Walk into Matthew’s office and there won’t be an item – not a thing – out of place. His working papers will be perfectly placed and itemized on the top of his desk. Every book will be shelved just where it’s supposed to be, no doubt determined by the Dewey Decimal System. His pictures and diplomas will be hung on the wall and all of them will be perfectly level. You’ll not find one speck of dust. Not one. Matthew will have everything perfect.
Don’t you just hate Matthew?
What Matthew am I talking about? The one who wrote the first gospel, of course. Why, he is an itemizer of the first order. He loves to take subjects and put them in their proper place. He doesn’t tell the story of Jesus the way he does just because he thinks it happened exactly that way. He has a reason to tell it as we find it because it serves his purpose in doing so, and Matthew’s purpose is order. He wants order, perfect order.
That is why the Sermon on the Mount is to be found in three tightly-knit chapters. The chances are quite good that Jesus didn’t preach it in one place at one time. It’s recorded in Luke’s gospel as well, but it’s a bit more scattered throughout the narrative. That’s probably the way it happened. Luke isn’t as ordered as Matthew is, is not as concerned about keeping his gospel or his office as neat and tidy as does his colleague in the faith. Matthew wants everything just so-so. Matthew wants it perfect.
I once followed a pastor like that. Every hair on his head was in place, his manner of dress was meticulous, his speech was always thought-out and well-ordered. You felt that every time he opened his mouth you weren’t going to get a conversation, you were going to get a treatise. Casual conversation was not his style. He was far too formal for that.
Oh, but his predecessor – how shall I explain him? – well, he was about as loosey-goosey as they come. Hardly prepared sermons, let the “Holy Spirit” guide him… which meant that his sermons were too long and not very good. The church was a bit schizophrenic when I got there, as you can well imagine. They didn’t know whether to party in the aisles or march in step. It was an interesting situation, not too much unlike – I would think – following Matthew.
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Matthew wants everything to be perfect, and that includes his church. So, he records Jesus giving instructions to the disciples. When this happens, do this. When that occurs, do that. There’s an answer for everything, a solution for every problem. I’m going to be honest with you. Most biblical interpreters think this part of Matthew’s gospel has less to do with the disciples of Jesus than it does with Matthew’s church.
Conflicts have arisen among some of the members of Matthew’s congregation, and he just can’t stand it. He wants everything to be perfect and in order, and conflict, if nothing else, is a messy business. I can imagine him lying awake at night, thinking about how to deal with the problems he’s encountering among the fellowship. He remembers what Jesus had said and he finally decides to provide this teaching from Jesus as a way of giving a clear-cut message to his fellow believers. When people get into it with one another, there is a way to deal with it. Matthew is convinced of that, and the sooner he addresses the situation, the better.
The instructions are really quite simple and straightforward. If one of your brothers or sisters in Christ sins against you, you are to go and in privacy point out what has happened and how it has made you feel. If you get less than a redemptive response, you are to ask a couple of fellow members to serve as witnesses and go back with you to visit with the offending party. And if you still get nowhere with the person who has wronged you, as a last resort, tell the church about it. If the one who has offended you will not listen to the church, send him or her packing. They are no longer wanted in the family of God; at least, not in your family of God.
Now, I’d like a show of hands of those who have ever participated in a conflict resolution of this nature.
That’s what I thought.
But we love that last verse, don’t we? The one where Jesus says that when two or three are gathered in his name, he would be there among them. Why, we quote it all the time. The only reason we claim that promise, however, is that we take it out of context. In context, it has to do with church fights, with disagreements and conflict, not with prayer or worship.
It could be argued that Jesus is the last person on earth to give advice about how to deal with such difficulties. He wasn’t exactly an effective conflict manager, now was he? After all, he ended up on a cross, and if you look at the biblical record close enough you will find that he is the one who really brought the confrontation to a head with the religious authorities in Jerusalem. He could have stayed out of town, laid low for awhile, let things simmer down. But no, no, no… he had to march full-bore right into the heart of the battle. It was almost as if he was determined to die a martyr’s death.
But Jesus’ method of conflict resolution starts to make a bit more sense when you consider the spirit of what he says and not just the one-two-three of it. In other words, instead of outlining it, we need to jump into it and move around in it… try on this, try on that, to get a feel for what Jesus is talking about. In doing so, we might just find something we can use when it comes to dealing with people with whom we’re having problems.
For one thing, Jesus puts the burden on the victim, on the person who has been sinned against.1
Isn’t that just like Jesus? Well, yes it is. He always seems to have this way of turning things around from the way we think they ought to be. “The first shall be last, the last first”… that sort of thing. That’s what he’s doing here. And it fits the context of this passage. You see, this chapter in Matthew’s gospel begins with the disciples coming to their Master with a question. “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
That should come as no surprise. That’s all the disciples were ever concerned about. They had this highfaluttin idea of what the coming kingdom was going to be like. Jesus would be the king and they would be his main henchmen. All he would have to do is snap his fingers and they would see that his orders would be carried out. Oh, the power they would wield! Everywhere they went, their conversations amongst themselves were about the kingdom. Who is going to be greatest?
Really what they are asking is, who of us is going to be greatest?
Jesus says, “Gather round, boys, and I’ll let you in on the secret.” They come in close to hear what he has to say. As they do, he takes a toddler and places the child in the center of their little group, and then he says, “Amen I tell you, unless you change – and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Huh? Did they understand him correctly? Not only will they not have the prime places of power, they won’t even get in… unless they become like children. What does that mean?
Then Jesus talks about attitudes that keep us from serving him on his terms. Finally, he gets around to these instructions about how to deal with someone who has wronged them. And the first thing they are to do is take the initiative. Even though they are the ones who have been offended, have been sinned against, they are to go to the offender and try to work things out. It is, is it not, an act of utter humility.
You’ve already been made vulnerable by the very fact that someone has offended you. Now, Jesus says you are to really stick your neck out and risk becoming even more vulnerable. You are to go, hat in hand, to the person who has wronged you and give that person the opportunity to set things right.
That’s just like Jesus, isn’t it?
I’ll tell you something else that’s just like Jesus. He isn’t interested in who’s right or wrong. That carries no weight with him at all. The only thing Jesus cares about is getting the relationship made right again.
I’ll let you in on a trade secret. Every sermon has a rhythm to it, an ebb-and-flow. You gotta throw in a story every once in awhile or people will lose interest. I’ve been doing this long enough now that I’ve developed a rather innate ability to sense such things. This is a perfect place in today’s sermon for an illustration. So, I tried to think of a story I could tell you.
Usually, I like to tell them from my own experiences. It seems to make them more personal, more real, and I figure my experiences are not so different from yours that you can’t relate to mine. And I’ve had my share of church conflict in the past, let me tell you. Some of those stories I’ve told you about already. Why not pluck a story from my past, let you in on it, illustrate what I’ve been talking about?
But you know what? As I tried to think of particular instances in which arguments have come along, when people have offended one another in church, when I’ve been hurt or others have told me I’ve done the same to them, I couldn’t really think of any… at least not any that mattered.
As our young people tend to say these days, “You know what I’m saying?” What I’m saying is that not one of them mattered enough to hang on to… not really, not one. When the dust of conflict is settled, and all is said and done – especially all the hateful, hurtful things have been said and done – not a bit of it, not the littlest bit of it, is worth talking about or remembering.
Some people have an amazing ability to remember the slightest offense done to them, the less-than-redemptive remark, the tiniest snub. They let it fester in their souls until it just gnaws away at their hearts and little is left but resentment and anger and a really terrible case of heartburn. But in the end, especially as far as the kingdom of heaven is concerned, the only thing that matters is not what’s been said or who got the short end of the stick. The only thing of consequence is relationship.
In his book The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis, the great Christian apologist, draws a stark picture of hell.2 Hell is like a great, vast city, Lewis says, a city inhabited only at its outer edges, with rows and rows of empty houses in the middle. These houses in the middle are empty because everyone who once lived there has quarreled with the neighbors and moved. Then, they quarreled with the new neighbors and moved again, leaving the streets and the houses of their old neighborhoods empty and barren.
That, Lewis says, is how hell has gotten so large. It is empty at its center and inhabited only at the outer edges, because everyone chose distance instead of honest confrontation when it came to dealing with their relationships.
“Look, she’s the one who said that about me. Let her come and apologize!”
“We may go to the same church, but that doesn’t mean I’ve got to share a pew with that so-and-so!”
“It’ll be a cold day in July before I accept his apology.”
That’s all well and good, I suppose… if you don’t mind living in hell.
Are we really so willing to give up our relationships with others – relationships that have come about and been forged by our desire to follow Jesus? Nowhere, and I do mean nowhere, in the New Testament gospels will you find Jesus saying that the first order of things is always to be right. But he does have a great deal to say about forgiveness, about relationship, about reconciliation, about service and humility and vulnerability.
He makes it sounds like family, doesn’t he?
You know, it’s not easy being family. I’ve got two older brothers who just pick on me mercilessly on those rare occasions when we get together. Once the baby of the family, always the baby. I’ve got aging parents with dementia who can remember things that happened fifty years ago – not necessarily correctly, you understand – but they don’t recall something that occurred or they said two minutes ago. That’s hard to deal with. Some of you know what I mean. And I’ve got in-laws who have some pretty strange political views. Know what I’m saying? Family.
Life would be a whole lot simpler if I didn’t have family to aggravate me.
You know where I’m going with that, don’t you? Being family is not easy. But it’s where Jesus chooses to be when it comes to being with us. “Where two or three are gathered in my name,” he says, “I am there among them.”
It is when we are together that arguments can break out, and disagreements come to the surface. It is when we are together that hurts occur and apologies sometimes need to be spoken. It is when we are together that controversy can split people apart. But it is when we are together that God chooses to be with us, breathing his Spirit upon us and in us, calling us to be the family of God.
So when it comes right down to it, where do you prefer to be?
Father, you’ve called us to be family. That means, from time-to-time, we’re going to hurt one another. Squabbles are going to break out, and we won’t exactly be getting along. But help us to see the bigger picture, that relationship is more important than anything else. To that end, find us faithful to you and to your purposes. In doing so, we will be faithful to each other. In the name of Jesus we pray, Amen.
1Barbara Brown Taylor, The Seeds of Heaven (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004), p. 85.
2Ibid, p. 87f.
— Copyright 2005, Dr. Randy L. Hyde. Used by permission.