Today’s Gospel reading is from Jesus’ fourth discourse, the Community Discourse, how we should behave in our community. The messages of the Community Discourse center on the need for the messianic community to renounce status concerns, care for their most vulnerable, and pursue restoration and forgiveness of those who stray. The community of disciples must deny self and live a cross-shaped existence empowered by Jesus’s presence within the community.
Chapter 18 begins with the disciples’ question, “Who is the greatest in God’s kingdom?” This is a status question—an understandable one in the context of ancient conventions that clearly spell out honor and status levels based on birth, family, title, wealth, and relationship with others, a society primarily of aristocrats and everyone else, the farmers, fishermen, poor, sick, foreigners and the vulnerable, with no middle-class. Jesus’ response, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven”, indicates that the disciples’ assumptions about God’s kingdom are mistaken. In the first century cultural context, children did not possess status inherently; they did not have the rights and honor that modern Western society gives them. Instead, they were considered weak and irrational as possessing little status until they reached adulthood. As such, they are ideal examples for the disciples, who are preoccupied with status concerns. Jesus aligns himself with those marginalized in the status systems of his day, and he calls the disciples to do the same: anyone who welcomes a child welcomes Jesus! Anyone who welcomes the social outcast, the poor, the other welcomes Jesus.
The parable immediately before today’s Gospel reading is ‘The Parable of the Lost Sheep’. The shepherd goes in search of the sheep that has gone astray and if he finds it, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. In the same way God does not want even one of God’s children to be lost. Jesus mission was to find the lost sheep of Israel and to restore them to right relationship with God and with the house of Israel, to bring them back into the fold, MT 15:24.
In today’s reading, Matthew tells the church that as disciples they should immediately address any situation where someone has done someone wrong, has sinned or gone astray. This calls to mind Paul’s plea to the Ephesians, “So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger”, Ephesians 4:26. Go to them alone so as not to embarrass them. Speak to them of how they have hurt you or the community. The intent is not vengeance or reproof or the assignment of blame, but the restoration of the relationship with the one who has injured you and the community, of reconciliation and forgiveness.
If your neighbor’s dog continually barks or if their stereo is too loud, visit your neighbor; ask them to please turn the volume down, to put the dog in the house. The hope is that the neighbor will apologize and take care of the problem. The desire is to build relationships with your neighbors, to talk to them, to be friendly, to show them sisterly love. When there is a relationship then it should be easy to talk to your neighbor about what is bothering you. Remember we are talking about actual offenses not for differences of opinion. Your neighbors, friends and family are not required to agree with you, but to cause you no harm. I prefer yellow chrysanthemums and you prefer purple asters and together we create a delightful fall display.
If your neighbor will not listen to you then find two or three others who have witnessed the offense. I have to admit I misunderstood this verse, I thought the two or three witnesses were to support me in my claim of injury. In reality the witnesses are for the benefit of the accused to prevent false accusations. Deuteronomy 19:15 reads, “One witness is not enough to convict anyone accused of any crime or offense they may have committed. A matter must be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.” Likewise the ninth commandment, “Neither shall you bear false witness against your neighbor.” (Deut. 5:20)
Some dogs do bark all night long, day after day after day. Is the dog being properly looked after with food, water, shelter and exercise? Is the dog bored? Or perhaps I am the grumpy neighbor who does not appreciate my neighbor’s dog barking good morning to the neighborhood. Perhaps if I go to my neighbor with two or three other neighbors, he will agree that his dog is disturbing the neighborhood and correct the problem reestablishing harmony in the neighborhood. If I go immediately to the police, I have not allowed an opportunity to build a relationship with my neighbors or to save my neighbor from the embarrassment of a visit from the local Public Safety Officer. It is a sad commentary on our neighborliness and our community when we respond with, “It is not safe to speak on my own with my neighbor.” If we have relationships formed and developed in our community, then we should be able to talk to each other when issues arise.
If the offender will still not listen or rectify the problem then it is time to bring the matter to the attention of the local Neighborhood Association or the Church Board as in our parable. Perhaps the neighbor has forgotten about the Noise Ordinance. Perhaps the church member has forgotten the Great Commandment to Love God and to Love your neighbor as yourself. Where there is love no harm can be done. As Paul says in today’s reading from Romans, “The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet; and I add [You shall not lie]; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”
If the offender will still not listen then it is time to treat them as a Gentile and a tax collector, an outsider. This does not mean that they should be ignored or shunned, but that we need to continue to try to restore the relationship, but as if they are not already part of our community or neighborhood, to continue to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. A Christian knows the importance of loving their neighbor, of looking out for the vulnerable, of doing no harm, of not assuming a position of superiority, of reconciliation and forgiveness. Although Jesus’ mission was to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, Jesus did heal the Canaanite woman’s daughter; Jesus did heal the centurion’s servant; and at the end of the Gospel according to Matthew Jesus gives the Great Commission to his disciples to proclaim the gospel to all people not just to the Israelites.
The passage ends with the comforting reminder that where two or three are gathered in Jesus’ name, Jesus is there among them. It is important for the author of Matthew that we know this, that we believe this. In the beginning of the Gospel in Jesus’ birth narrative, Matthew quotes Isaiah ‘and they shall name him Emmanuel which means, “God is with us.”’ MT1:23 and ends with “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (MT28:20) Jesus is with us always. Amen.
 Gary M. Burge and Andrew E. Hill, editors, The Baker Illustrated Bible Commentary, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, MI,2012, Matthew 18:1-35, 987-989.