go hand in hand. We must not lose our humility through sin or wandering away from God. Stay child-like and humble before God and each other.
Teaching on Forgiveness
In his previous teaching/parable, Jesus emphasized the importance of humility. Now moving forward in his thought, Jesus now speaks to the issue of someone who sins against you (Matt 18:15-20) and how we should learn to forgive. I want to say first of all that there is a difference between sinning against someone and offending someone. Jesus was without sin and yet offended many by telling them the truth, yet he never asked for their forgiveness. In this passage when Jesus refers to sin, he is speaking of someone acting contrary to the will or laws of God. In this teaching moment Jesus gives very practical advice to avoid bringing shame to the person sinning and to help avoid misunderstanding and potential gossip. GO IN PRIVATE TO THE ONE WHO HAS SINNED (NOT OFFENDED) YOU. This first step is so essential to walking in humility and forgiveness. If this does not work, Jesus gives further instruction to bring one of two “witnesses”, not gossips, but someone who actually has seen and experienced the sinful act or behaviour. Jesus carries on by bringing an unresolved situation before the church. If this does not resolve them treat them like a pagan or tax collector. Reconciliation is the goal of Jesus’ teaching here; the entire assembly must try to bring the straying brother or sister back to the fold. In Jewish context, Gentiles and tax collectors would be regarded as outsiders and this instruction to cut ties with the unrepentant sinner is intended to remove sin from the local group of believers.
“I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19 “Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them” (Matt 18:18-20). The expressions “bind” and “loose” were common Jewish legal terms meaning to declare something forbidden or to declare it allowed. In this passage, Jesus uses these terms in the context of church discipline. My thought is this, binding and loosing and agreeing is based on genuine and true forgiveness. In other words, we must BIND or NOT ALLOW sin to infect the church. But someone caught in sin can only be LOOSED or set free when the forgiveness of God deeply and totally touches their heart. Within the church, forgiveness must flow if we truly want to LOOSE the experience of the fulness of God’s Kingdom.
The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant
I love the Apostle Peter and how he interacts with Jesus. Jesus just taught about dealing with someone who sins against you and Peter comments – “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?” (Matt 18:21). I can relate to Peter’s thoughts, “up to seven times” … Jesus’ response would have seemed like a glass of cold water being thrown in Peter’s face. The Law and Prophets put limits with regards to dealing with sinful behaviour, in some cases physical death was the punishment. Jesus’ teaching needs to be spoken in parable form to make the point more understandable.
Let’s read Matthew 18:23-35
23 “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. 25 Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.
26 “The servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ 27 The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.
28 “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.
29 “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.’
30 “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and told their master everything that had happened.
32 “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ 34 In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
35 “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”
In Jesus’ day, the reference to 10,000 talents represented the largest number used in financial transactions; one talent being equivalent to 15 years of wages (you do the math). The man and his family were going to be forced into slavery for many generations. The man asked for mercy and received great mercy. This man was forgiven an enormous debt. However, even though he was forgiven much, this man went after one of his fellow servants who owed a hundred denarii or about 100 days of wages. The story of this man’s unmerciful treatment gets back to the master and king. “Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?” Powerful words. The man’s debt was insurmountable; once in jail, he would never be able to make restitution. Jesus ends with the punch line - “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”
Jesus shared going back and forth in teaching and parable styles to help instruct the disciples and those hearing his words to be Kingdom Minded. Humility and forgiveness are foundational characteristics in the Kingdom of Heaven. Being child-like is a challenge for the religious elite and even for the disciples who were arguing about who was the greatest. Jesus uses the little children in his teaching and sheep in the parable to get them thinking about humility and also the dangers of sins. Sin and wandering away from God are unhealthy companions. And when sin begins to affect the church, there is protocol for church discipline. The practical steps that Jesus describes are meant to protect the church but also to make reconciliation possible. We must learn to BIND sinful behaviour from the church but also LOOSE forgiveness from a compassionate and merciful heart. If we don’t forgive others as we have so graciously been forgiven, then we will end up in a worse state than we started.
How many of us have imprisoned ourselves in side walls of arrogance and pride? We think, I’m better than… I’m glad I’m not like those people… If only they would do it my way…
Sometimes our prison is unforgiveness and we hold onto anger and bitterness? Holding onto grudges does not make you strong, it makes you bitter. Unforgiveness is like poison. It is deadly and causes great problems in relationships.
In contrast, humility and forgiveness are so powerfully seen in the life of Jesus. He humbled himself taking the form of a servant, leaving his high place in heaven behind. He forgave those who mistreated and crucified him and has forgiven all our sins as well.
Before Nelson Mandela left prison, he said, “As I stand at the door to my freedom, I realize that if I do not leave my pain, anger and bitterness behind me, I will still be in prison.”
Humility is the means to greatness in God’s Kingdom. It opens doors spiritually and practically for God to be glorified.
Forgiveness does not make you weak, it sets you free. Confession is a practical application to experiencing the fulness of God’s love and mercy.
Today we have the opportunity to choose humility…
Today we have the privilege of loosing forgiveness…