It was a fairly routine morning. We had slogged through breakfast and clean-up and we were somewhere in the middle of making it through the morning.
I don’t even remember if this was one of the days when we attempted to accomplish some school work or not. What I do remember was that the children were at each other with bickering and arguing.
I also remember that I was tired of dealing with it and just wanted it all to stop. So, I did what (I thought) any good Christian mother would do. I marched them all into the living room and sat them all on the sofa so that I could beat them over the head with some Bible verses (figuratively, not literally).
Scripture as a Weapon
Although I knew better, I tended to treat Scripture as a handy list of how-to’s which, if I could conform my children closely enough to, would lead to a smoothly-run and peaceful household. This particular day, I wanted to persuade my children of the importance of dealing with inter-personal problems according to the simple and straightforward method laid out in Matthew 18.
Follow this recipe, I wanted to convey, and we will all be a lot happier.
I opened up to Matthew 18 and scanned down through the verses until I came to the part about your neighbor trespassing against you. I was reading to them from the King James Version and in that version, verse 15 begins in this way …
“Moreover, if thy brother shall trespass against thee …”
I’ve listened to enough sermons in my lifetime to know that if a verse begins with something like “Moreover” or “Therefore” it means that the current statements are based on the context of what came before it. So, in an attempt to be a good Bible scholar, I decided to back up to the beginning of the passage to put the pertinent verses in their context.
But an amazing thing happened as I read and explained. I realized that God had turned the tables on me. It was I who was being “beaten over the head” (although with far more tenderness and compassion than I had myself managed to muster) with these verses.
The Conviction of Context
In Matthew 18, Christ begins by talking about little children. In order to enter the kingdom of heaven, we must become like a little child. In fact, God’s love for his little children is so deep and so fierce that he has stern warnings for those who cause one of his little ones to stray.
He compares himself to a shepherd who will do whatever it takes to seek after lost sheep. And it is in this context, directly on the heels of the sheep-seeking illustration that the “Moreover” of verse 15 arrives.
Suddenly, it hit me. Verses 15 and following are not intended primarily as a neat and orderly protocol for mediating human disputes and achieving justice (though in God’s providence, that may result). Instead, these verses are a quick-reference guide on the active practice of participating with Christ in the sheep-seeking mandate.
So, what does someone sinning against you have to do with seeking lost sheep? Well, presumably, if the sin was committed against you, then you were the first one to know that one of Christ’s sheep strayed off the path.
You were watching when he wandered out of the pasture, so, naturally, the first responsibility falls to you to run after him. And, if you can’t manage the rescue on your own, you need to get help!
Easier Said Than Done
Even in the moment, I felt the difficulty of these words. Wait a minute, someone sins against me, wounds me, disrespects me, treats me wrongly … and God is expecting me to jump up joyfully and go cheerfully after him, coaxing him to come back and hang out with us? In a word, Yes.
Thankfully, the Lord anticipated my incredulity, and apparently Peter could relate to it, too. You can hear the tension in his voice when he asks the Lord how many times one is expected to do this.
Doesn’t there come a point when we are released from the seemingly-impossible task of running after someone who has just hurt us? Isn’t there some kind of limit or breaking point?
As was often his way, the Lord responded to Peter (and to me) with a parable.
The parable he tells is about the wicked servant who is forgiven an impossible debt by the king and then refuses to forgive a small debt to a friend. Essentially, Christ was saying, “Well, Peter, I’m only asking you to do a small fraction of what I did for you.”
An Infinite Perspective Makes All the Difference
How can Christ expect us to run lovingly after someone who has just spit in our faces or slapped us or mocked us? Because that’s exactly what he did for us. Except our sins against him are sins against the infinite God and Creator of the universe, whereas the sins of others against us are simply sins against finite, created human beings.
When someone sins against us, we should be concerned about the offense that was committed. But we should be concerned about it more fully as it serves to hamper that person’s relationship with the almighty God than in whatever sense it damaged that person’s relationship with us.
David recognized the much weightier sense of sin as an obstacle to his relationship with God when he said, in Psalm 51, “Against thee, thee only have I sinned …” Certainly it was true that he had sinned against Uriah, Bathsheba, Joab, his soldiers and even the people of Israel as a whole. But in the ultimate sense, the greatest weight of his offense was found in sinning against God.
These are MY Little Sheep
So, here I was facing my children with a Bible in hand that I had planned to use like a wrecking ball to smack them around a little bit and whip them into shape for my own personal pleasure and convenience. And instead, the Lord used Matthew 18 to say to me, “Are you running after these little sheep like I would run after them, to coax them back tenderly?
Or are you doing a better job of chasing them further away with your arrogant, self-centered attitude? Watch out. I don’t take kindly to those who cause my little ones to stumble.”
I considered myself warned. Instead of lecturing, I confessed my sin to my children and I asked their forgiveness.
Thus began my journey into understanding that, while there is something truly unique and special about the privilege I have been given to be the mother of these dear children, there are also many ways in which my relationship with them is very like my relationship with my other brothers and sisters in Christ.
And because of this, there is no shortage of wisdom in all of Scripture, and in Matthew 18 about how to be a good mother to the little portion of the flock over which my Father has given me particular care and jurisdiction.