"What's your opinion? What will somebody do who has a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away? Won't he leave the ninety-nine on the hillsides and go off to find the stray? And if he happens to find it? Yes! I tell you he is happier over it than over the ninety-nine that never strayed! Thus your Father in heaven does not want even one of these little ones to be lost.
"Moreover, if your brother commits a sin against you, go and show him his fault -- but privately, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won back your brother. If he doesn't listen, take one or two others with you so that every accusation can be supported by the testimony of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to hear them, tell the congregation; and if he refuses to listen even to the congregation, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax-collector."
Pretty famous and oft-repeated words of the Messiah, Himself. As I have contemplated these words, a different perspective presented itself. I have heard it often said, from more than just a few teachers, pastors and fellow believers, that this is the 'formula' for dealing with a sinner within the fellowship. But, I think there is more to it than that. I think that it may be more of an opportunity to show love to those who have stumbled.
I included the preceding text from Matthew's gospel to set the stage. Here, the shepherd is tending to his flock of sheep and one wanders off. The shepherd, out of concern for the one who has strayed, leaves the others in search of the one. The way Messiah phrases it, it would seem almost a rhetorical question, as if any shepherd would leave the majority to find the lost. Why? Because the shepherd doesn't want even one sheep to be lost...not one of his flock does he want to be hurt, lost, hungry and alone in a dangerous place. In the same way, our Father, the Holy One, does not want one of His own to be wandering into dangerous and sinful ways that lead to pain and separation from Him. Beyond the reach of His protection, out of range of His voice and leading. Again, I ask why? Well, there must be quite a connection between the Shepherd and His sheep if He is happier for rescuing the one, than He is over the rest who stayed safely with the rest of the flock. The answer must be love, right?
So, why then do believers use what comes next as a form of judgment, correction, even punishment for one who has stumbled into sin? We who see another stepping outside the protection of the commands and into sin, take it upon ourselves to be judge and jury. Go to the person and inform them of their sin. If they balk, defend or dodge, that's it. Take another and yet another until they wither. If they stand strong in their sinful way, drag them before the congregation to confess publicly - humiliation shall surely fix this egregious sinful behavior. And, if they refuse? That's it - kick 'em out, cut them off - remove the evil from the camp. Undoubtedly, being ostracized, alienated and even denied fellowship on any and all levels will inflict so much discomfort, embarrassment and painful loneliness that they will, most certainly, turn from their wicked ways and attempt to return to the flock in shame and repentance. Unfortunately, more often than not, restoration to community isn't allowed, even after repentance. Poor condemned sinner.
Really? Somehow, that is not the picture Yeshua painted of the shepherd and his wayward sheep, at least in my view. If the reason the shepherd makes the effort to go find the one that has wandered is because he doesn't want even one to be apart from him, wouldn't it stand to reason that we are to go to the one who has fallen for the same reason?
[If we were to get real literal, we could say that this truly is not a formula for correcting sinful behavior within the congregation, but a model to follow if someone sins against 'you' (personal pronoun). "Moreover, if your brother (a community member, neighbor) commits a sin against you, go and show him his fault..." We might even go so far as to consider that this passage is concerning a personal disagreement concerning the bartering or trading of goods or services between community members. Consider the meaning of the Greek word kerdaínō used in the phrase 'you have won (or gained) your brother': properly, to profit (gain), an ancient mercantile term for exchanging (trading) one good for another; (figuratively) to exchange (trade out) what is mediocre ("good") for the better. But, for the sake of principle, let's continue with the analogous reading of the text.]
Action. We are to love one another with our words and actions, not in words alone. It is our behavior and willingness to reach out to others that indicates how we love all our neighbors, and not just the ones who resemble the remaining non-wandering sheep. I would like to suggest that these words of Yeshua are exhorting us to love one another in a way that goes beyond the standard, "I'm going to point out your sin...oh and by the way, I'm doing it in love". I'm going to really go out on a limb and say that Matthew 18 is so much more than a formula of correction, although it certainly could be in extreme cases. I would like to suggest that it may be more accurate to say that it is a test for the one who is aware of another's sin, or perhaps has even been sinned against - a test of loving.
Yeshua modeled this behavior patiently and gently...by living among men, building relationships, diligently teaching, telling stories, having open discussions and loving those who came across His path; the woman at the well, the woman caught in adultry and even her accusers, the rich young ruler, all those He healed both in body and in mind, and even His own disciples, who never seemed to get it. He came along-side sinners to serve, speaking words of love and truth while steadily making His way to the cross. This Shepherd not only came beside sinful souls, but was willing to bear their burden, ultimately taking the burden of their sin, our sin, upon His sturdy and capable shoulders to pay the price required. He was willing to pay that ultimate price, atonement with His own blood; and is, even now, interceding on our behalf before the Father. Would I be too bold to suggest that we, too, can come along-side those close to us that have stepped into sin, wandering away through temptation or by will, to care, listen, intercede and help bear their burden by means of trust and building relationship?
What if we could emulate the behavior and model of the Messiah? Is it even possible?
What if we could love that one who sinned against us, offering forgiveness, mercy and grace?
What if we could come along-side the one who had fallen into sin, either through temptation or will?
What if we walked with them, talked with them and loved them despite their sin?
What if we embraced them and encouraged them towards repentance and righteousness, patiently and steadfastly?
What if our motives were not to appear as the better, more righteous one, but as the grieving, humble and loving one?
What if we decided to bear their sin with them, loving them, praying with them, praying for them, bearing their burden until they could stand on their own and do the hard, but righteous, thing?
What if we were their humble friend instead of their judge? What if we were available to cry with them, hurt with them and care enough to understand their history, experience and motivation?
What if we could love them unconditionally, looking beyond their faults and our prejudices to see them as our LORD sees them?
What if we remembered that we are all sinners and fall short of the glory of our LORD?
I have to believe that if they are true believers, they would eventually come to repentance - not being able to rest until they did the right thing. However, that repentance wouldn't be the result of our efforts, but by the prompting of the Holy Spirit. We are commanded to love our neighbor, our sinful neighbor. But if our motivation is to watch others legalistically and judge harshly to make ourselves appear (or feel) more righteous, to jealously guard what we perceive to be our right and privilege, and/or impose our personal opinions and preferences as if commands equal to Torah, then we are no better than the Pharisee praying aloud on the street corner, proudly displaying his deeds and position in life.
And what if after patiently pouring out all that we can for that one in trouble, enlisting the loving help of others even to the extent of the entire congregation, and they still are stiff-necked and rebellious? Then, and only then, can we resort to considering them as a pagan and a tax-collector. (Should we remember that Matthew, the gospel writer and hand-picked disciple, was a tax-collector?) This development should, by no means, make any believer happy, joyous or thankful that we are better or more righteous than they. If we believe this one is chosen of our LORD, then we have to believe that He grieves over the one who is rebellious and going his own way. Shouldn't we earnestly grieve also, even persisting in prayer and looking for opportunity to 'gain' our brother?
I have to say that this is not the teaching I've heard on this passage, nor have I witnessed this idea preached from any pulpit. And, I concede that I may be way off base; after all, I'm no scholar, rabbi or pastor. However, I do know that the greatest command is to love, even our enemies. Would our enemies be those close to us that are in sin - the sin of gossip, slander, dishonesty, envy or manipulation? If we consider them our enemies, (most certainly we can assume they are not showing love), and we are not showing love in return, then we are all guilty of sinning against G-d in regards to the greatest command. I boldly say, loud and clear, that we just don't understand what it means to love. It is all too easy to get caught up in religious legalism and the poison of self-righteousness and elitism. Judgment of others with the intent of exclusion, regardless of the sin (including sexual sin and idolatry), is not love. Instead, we need to come along-side to love (serve) our brother by gently and lovingly speaking truth with the intent to restore by building trust and relationship. Helping bear the burden of your brother fulfills the whole Torah, which is to love your neighbor as yourself, all for the glory of G-d.
Let those with no sin cast the first stone.
Yes, I have to believe that Yeshua is modeling loving, sacrificial, humble and protective behavior in His tale of the shepherd seeking out the lost sheep. Likewise, we should be loving, sacrificial, humble and protective of the beloved neighbor that has gone astray into the trap and deception of sin.
Love is patient and kind, not jealous, not boastful, not proud, rude or selfish, not easily angered, and it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not gloat over other people's sins but takes its delight in the truth. Love always bears up, always trusts, always hopes, always endures.
Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin,
you who are spiritual should restore him gently.
But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted.