In Matthew 17 and 18, Jesus reveals the way stumbling blocks get in the way of God’s mission. Including our obsessions with rules and borders.
Proper 18A | Matthew 18:15-20
A few years ago, a celebrity pastor got in trouble. He was the darling of the new reformed movement for his high doctrine, aggressive style, and love of mixed martial arts. His books sold tons and his church in Seattle had grown to a multi-campus testament to the allure of spirituality amid the Nones. He was the epitome of a muscular Christianity many longed for.
The rumors of abuse were many and constant. And let’s be honest, not unexpected. I mean, the calling card of his faith is that his Jesus could beat up yours.
But abuse is pretty easy to ignore and the encouragement we give the abused is to just… move out. Find another place to live.
The pastor’s downfall came with the letter his board sent an employee they were breaking ties with. They weren’t just firing him, they were shunning him. They used Matthew 18 as their justification for kicking him out and ostracizing him.
The letter became public and corroborated. More people came forward, sharing their own experience of being shunned by this pastor’s church, and many like it. And in the end, the pastor left and the church closed soon after.
Of course, after lying low a couple of years, he has popped back up in Arizona to start another church.
Stumbling in the Bible
We all know why this happened. People go to their Bible looking for guidance. And this part right here sounds like a good idea.
And even better, it’s strangely specific in naming how to go to a person and reconcile.
While some of us have an easy time ignoring what Jesus says when it’s inconvenient, especially when it hits too close to home, some of us don’t. Some of us want to hear Jesus’s vision for the perfect community and would rather tailor our world to it, than tailor the gospel to our world.
So for us, we are conflicted. Knowing that this pastor’s approach to leadership and governance was abusive and not at all Christlike and that it was based on Jesus’s words is really hard for us to square. This is made ten times worse by taking this passage so massively out of context.
Jesus doesn’t encourage public shaming and shunning. Quite the opposite. He wants us to not be stumbling blocks for the kin-dom.
1. Stumbling Blocks – Peter
If we remember the gospel stories the last three weeks were back 2 chapters in Matthew 16. Jesus makes miracles and tussles with the Pharisees and Sadducees and now it’s time to name the next phase. They’re heading north to gentile territory on the last leg of the ministry before they turn toward Jerusalem.
So a Canaanite woman shouts at Jesus. She wants to be part of the healing, calling him Son of David.
And then Jesus asks his disciples to name him. And Peter calls him Messiah.
So Jesus proceeds to tell them what that identity really means. Where the Davidic line and messianic truth will lead Jesus: to the cross. To persecution by Temple leadership and Roman authorities as a terrorist. Shamed, shunned, and killed.
And when Peter steps out of line and tries to get Jesus to not go there, Jesus rebukes him, calling him a stumbling block and comparing him to the tempter in the desert. The one who would offer Jesus all the power in the world if he simply walked away from God’s mission.
This issue of being a stumbling block consumes the next two chapters, starting with chapter 17.
2. Stumbling Blocks – Disciples
Immediately after this rebuke of Peter, we climb the mountain for the Transfiguration. There, God alters Jesus’s face with light, Elijah and Moses appear, and God speaks. Listen to him! God says.
And when they come down the mountain, Jesus and three disciples find the remaining disciples are unable to help this boy possessed by a demon. They could before, but not now. Something’s wrong. Something’s in the way.
When they reach Capernaum, Temple tax collectors ask why Jesus doesn’t pay his share of taxes to the Temple. Peter is confused and comes to Jesus about it. Clearly the world’s expectations are on his mind. Maybe Jesus isn’t on the up and up… But Jesus reminds Peter about giving. Not who gives but who doesn’t: the king’s children. This isn’t only because of nepotism, but because children own no property.
But Jesus can’t leave them all hanging. So he tells Peter to find some money so they can get on with it.
3. Stumbling Blocks – Children
Finally we reach chapter 18, but the teaching on stumbling blocks isn’t done. Its great crescendo is building to this moment. Here, Jesus teaches on the repercussions of being a stumbling block for those already lower to the ground.
He physically puts a child in the middle of the group and says anyone who keeps this child from the kin-dom, anyone who keeps this child from building the kin-dom, would rather be dead than face what’s coming to them.
And it’s in the midst of their arguing about greatness. About who gets to be the greatest. How great they could be.
This is the ultimate example of what repenting of power looks like. Putting our children in a place of honor and learning from them. Quite literally.
Jesus is teaching them about power and relationship and what it means to prevent us from knowing the love of God with one another. That’s what he means by being a stumbling block. And that’s also what Jesus is talking about when he speaks to dealing with a sinner in the community.
We try to bring them back in. We try to help them repent of sin, turn away from sin. These are the things we do to restore one another and our community in love.
And if that doesn’t work?
Then they’ve already removed themselves. Treat them like a Gentile or a tax collector. You know, the people Jesus was always eating and cavorting with. Help them see the way back in, like he was. And if not, let them go. Love them, then let them go. We have a mission to complete.
Binding and Loosing
We all have our own ideas about what Jesus really means here. He shows an incredible persistence in leaving the 99 in the wilderness to pursue the one who is lost. That’s the teaching right before this one. And the one right after it is about forgiving past the ability for us to remember counting.
And it seems contradictory to point out the limit here: the sense of letting go. It is striking, just like the teaching in Matthew 10:
If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town.
We can sense a bit of a “go along to get along vibe” here. Or perhaps a clarification or difference thing.
But I don’t think Jesus likes putting us in these boxes. In and out. Jew or Gentile. Or even a single box: Christian. Jesus doesn’t want a singular identity or unity if it demands uniformity.
The problem isn’t that the Gentiles and tax collectors aren’t inside the community. Or that a minister is shunned by his church. The problem is that we deviate from the mission when we mind the boundaries.
Removing our Stumbling Blocks
We put up stumbling blocks for our children when we obsess about what they have to learn. What newcomers have to believe. Even how our vestments look, our music sounds, and our gospel preaches. Maybe we obsess about what the Dreamers have to do to stay in the country or what the other party has to give up before we can talk about compromise.
Our stumbling blocks may be not enough communication to our members or our own refusal to listen. Or maybe it’s the wrong face speaking. As a recent study showed some people get angry when shown a picture of a black person. Angry.
These are our stumbling blocks. And we can’t wish them away or pretend they aren’t there. We can’t kick each other out or quit when we don’t get our way. Because none of that brings the kin-dom closer. Which is the whole point.
We get together. And we keep trying. We widen the table. And we call everybody up to it. And we eat and we share and tells stories. Stories of our experiences and the way God has worked in our lives. The wonders and the beauties. We remember those who have died: in tragedy or sickness. And we pray, not that God will just fix everything for us, but that we know this love. That we might be this love.
We eat of the banquet and drink of the cup and we share in our gratitude. And we know that’s when Jesus is with us.
And then we can realize we don’t have to go searching for what Jesus would do or how he would have us govern ourselves. We’d know it’s all about the table. It’s always about the table.