Proper 19 • Matthew 18:21–35 • September 11, 2011
By Dale A. Meyer
“In this Christian church, he…” Though not our usual style, this text invites an expository approach. The familiar subsections of this reading could lead you to preach a sermon narrowly focused on one aspect of repentance, but neglect the depth of care that Jesus shows for sinners throughout the whole lesson. This text comes at a most opportune time, the tenth anniversary of 9/11. The following notes are offered as a homiletical help, but can also be used for a Bible class.
Introduction: Ten years ago people had reasons to come to church. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, people sought caring community. Today’s Gospel talks about our community, a community bound together by the forgiveness of sins. Dr. Luther summarizes today’s text very nicely: “In this Christian church, he daily and richly forgives all my sins and the sins of all believers.” Do we see ourselves as a caring community of forgiven sinners?
Verses 12–13: “If a man has a hundred sheep . . .” Jesus begins with an example from daily life. While our piety likes to think of this man as the Good Shepherd, that’s not in these verses. In v. 14 Jesus shifts from a plain old shepherd to show how God cares for the lost through his church.
Verses 15–17: As the government began to fight the war on terror, many people sought out the solace of community in the church. God established government and church to deal with wrong in two different ways. How should the church act when someone does wrong? Jesus teaches us in the next verses. We should proactively seek someone wandering from our fellowship (v. 15). That should happen at the most personal level. Not every issue is everyone’s issue. We should be a community where we trust that each of us in our private lives will seek after anyone wandering (vv. 18–19). We should not be a community of “enquiring minds” who want to know the details of what someone has allegedly done, but we should instead be a community that is considerate of the reputation of the brother or sister gone astray (eighth commandment). Only when private efforts fail should the church learn about a brother or sister’s sin, and even then we remain a community considerate of the person wandering away. Our talk about that person should be bathed in prayer (v. 19). Why? Because we know that Jesus our Savior and helper is present among us (v. 20). All this is his way with and through us. Through this caring process, the Spirit of Jesus strives through community to “forgive all my sins and the sins of all believers.” Finally, it is interesting to note, the earthly process laid out by Jesus ends with apparent failure (v. 17).
Verse 21: After 9/11, many sought out churches for a time but eventually decided to leave. Like many Americans, Peter sees the church as a voluntary association of individuals, thereby diminishing the lordship of Jesus over his church. Jesus seizes Peter’s question as an opportunity to show that the Spirit works differently among us than our surrounding cultural models might dictate.
Verses 23–35: Verse 12 started the whole lesson with a secular shepherd. Now v. 23, a parable about “the kingdom of heaven,” starts with “a king who wished to settle accounts.” This parable is not just about the king but about how God’s kingdom works, the heavenly king and his people together. When the forgiven debtor did not forgive another, “His fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place.” Here Jesus picks up what he left hanging in v. 17. When the church’s efforts seem to have failed, the earthly church is not relieved of continuing to care for the wayward brother or sister. Like Jesus, we continue to show concern for “a Gentile and a tax collector.” About our apparent failures on this side of eternity, we leave it to the king who will settle accounts.
Conclusion: So God made government and church to respond to wrong in different ways. We’ve studied what Jesus says about the church’s response when someone wanders from the ways of God. Luther: “In this Christian church, he daily and richly forgives all my sins and the sins of all believers.” “In this Christian church . . .” Are we this kind of church?