Proper 18 – Series A

Forgiveness and the responsibility of the Christian to his or her neighbor runs deeply through the text today. I am of the opinion, perhaps misguided and naïve, that the world would take notice of what Christians did and said much more if we simply practiced this virtuous behavior a little better among ourselves and in our interactions with the world around us. 

In truth, you do not need to believe me on this, just consider some of the examples: Read the potent witness of Corrie Tenboom (The Hiding Place), or consider the reaction to the Amish who forgave the shooter and helped his family after the terrible shooting incident in Pennsylvania a few years ago. On a national scale, consider what has happened in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. It is not perfect, but that nation has not exploded into the carnage which many predicted after the collapse of the Apartheid regime. Closer to home, consider the coverage of Jane Samuels whom I referenced a little while ago in these notes. Jane is a colleague on the staff at CU who forgave the young woman who killed her two children (google her name and forgiveness to get an idea of the media coverage of this.) 

What does all this mean? (to ask a good Lutheran question!) 

First, from reading the text and observing people it would appear that forgiveness is a real thing which needs doing. It is not just a set of feelings or an attitude which one might have, but it is a deed which we do. Corrie Tenboom found herself decades later being asked to forgive. One of the guards from her camp confronted her on the steps to a church. It was hard, a real part of her wanted something else. For the Amish community it meant reaching out to the family of the man who had visited such grief upon them, it meant tangible things which they did. Too often we talk about forgiveness, but do not actually do it. 

Forgiveness requires truth. It was essential that those people involved in Truth and Reconciliation spoke their stories and got that truth out into the open. Forgiveness cannot be possible in the presence of deception and cover-up. This is hard. When someone has gotten a divorce, it is so easy to turn the other way and pretend it did not happen, just to treat them like there is not a problem. But even the truth is not yet forgiveness. We can justify the divorce by noting the infidelity of the other party, but does that make it hurt any less? There is a real problem, their heart is broken. That person probably feels empty and powerless and tattered by what has happened, no matter whose “fault” it really is. The truth is vital here, for until we address the reality of what has happened, we will never be able to apply the healing word and love of Christ. But the truth alone does not solve the problem. Simply diagnosing the issue is not treating it. Truth is not yet forgiveness. 

Forgiveness is not an easy thing but empowered by Christ it is a possible thing to do. The energy which makes forgiveness possible for a human being flows from the cross, not from any innate ability I may have. I may have love for many in my life, but when it comes to forgiveness I must admit that my love is inadequate, but I can also confess that Christ’s love, which I possess in full, is up to any situation. Jesus has died and risen so my sins are forgiven. Jesus has died and risen

so all the evil of the world is undone. Jesus has died and risen so there is no situation which he cannot turn into an opportunity for his love and blessing to flow. I need run from no situation, I need fear no fight. I may not be popular, but I will be able to be honest about anything and God empowers my words. I have the solution this and every problem really needs. I have Jesus. 

So just what is forgiveness? (I have done this before, so if you have read this before, feel free to skip down to the collect) Forgiveness has a wide and a narrow meaning. 

In its broad sense forgiveness is really the application of the Gospel to just about anything. This somewhat depends on one’s definition of sin. Too often we think of sin solely in its moral dimension. Please do not get me wrong, immorality is real sin and it is understandable why we would frequently talk about moral sins. After all, morality is the one thing I can do a few things about and the sense of guilt is a very potent emotion. But the Bible speaks of sin and evil more expansively than that. It sees all afflictions as “evils” even morally neutral things like pain, sickness, even death. We still can, in some sense, call a great disaster like an earthquake a great “evil” that has befallen us. But the bible uses that word almost exclusively, especially in the Old Testament. Anything that is out of step with the God’s intention for the creation is essentially an undoing of the creation and hence an “evil.” 

The description of the Sin offerings in Leviticus 12ff is helpful here. Only a few of the things for which a sin offering was required are inherently moral. Childbirth is hardly a sin, nor is harvesting one’s crops, yet a sin offering was required of the woman who had given birth and man who had finished harvest. Getting the measles or another skin disease, having mildew in your house, or burying one’s dead parent are hardly infractions of a moral code, but a lamb was required as a sin offering. All these things are evidence of creation gone awry. Childbirth was not to be so painful; harvest wasn’t supposed to involve such hard work. We were not supposed to get sick or fight with nature or die. But because sin has come into the world, we endure all these things. When Jesus died on the cross, he died to dry every tear and solve every problem, not just our “naughties.” In this sense, a person can come to church on Sunday and simply say “I’m tired,” or “I’m sad because my friend has died.” That is a confession of sin as much as saying “I have done wrong.” Jesus died for those things, the bible calls those situations “sin” and in the Old Testament there was a whole process for making a sin offering. This makes a great deal more sense of Jesus’ earthly ministry. His miracles were not just demonstrations of his divinity, but they were more importantly Jesus undoing sin in the world. They were exemplars of his mission to all humanity. 

But forgiveness also has a narrow definition which is focused on the morality, especially those situations in which our actions have hurt or offended someone else or we have been offended. In that situation we are called upon to seek forgiveness and to forgive. But how does one do that? 

I find it easiest to understand this in terms of what forgiveness is not. 

Forgiveness is not 

1. Getting even (we hopefully learned that one in first grade or so) 

2. Being tough (This actually does work when the offence is not great, but then we run into that whopper which overwhelms us and we simply cannot tough it out.) 

3. Bearing a grudge (This is essentially wishing we could do #1 here and get even, but afraid of the consequences we settle for making ourselves and most other folks miserable – this is no way to live! Yet how many don’t spend their lives bearing grudges. Bearing a grudge is like drinking poison and hoping the other guy dies.) 

4. Gunny-sacking it (This is where we put it into that imagined gunny sack we call carry around on our shoulders – out of sight is out of mind – at least until the next family reunion when a little stress hits and that gunny sack bursts and we end up emptying the whole thing in front of fifty people.) 

5. Understanding it (this most common, just listen to our conversation whenever someone does us wrong. “I’m sorry I said that, but…” And then we reply, “I understand” or “It’s alright.” – Please hear this. I like understanding and I think the world would be a better place if more people tried to be understanding, but sometimes you cannot just understand the evil that confronts us. If you hurt my child, don’t ask me to understand it.) 

So, forgiveness is none of the things in the list above. But there is more focus we can bring to this: 

  1. A. Forgiveness is not weakness nor being tough – Forgiveness starts with the reality that this hurts and the offending party needs to know that. It starts with the truth. 
  2. B. Forgiveness is not about understanding the motives or the reasons for that hurtful behavior. Forgiveness does not hinge on my understanding why my neighbor did what my neighbor did. It stops the apology at “I’m sorry.” It doesn’t listen to the “but I was really tired.” 
  3. C. Forgiveness is saying no to options 1-5 above. If we are forgiving we are promising not to bear a grudge, carry this around, get even, or try to understand it. 
  4. D. Forgiveness itself starts with saying “Jesus died for this sin.” That is always true no matter how I may still feel about it. 
  5. E. Forgiveness does not mean I forget the sin. I like to think that in forgiveness we remember it “red,” covered in the blood of Christ. The bible never exhorts us to forget sins, it says that God does that, but it never asks us to do that. The exhortation for us to “forgive and forget” is a quote from Shakespeare, not God. Just because I forgive the man who hurts my child does mean I have to hire him to be a babysitter. Just because I forgive a embezzler does not mean I re-hire him to be my accountant. 
  6. F. Forgiveness affects the forgiver and the forgiven, it does change the way I see people – no matter what they have done. When forgiveness is absent, the congregational fellowship loses energy, it may run for some time on inertia but it will cease to have 

  1. vitality. This listless fellowship describes far too many of our parishes and I think this is part of the reason why. 
  2. G. Forgiveness does obligate me to remember their past sin as forgiven. If I cast this forgiven sin back into the forgiven person’s teeth at some later date, I have the problem, they don’t. I have failed to keep my promise. This is not easy – often it takes work. I as a forgiver will fail to keep this promise and will need to seek the forgiveness of the very person who has hurt me. 
  3. H. Forgiveness does run a risk that the other person will do it again. Attempts to set up fail safe guarantees always will subvert forgiveness itself. We don’t have to be stupid (see E) but we cannot really stop the person from doing it again. 
  4. I. Sometimes hurts are very deep, they take a great deal of time, but there is also the possibility that the relationship in which forgiveness is operative will in fact be better. My friend used to say that forgiveness has the potential to open the floodgates of love. Like a broken bone which when healed is stronger, a relationship after forgiveness can be much better. The Christian comes to the broken relationship with hope. 

So what are the steps of forgiving someone? 

  1. I. We acknowledge the wrong 
  2. II. I turn from options 1-5 above. 
  3. III. I declare that Jesus has died for this sin and this sinner 
  4. IV. I promise myself and the other person to “remember it red” that is covered in the blood of Christ. 

We often see this develop in long time Christians who have come to the wisdom of God in that they see that they cannot live without it. But how do we inculcate this in a new member? How do make this into something which could be asked of and lived out more deliberately and fully in the Church. Can we teach this to our children so they don’t have to go through the crusty phase? Can we live in a community which is defined by forgiveness? We won’t be able to separate ourselves from the bullies and the jerks, but can we deal with them differently? Can we preach toward a faith community in which forgiveness is the primary way we deal with problems? 

This sort of forgiveness is deeply rooted in relationship. It often is found in healthy small groups. Is this something which needs to be carefully and deliberately shaped and nurtured in the youngest children? (A child is said to learn 80% of everything he/she will ever learn before they hit kindergarten. Does that mean if we want to weave forgiveness into the life of a human being, we need this to happen early?) 

The church needs this forgiveness. Without it we are simply another club of perhaps like-minded people, but we lack the energy, the vitality of God’s presence in the spoken words of forgiveness.

My goodness, what an essay. I am tempted to write a book about this. I really don’t think that most of my parishioners could have explained forgiveness and I am also not entirely convinced that most of my parishioners actually did it. 

In prior conversations we wanted to talk more about the effect of a lack of forgiveness on us and our congregations. Does a lack of forgiveness explain much of our listlessness in some of our congregations? Does one really need to have a dynamic music, youth, and other program if one really has forgiveness operating? Would it be more likely that our people would bring a friend to Church, the best way to grow a parish, if they were bringing them to the place where real forgiveness happened? Many of our parishes have given up on having dynamic program and as a result have given up on growth. But you can have octogenarians who need to learn how to forgive, can forgive, and can transform a ministry. Is our problem much simpler than we have imagined? Have we forgotten how to be the communion of saints, aka sinners forgiving one another? 

If this is true, what can we do? One sermon out of the year will hardly change this. Preaching this is only a start. This is a process which takes shepherding and modelling. 


O God, from whom all good proceeds, grant to us, Your humble servants, Your holy inspiration, that we may set our minds on the things that are right and, by Your merciful guiding, accomplish them; through Jesus Christ, Your Son, our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. 

O God, from whom all good proceeds… We need to pause for a second and consider that. I am a student and scholar of Thomas Aquinas and I think here is one place where he and a sanctified philosophy can help us. I know Luther pitied poor Aquinas and when it came to his discussion of faith and justification, there is reason for that estimation of him, but I also read Aquinas to say some very helpful things. 

Aquinas and many others have noted that evil is not a real thing, it is the absence of a good thing. Evil is more like a shadow than a genuine reality. The shadow is only the absence of light, and it can be an absence in varying degrees. There are shadows and then there are really dark shadows. To say that God is the source of all that is good, as our collect says, sometimes gives people pause. Who then made the evil? Is that Satan’s creation? In one sense yes, but not really. Satan creates nothing; he is unoriginal in this. He can only distort the good, remove the good from something, cast into the shadow. The man who commits some terrible crime is not Satan’s creation. To some extent he is still the good thing that God made, but he has been distorted, twisted, mangled by our enemy until he the good is very difficult to see. 

If you are looking for a cultural example of this, look no further than the Lord of the Rings and Tolkien’s depiction of Smeagol/Gollum.

But onto the prayer from here. We ask God for holy inspiration; what does that feel like? How would we know it if we had it? Herb Hoefer tells about a guy in India who had a vision in which he was told to start Christian Churches, which he did, over a dozen of them. He then heard about Herb, had him come and present to his leaders and parishioners about the Small Catechism. The next time Herb drove by the place the guy had inserted “Lutheran” into the name of the church. Was he inspired? Was he inspired to start the Churches? If he was, is he really a Lutheran? 

This holy inspiration will set our minds on things that are right. What are these right things? Obviously, the guy who heard a voice which encouraged him to start Lutheran churches had his mind set on some good things, even right things. Perhaps, though, we should ask God what are the right things? Last week we learned that Peter had his mind on things of man and not those of God. That did not go so well, he ended up being called Satan. On that occasion Jesus turned their attention to the cross and the cross bearing to which he was calling all of us. Perhaps the right things are not the things of man, but the things of God, especially the things which flow from the Cross. 

Today Jesus will speak of forgiveness. Is there any more-right thing? It did not seem right to the religious types of Jesus day and if you are following the church planting manuals of many districts you might wonder where it fits into the religious leadership of today as well. If you are going to talk about forgiveness, you have first to talk about sin, real sin, and the more real the more real the forgiveness. That means making some people uncomfortable, that means confrontation, that means the whole Sunday morning experience might not be about me, the music I like to hear, the warm fuzzy feeling I get when I am here, etc. it might just be about my inadequacy, my sin, my evil and what God is going to do about it. 

And so we pray for merciful guidance. This will take a good shot of Spirit and mercy to pull this one off without being a total jerk and without being a complete sell-out. There is a fine and difficult line to walk here. But Jesus has called us to walk that line. It is not an option, it is simply who we are. 


Ezekiel 33:7-9 The OT reading is quite short, but it is embedded in a longer passage within Ezekiel’s book. I have included the surrounding verses, pay attention to the passage which speaks of God’s will in verse 11. I think it is a critical thing for the preacher to remember this day. 

The word of the LORD came to me: 2 “Son of man, speak to your people and say to them, If I bring the sword upon a land, and the people of the land take a man from among them, and make him their watchman, 3 and if he sees the sword coming upon the land and blows the trumpet and warns the people, 4 then if anyone who hears the sound of the trumpet does not take warning, and the sword comes and takes him away, his blood shall be upon his own head. 5 He heard the sound of the trumpet and did not take warning; his blood shall be upon himself. But if he had

taken warning, he would have saved his life. 6 But if the watchman sees the sword coming and does not blow the trumpet, so that the people are not warned, and the sword comes and takes any one of them, that person is taken away in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at the watchman’s hand. 

7 “So you, son of man, I have made a watchman for the house of Israel. Whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. 8 If I say to the wicked, O wicked one, you shall surely die, and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from his way, that wicked person shall die in his iniquity, but his blood I will require at your hand. 9 But if you warn the wicked to turn from his way, and he does not turn from his way, that person shall die in his iniquity, but you will have delivered your soul. 

10 “And you, son of man, say to the house of Israel, Thus have you said: ‘Surely our transgressions and our sins are upon us, and we rot away because of them. How then can we live?’ 11 Say to them, As I live, declares the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel? 

Ezekiel gets a tough set of marching orders here. Upon him is laid a serious charge. If he does not warn the sinner, the sinner will die but God will hold the prophet accountable. If the prophet does warn the sinner and he persists in his sin, then it sits on the head of the sinner. If the warning is not given, however, it will fall on the head of the prophet. 

Was Ezekiel having some second thoughts about ministry? Was he trying to smooth over some issues? Was he trying to coast to retirement or avoid a conflict? Did he have an eye on his pension fund and retirement funds instead of the Word of God and the ministry of the Kingdom? Or perhaps he was just trying to get along with people. Jeremiah struggled with this too. Difficult words are difficult to speak. 

Ezekiel had an interesting ministry. His first years of service were much like Jeremiah’s. He had a terrible message to bring to the people in Exile. Their hopes of return were not founded on the promises of God, at least not on an accurate reading of those promises. Yes, God had said that the people would return, but they were looking for an immediate return and the restoration of Jerusalem to them. God’s wrath had not yet played out and the story would not resolve so quickly. God eventually would destroy Jerusalem and the rest of the nation would join them in the bitter years of Babylonian Exile. Once that happened, however, Ezekiel would have the joy of becoming a prophet of hope for the exiled community. He would cheer the people of Judah with encouraging words for the decades which lay before them. 

These words of chapter 33 come right before the fall of Jerusalem, at the darkest possible hour. Was Ezekiel fed up with this ministry? We know that Jeremiah was. Ezekiel had been forced to lie on one side for over a year, he had shaved his head in public. When his wife died he was not allowed to mourn. It was not an easy thing to be a prophet.

But what about today? Does God ask difficult things of us too? Can we find ourselves shirking his call? Of course we can. It is so much easier to avoid a conflict than to deal with it in God’s love, especially when the world does not understand love and sees avoidance as the most logical course. Our parishioners are increasingly unable to bear any censure for behavior but have bought into the zeitgeist of excuse making and victimhood. Accountability is out and weaseling out of responsibility is in. It is so much easier to get even or simply be tough or perhaps to try and understand the other person. It doesn’t require all that religious talk. 

But such an approach and attitude also does not speak the warning or the blessing which God has. Does this apply to all Christians? Does it specially apply to pastors and deacons and all those who would speak on behalf of God’s people in a holy office? Dare we shirk this responsibility? Will the blood of those whom we have not warned be asked of us? 

Psalm 32:1-7 

Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. 2 Blessed is the man against whom the LORD counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit. 

3 For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. 4 For day and night your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer. Selah 

5 I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the LORD,” and you forgave the iniquity of my sin. Selah 

6 Therefore let everyone who is godly offer prayer to you at a time when you may be found; surely in the rush of great waters, they shall not reach him. 7 You are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with shouts of deliverance. Selah 

8 I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you. 9 Be not like a horse or a mule, without understanding, which must be curbed with bit and bridle, or it will not stay near you.

10 Many are the sorrows of the wicked, but steadfast love surrounds the one who trusts in the LORD. 11 Be glad in the LORD, and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart! 

The ancient ascription over the Psalm in the Hebrew text says that these words were written by David. This psalm has traditionally been a part of the penitential seasons of the church, Advent and Lent and it is easy to see why as David reflects on the act of contrition. But there is also the statement of forgiveness. I think by lopping off the last part of the psalm we have downplayed that, when that should be the theme of this day. David confessed and it was hard. But equally amazing is that God forgave, and gave David the instructed tongue that could teach and write poetry such as this (vs 8) and perhaps more importantly which gave the psalmist joy for he was righteous and upright in heart because God had forgiven him. 

If I was preaching this psalm, and I would be tempted to preach it, I would cast it as a description of forgiveness from the point of view of the sinner forgiven. Notice how David reflects upon his prior state and how miserable that was. Notice how he rejoices in this current circumstance of God’s favor. 

You could then take the hearer to the parable of the lost sheep in the Gospel reading which is forgiveness from the point of view of God the forgiver. 

There are no real losers in forgiveness – just winners. 

Romans 13:1-10 

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. 7 Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed. 

8 Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9 For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 10 Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. 10 

In this letter, Paul is addressing the Christian church in Rome, the bureaucratic center of the Roman universe. Christians may have already been accused of being subversives. We know that is essentially the charge they used against Jesus and Paul also, in Corinth, was brought up on a similar charge. 

Paul describes a different sort of community, a community which is marked by a radical obedience. It is interesting that when he writes these words the Emperor is none other than Nero, the very man who would kill Paul. The Christians who were sent to the lions in the arenas of Rome never claimed that the government did not have the authority to kill them. They argued that this was a mistake, that they were accused of a sedition which they had not committed, that they were in fact loyal citizens, but they never said the Government did not have this right. They often appealed to this passage as their foundation text for this attitude. 

Paul says that the Christian really should not run afoul of the law, at least a normal and sane law. Nero would become a mad man and so would Domitian. Perhaps it was the lead in the pipes of Roman plumbing systems. The Christian life is not called to be something which the authorities should note as being harmful or subversive. It is marked by love and against love there are no laws. 

America seems constantly poised for the next election. Essentially the United States is governed by the voters who then select individuals to exercise that authority on their behalf. So, we have a very different situation from what Paul experienced. If we do not think a law is just, we are almost obligated to say something about it because we are the governing authority, we are an instrument of God’s rule in this place. In many respects a voter should hear the admonitions to rulers as much as he or she should hear the admonition to the citizens in these letters of Paul and I am thinking also of Luther’s words on this. If you want an interesting read, consider Luther’s “Admonition to Peace.” Therein he takes to task both the nobles and peasants on the eve of the Peasant’s War of 1524-5. Eventually the peasants did rebel and Luther said that the nobles had to act against them, but before violence broke out, he thought that both sides needed admonishment. As voters, do we hear both sides of that argument? Are we responsible for policies that have destroyed lives? We elected the people who enacted and enforce those policies. 

The preacher attracted to this text will likely gravitate more toward the second paragraph, and well he should. But beware that the discussion of love does not slip in to the abstract. There is no such thing as abstract love. Love is a thing of the hands, of the lips, of the life lived, even in the political spectrum. Just as forgiveness is a deed we do, likewise the love of which Paul speaks, the fulfilling of the law is nothing other than the actual doing of love. It is not the warm fuzzy feeling in the heart. 

I have found the writings of John Inazu, a professor of law and philosophy at Washington Univ. in St. Louis to be a worthy read on some of these issues. 11 

Matthew 18:1-20 

At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 2 And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them 3 and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 

5 “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, 6 but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. 

7 “Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation comes! 8 And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. 9 And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire. 

10 “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven. 12 What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? 13 And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. 14 So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish. 

15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 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. 18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” 

This is the text we will want to focus on for this sermon, at least I think so. Jesus has just finished several chapters in which he has done miracles, fed multitudes, walked on water, and healed the sick. The struggle with the Pharisees and religious leaders of the day is reaching a fevered pitch. He has heard Peter’s confession and has revealed to his disciples that he is about to go to Jerusalem to be betrayed, killed, and resurrected. 

Chapter 18 presents us with the fourth of the major discourses in the Gospel according to Matthew and this focuses our attention squarely on the community which Jesus is forming, the kingdom which he described in parables in chapter 13. He will use parables again here, but they 12 

will be much clearer and supported by contextual and explanatory material. This is a very different use of parables than we see in chapter 13. 

This reading is long, really long and is packed with much material. I am going to address it in smaller chunks. 

At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 2 And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them 3 and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 

This all gets started with a question, a question which portrays the disciples as a little thick but which gives Jesus an occasion to launch into a discourse which centers around the Christian community which he is addressing through Matthew. The disciples want to know which of them is the top dog. It is difficult to say whether they are jockeying for position or if they are simply wondering who is great within the kingdom. When Mark tells the story, they were arguing on the road and had obviously been trying to figure out which of them was the greater. Matthew is not concerned with that, he wants us to hear Jesus answer. They must turn and become like children or they won’t even get in, forget being great. They won’t even have a place in that kingdom. Christ’s kingdom is in this sense really upside down from their experience and expectations. One must humble self and become like a child. 

Just a reminder of what we have said in the past. In the ancient world children were not thought to be innocent! They were considered weak and helpless. Those are the characteristics of a child. When Jesus exhorts them to be childlike he is talking about the assumption of a posture of weakness and helplessness. Until I am nothing, God makes nothing of me. Being humble I am great, but as soon as I tell you that I am the humblest person in the world, it rather defeats the whole purpose doesn’t it? So who is the greatest in the kingdom? It won’t work on the self-aggrandizing model of the Roman culture in which Matthew was writing. Jesus is talking about world which operates on a completely different reality than we are used to. In the past we referred to this as the “New Normal.” 

The new normal operates on a strange dynamic in which my disqualifications are my qualifications. I am helpless before my sin, and the faster I am brought to see that the faster I am made holy and perfect by Christ. My boasting is not in what I am or have done. My boasting is always in Christ, who he is and what he has done, including restoring life and righteousness to me. 

5 “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, 6 but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. 

While on the topic of children, Jesus has more to say. These little ones are important to him; that is what makes them great in the kingdom. We do not think the child to be worth much, at least not as much as a man. That is nowhere more evident than in our abortion laws. Inconvenience is 13 

reason enough to terminate a pregnancy. As awful as it is today, that was even more true in the ancient world which never would have had a saying like “women and children first” when it came to filling lifeboats on a sinking ship. It was survival of the fittest and the strongest, every man for himself. Jesus posits a different sort of world, and I praise God that in some respects our western culture has adopted and ingrained some of these mind-sets into its own ethos. 

Woe to the one who causes one of these little ones to sin. Death would be preferable, even a terrible death in which one’s body could not be buried and no one could come and mourn at your tomb. We don’t quite get how revolting that was to the ancient Jews, but for them to be gathered to their fathers was a powerful statement of their place in the covenant nation. 

This is probably also a word for the people in Matthew’s audience in a particular way. The Christian community was under attack in many ways. This reminded the people that Jesus saw what happened to them, even the little ones in their midst. He saw how they were being cut off from their communities. 

7 “Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation comes! 8 And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. 9 And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire. 

Causing a little one to sin leads Jesus to discuss the causes of sin. If it was your foot, you would cut it off rather than go to hell. If it was your hand, the same thing, you would pluck out an eye. But the reality is that feet, hands, and eyes do not cause us to sin, do they? Our heart causes us to sin and we can hardly pluck that out, can we? Ezekiel would prophecy that God would replace the hearts of stone which were in his people with a heart of living flesh on which the law would be written and lived. 

More important here is the woe pronounced on anyone who causes sin to come. Temptation will come, but woe to the one who did it. Don’t be that person. 

But more importantly, Jesus seems to be addressing our fundamental helplessness before our sin. Like little children we are weak and defenseless before this. The honest person reading this passage cannot but be terrified at these words. He is right, if I could chop off a limb and go to heaven, I would do it, but I also know full well that such a sacrifice, as extreme as it is, would get me no closer to heaven. 

10 “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven. 12 What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? 13 And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. 14 So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish. 14 

Then we are back to the little ones in the text. Don’t despise them or think that they are not important. Their angels are always looking at the face of the Father. Then he goes into the parable of the lost sheep. How different this sounds in Matthew than it does in the more familiar Lucan version! There it is clearly a story about forgiving the sinners, even the great sinners. The Pharisees are outside and the sinners are inside in a great reversal of expectation. 

Jesus in Matthew tells the story as a warning. God has his eyes on these little guys. He will go looking for them and rejoice greatly when he finds them. Don’t think that they are not important. 

Which all brings us to the really pressing question: Just what does Jesus mean when he speaks about “Little Ones?” This is not a matter of small import as this will show up again in chapter 25 in the famous sheep and goat judgment scene. Who are these “little ones” we are hearing so much about? It started with a child and it could consistently mean a child, or a person small in stature as a child is small. But the following section and the tenor of the whole would suggest to me that Jesus has in mind someone else. Are they small because I think little of them? Is this small person small because they have hurt me and I have thought them to be small on that account? Have they become unimportant to me, not necessarily in any actual sense, but only in my own estimation? Or is it the one who is small, helpless, weak before his own sin?. 

What makes them small? And just who are the stronger ones to whom Jesus addresses these words? Is it us the believers? Is it the folks in the church who hold offices like pastor or deacon? Is it the people of great faith? Who are the strong? Who are the weak? Your answer to these questions can vary and still be faithful. But the answers will also affect how you preach. 

15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17 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. 18 Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” 

Finally, we come to the text that has been the source of great mischief within our beloved Synod, Matthew 18:15ff. This not some biblical by-law outlining conflict resolution procedures, but that is how we have used it. Considering the earlier parts of the chapter, the parable of the lost sheep, the focus on even the most inconsequential members of the society, it would seem that Jesus is speaking of both the motive and the practical implications of being a community based upon forgiveness. When we use this simply as a guide for how to react in a difficult situation we have really missed what I think is the larger point. Jesus is speaking to the heart and the mind which considers the person. Just a couple of weeks ago Paul, in Romans, urged his readers, “as much as in you lies, live in peace with one another.” He returned to that theme in Ephesians 4. It would seem that Matthew and Paul and other writers in the earliest community of Christians 15 

understood their radical calling out of this world and into its service to involve a community which practiced peace in a different way. The old ways of getting even, grudge bearing, and even understanding were no longer the rule. Now the member of the community sought out the offending party, not to get even but to restore them. This is not about what we do when we are hurt as much about why we do it. 

The process here is pretty straight forward and I would guess new to none of us. First the attempt is made to settle this between the aggrieved and the perpetrator. If that is not possible the circle is slightly enlarged, then it is brought to the whole community. But always the goal is to restore the brother. Even at the end of the process, the gentiles and the tax collectors were the very people Jesus was gathering to himself. How often don’t we make this into the process for excommunicating someone, kicking them out? We can finally be rid of this person when we have gone through the appropriate steps. 

Starting in verse 18, the last part of this reading seems to speak about the goals and the motives. What we do on earth is real. It is not just some play life which we lead in preparation or in isolation from heaven. The things we say and do here on earth have heavenly ramifications. What exactly this means for the eternal salvation of the person I am unable to forgive I cannot know for sure but I know it might not be good for me. If I am to declare a sin as “unforgivable,” I probably have to admit that I have done the same thing even more often. Does that mean I am declaring my own sins unforgiveable? Am I closing my life off from forgiveness as well? 

Verse 19 speaks more positively of the motives for doing this. Two people who are united in the love of Christ are powerful in prayer. You cannot afford to let the separation of sin come between you and a brother or sister in Christ. You need them to pray with you. If you would let them simply drift off or fall away from the fellowship you are losing potency in prayer. For the one who has repented and been forgiven is often the far greater friend than the one who has never been forgiven. Forgiveness opens a floodgate of love. 

Then verse 20 seems to state this even more strongly. Where two or three gather in the name of Jesus, he is there. I have often used the story of the reunion of Jacob and Esau in Gen 33 in which Jacob sees the face of God in his brother. Christ does not make the promise to be present this way to an individual, but to the community gathered, no matter how small, yes even when it is two friends who are face to face. It is in the face and the hands, the words and the deeds of that other Christian in which we find our Lord Jesus. He is not some nebulous cloud floating, nor is he “in my heart” but he is open and out there, ready to be seen in loving words and forgiving deeds. Now my motive for seeking out that lost brother is even stronger. In the moment when forgiveness is spoken, we are gathered in Jesus’ name, he is there! 

Greek Note: The Greek has a strange construction at the end of verse 20: it literally reads: I with them AM. 

This also shows up at Matthew 28:16-20 which was the reading for the Festival of the Holy Trinity earlier this summer and we discussed it there. You may want to access those notes. 16 

You might also look also to the beginning of Matthew where he calls Jesus Immanuel or “God with us.” 

Norman Nagel at Concordia St. Louis suggested to me that this might be deliberate on Matthew’s part. “I AM” or “Ego eimi” in Greek, is the LXX way of expressing the name which God uttered for Moses at the burning bush in Exodus 3. It is the very name of God. 

If you look at it, the people who are gathered (united) in the name of Jesus are literally inside the name of God. That is a very good place to be. It makes for a very good baptismal sort of theology. 


1. The world is really full of sin. Not only the moral failings which we do, but also the terrible things that happen. As we write this another hurricane bears down on the East coast of the United states. This is a great evil in the words of Scripture. I am helpless before such systemic and pervasive evil. All I can do is run away and hide, hoping that another great evil does not overtake me there. 

2. The sins which have been done to me have often left me emotionally and spiritually crippled. I see certain members of my own congregation and I seethe or grow cold. The instant replay of what they have done is before my eyes. This leaves me exhausted and inward looking. 

3. Our congregations which are filled with hurting people are often not places where burdens are lifted but perpetuated. The system to which Jesus has urged us and Paul has urged us does not function among us. If we are hurt, we run away and find another parish. If we are frustrated we lash out. If our enemy stops coming to church, we are glad. This is far from what God would have of us. 

4. Thus our congregations invest great energy in this managing the conflict and not much is left for ministry. Divided from one another, we lose out on the great energy source which has always empowered the Christian Church and that is Christ himself. Our prayers are pallid, our fellowship is hollow and empty. Without the driver of forgiveness and genuine love for the little, the least, the enemy and the sinner, we are little better than a social club whose purpose is rapidly fading. Our ladies aide societies grow older and smaller, the LLL group has probably ceased to exist already in our parish. We still gather to worship but we are not sure why anymore. 


1. Jesus has died for every sin – all of them. There is none that his blood does not cover. That means he has seen the destruction of Katrina and Irene, he has seen the bloodshed of every war and every heart broken by a cruel word, even the horrors unfolding in Lybia today. Strangely his answer to all this is himself to become the victim of a terrible 


injustice, his death on the cross. But equally strangely, this has given hope to people all over the world. 

2. Jesus healed the crippled and the lame with regularity and he still does it. The emotional paralysis of a failure to forgive is miraculously changed when forgiveness is practiced. He supplies the energy, he supplies the words, he supplies the forgiveness. Like teenagers with a hundred dollars burning a hole in our pocket, we just want to spend this somewhere. Let me find a sinner so I can forgive him. 

3. Congregations can change too. It is harder perhaps to see this or at least it requires much more patience on the part of the leaders, but it can be done. The place to start is with the radical nature of forgiveness and the love which Jesus has for every member of his congregation. 

4. This investment by Jesus in love produces vibrant and living fellowships. While success is God’s to determine, not mine, Jesus creates amazing things in small places too. He delights when one little lost sheep is brought home. The angels rejoice to see the shepherd with a wounded dear one in his arms and carried to the safety of his fold. While he delights also in the crowds which throng, he knows everyone of those sheep by name. he can be found in a conversation between two Christians gathered in his name to forgive a sin, to love one another with his love, to care as he cares. 

Sermon Themes 

1. Jesus loves them all – even the ones I have a hard time with. (Gospel – that the Spirit of God would fill the hearer with the love of God for all people, spurring him/her to that love’s action.) 

Jesus has called everyone of my fellow congregants and every one whom I will ever meet a precious and holy person. That is a bit of a challenge for me. I have to admit it. The first part of the Gospel lesson today speaks of the Good Shepherd’s great efforts on the part of the lost sheep and enjoins all of us to take part in that. How many of our churches don’t have baptized memberships that are three or four times our average attendance? Some are bearing grudges, some are hurt. But this is a place to bring hurts and be healed. The communities of Christians are often more in need of the reconciliation which is found in Christ than the outside communities. The blood of Christ is bigger than any sin which has divided this fellowship or members of this church from one another. Jesus’ work on a cross makes my grudge I am bearing against a fellow congregant seem petty. The preacher may well need to address that sinful arrogance on the part of the membership. We somehow have the strange idea that I can only really be part of this if I am happy. 18 

What does that suggest for the way that I treat the folks who have hurt me? Our world says vengeance. We make movie heroes out of folks who bear grudges and finally get even with their foes. Is that really God’s way? 

How can we start on that right here in our congregation? God suggests a tender and beautiful love which seeks peace and reconciliation. It always starts with one person, moved by the Spirit of God, who does the surprising and unlikely thing called forgiveness. Always. 

Like any community, our community will challenge this love. There are people who are hard to love this way. But such stress upon us serves to strengthen such love. In loving the stinker we get to be better lovers. And don’t forget, God is love. You might want to mine I John 4 for some insights here about the nature of such love. God is love and when we love God abides in us. 

The good news is that Jesus has empowered this life to be lived by us. He has not simply demanded it and flitted off to heaven to judge us on our performance at the end of time. He has purchased the forgiveness we don’t have and given it to us lavishly in every absolution, in every sacramental experience, in his written Word and the spoken Word. Jesus has not flitted off, he has come to abide in us and our lives today. His love is right here! And that allows us to lavish that same love on stinkers and reprobates. He has poured out his Spirit to light a fire under us. We can do this, not because we can, but because he can. 

2. Talkin’ Tender Love for Sinners (OT and Gospel – That the Spirit of God would use this sermon to empower and teach the hearer to be a forgiver of sins and sinners.) 

We don’t understand forgiveness very well. We talk about it a lot, but do we actually do it. This sermon wants to closely examine the act of forgiveness which Jesus speaks about today and remind the Christian that this is our way. The Spirit of God can use this to radically transform the lives of folks. 

God’s great love for every one of his children empowers us to be speakers of that love.. We all have been hurt, but God has a real and helpful answer for us. The same love he has shown us in forgiving us, is also on our lips and shown in our deeds. He empowers our forgiveness – when we speak, he echos our words. His Holy Spirit uses those words to work something miraculous. 

We often think that being hurt means the end of a relationship. But forgiveness makes it possible for those relationships to be stronger after the hurt than they ever were before the hurt. When we forgive He unites us into a new bond which stronger than the old one. Remember a bone broken and healed is often stronger than the way it was before the break. And lastly he thinks this reconciliation is so important he shows up himself, with a holy promise made to be there, in the face, in the words, in the hug, in the hands of the one who loves us. 19 

So how do we forgive? See that long essay I wrote at the beginning of these notes. 

3. To Hell with the by-laws, it’s about people. (OT and Gospel – you might need to change the title, but perhaps not. This sermon’s goal is that the Spirit of Jesus would give his eyes to the whole congregation to empower their ministry and guide it.) 

We have too often used these words of Jesus to cover up our own disregard for the little ones of the kingdom. The ones who have hurt us are shooed out the door as long as we have gone through the process and we are glad to see them go. Jesus presents us with a radically different vision for our fellowship. We are all his precious people for whom He has died. He has made each of us a great treasure for which he was willing to give up the throne of heaven itself. 

That means the person who stomps out offended is not simply let go. More likely that means that this sort of fellowship doesn’t let anger get that far that the person stomps out. That means that the little people in the fellowship are the important people in the fellowship. Yes, I know I may simply be empowering diminutive tyrants, but I am not sure that is the only way this shakes out. But I will not tell you that this is without risk. 

Jesus speaks of a new sort of fellowship which really orbits around him and not me. That is at the core of what he is saying here, it seems. When as few as two or three gather, the most important person in the room is Jesus himself. That changes the way we see all this, and most importantly the other folks in the room because Jesus will be heard in their voices and seen in their deeds. 

We try to control and seize this fellowship for ourselves through a variety of means, not the least of which is when we would turn this passage about forgiveness into a bylaw about proper responses to offence. The real point is the people, and most importantly the person who is in the room. The bylaws, the steps for forgiveness are all about helping us live lives which reflect their importance to us. 

4. Are you a child? (Gospel: That the Spirit of God would lead the hearer to the humility of the child to whom God gives the very Kingdom of Heaven.) 

Dispense with the “children are innocent” piece. They are not. 

This sermon wants to speak of our helplessness before sin and how that makes us child-like. We are not able to stand before sin and what it does to us. We are helpless before it, like a child, we cannot feed, clothe, or care for ourselves in this spiritual sense. 

But God declares to us today that this is exactly the state he expects and delights in. He is not looking for the spiritually competent, but the man or woman who is helpless before their sins. He renders us competent, he lifts us up, he stands us up, he is the one who accomplishes this. Competent people depend on themselves and not on God. That is misbelief, true belief counts on God for salvation. 20 

Such child-like being then changes the way that we see this whole world. The sinners are all children – beloved of God. I do not despise the sinner/child. I cannot without despising myself! Jesus has not despised the sinner/child, rather he speaks of a shepherd who goes looking for the helpless and the lost. He found me. He found you. Today through your words of forgiveness and love, he is finding more lost sheep. 

For many of us, this week kicks off our fall Sunday School programs. We thought it might be interesting to take some of the young people of our congregation and ask them what forgiveness is, record their responses on our smart phones and put them on the projected screen. It will put the kids in front of us and let them teach us something about this subject too. 

5. Citizens of the Kingdom (Epistle: That the Spirit of God would call the hearer to the life of citizenship in the kingdom of God – owing only the debt of love.) 

Here are Paul’s words on government. We are living in a strange libertarian moment in which it is hard to speak well of government of any kind. We have drunk deeply of this heady wine and it has particularly affected the conservative political types who frequently make up the congregations we serve and may even describe the preacher. 

But Paul enjoins us as Christians to speak well of our leaders and honor them. I am not sure that the blogosphere and the 24 hour news programming with its editorializing and political fighting really helps us do that. It is instructive to notice that Paul wrote these words when Nero was the emperor, not just when it was a good emperor or a President who comes out of the party I support. Paul does something else, however, with this injunction that is really important and very Lutheran. He ties the paying of taxes, the respect shown to leaders, the obedience to the laws of the land to the Christian’s relationship with God. This is a classic description of the doctrine of Vocation. As citizens of the country in which we live, we support the government and honor the leaders even better than the non-Christians do because we know that in honoring the president, king, emperor, is also a part of the beautiful relationship we have with God. 

Our debts are all debts of love, and that takes faith because there are a lot of people, including most members of congress, that I find very hard to love sometimes. But isn’t that what Jesus is asking of us? I don’t have to like what someone does to love them and honor the office. Can we preach this today? Has the political climate gotten so poisonous that we cannot say this anymore? 

6. I have made you a Watchman! (That the Holy Spirit would inspire the hearer to bold and faithful witness.) 

God lays a pretty serious charge on Ezekiel today, a charge that involves repercussions if he doesn’t do it. God has given a warning and if it is not delivered, God will demand the blood of the sinner from Ezekiel. 21 

Jesus seems to lay a similar injunction on us and this sermon will simply assume that this is the duty of the Christian, both as an individual and as a congregation. 

We want to extend the reading into the next part – this will make the Gospel much clearer and easier to preach – because the Law always serves the Gospel. 

We will argue that God has put this congregation and called each of us here to this place today because he has given us a charge to warn this generation of their sin and to call them repentance. He does not lay on us, as he did not lay on Ezekiel, responsibility for their repentance. God does not say that we will succeed. Ezekiel did not. Neither the Apostles, nor frankly did Jesus succeed all the time. But God is telling us to open our mouths and speak. The parable of the Sower suggests that some will hear, heed the warning, believe, and be saved. God wants that and he will make it happen. 

But now, we need to transition a little. While motive is not entirely addressed here, we need to. It would be too easy to think that Ezekiel will be motivated by fear to do this. He wasn’t and we won’t be either. Ezekiel is recording the truth. There are consequences for our failure to speak and our silence. But that is not really why we open our mouth and speak in the first place. Ezekiel was a prophet and he spoke, but was he simply avoiding these consequences? Hardly. 

God has called Ezekiel and us. That call is itself a motive and an empowerment to open our mouths and speak. When we look at the verses which follow this reading immediately we see that Ezekiel’s call was borne out of God’s deep love for his people and his desire to restore them to his favor. Jesus speaks to today of a community that is loving even the hard to love folks. When we win one we gain back a brother or sister – notice the relationship. Ezekiel was also commanded to love the hard-to-love folks of his day. We too are empowered to do this not out of fear but out of Love – God’s love first shown to us and now shown through us. (Here we might go and look at the sermons above which also make this point.) 

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