There is a history in much of the church that calls for shunning people who do not repent of sin. In part that practice is picked up from the words of Jesus in Matthew 18 where he says that if a person refuses to repent after a process that involved three different encounters calling for them to repent, then they should be “treated like a pagan or tax collector”.
15“If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. 16But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ 17If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector. Matthew 18:15-17
So just what does it mean to treat someone as a pagan or a tax collector? I think Jesus gives us the answer to that and it is far different from the shunning, rejection, and self-righteous attitude that is so often practiced by Christians. When we see Jesus engaging pagans and tax-collectors, or any other group of unbelieving sinners, we see someone who gives them huge amounts of time, attention, and grace. So much so that the religious leaders accuse him of being one of those pagans. In Matthew 11:19 Jesus says that they accuse him of being a drunkard because he spends so much time with the sinners.
Jesus showed unending love and respect to the “pagans and tax-collectors”. He treated them with the dignity that was due someone created in the image of God. He didn’t ignore their sin and he certainly did not condone it. When a woman who was caught in adultery was brought to Jesus he forgave her and said, “go and sin no more”. It acknowledged that what she did was wrong, but also gave her mercy and grace. That was his pattern. He gave people grace and mercy and treated them with dignity while calling them to a more holy way of life.
It must also be noted that Jesus spend a great deal of time with such people. In fact he would go out of his way to do so. The woman at the well, the home of Zacheaus the tax-collector, and the wedding at Cana are all examples of Jesus making time to spend with people who were not perfect, cleaned up, respectable church going types. What he did was love them.
But aren’t we supposed to love everyone? If so in what way is our treatment of someone who is a tax collector or pagan different from how we treat a brother or sister in Christ? That is the heart of the issue because Jesus began in verse 15 by saying is a “brother” sins against you. This is about how you treat a person who is also a follower of Christ who will not be reconciled to you. That person you are to treat like a pagan or tax-collector.
So what to you NOT do with people outside the Body of Christ that you do with people inside? One thing is you do not have communion with them. Communion, the Lord’s Supper, is to be a believer only event. In the early church it was a meal, just like the Last Supper in the Upper Room. It was an intimate religious and social event that included a confession of faith in Jesus as Lord and looking forward to his return. Only followers of Christ participated in it. In fact as worship services became more public and had non-believers present, when it came time for communion, they would be dismissed. It is from this biblical concept that the Roman Catholic Church denies communion to people who are not in good standing. It is a practice that most Protestant churches also have in their history. So what is being said is that treating someone like a pagan or tax-collector means that you do not include them in things that are reserved for followers of Jesus. You don’t have communion with them. You don’t marry them. You probably don’t pray with them though you can pray for them. You would not allow them to serve in a position of spiritual leadership but you would allow them to serve in some capacity that does not require faith in Christ. I have had non-believers go on mission trips that did not require faith in Christ, only the ability to swing a hammer.
The point is, there are lots of things that you can and should do with tax-collectors and pagans if you want to be like Jesus. Likewise there are lots of things that you can and should do with the brother or sister in Christ who has sinned against you. The goal of doing those things to either group, is to demonstrate the love, grace, and mercy of God in order to lead them to repentance and restored relationships with you and Jesus. Paul said in Romans 2:4 that it is God’s kindness that leads us to repentance. That kindness should be evident in our dealings with one another, even if we are required to treat someone as a tax-collector or sinner. The goal of such treatment is not to exclude them from the fellowship of the Body, but to lead them back to it in a way that brings glory to God.
If we are forgiven by Jesus as a free gift of grace and our salvation does not depend on being good enough to get to heaven, then what is our motivation for doing the things God commands? It is an understandable question. The answer that is usually given is that when you have been forgiven you should live a life of obedience out of gratitude to God. It is your way of saying thank you.
Now there is a certain logical and even emotional appeal to that response. When someone does something wonderful for you, you should want to thank them in some way. If someone has given their life for you, dedicating your life to one of showing gratitude for their sacrifice is certainly understandable and honorable.
One problem with that answer is that for us as human beings that kind of motivation doesn’t last. We are notorious for keeping score. Buried deep down inside every one of us is a “fairness accountant”. That little accountant is always keeping score. You see it in children when one of them gets a larger piece of cake or one more present or even a longer more exuberant hug. The shouts of “That’s not fair!” can be heard across the land. Of course that doesn’t even take into account that tendency we have to always be trying to maneuver things to our best advantage.
As true as that human tendency may be in making the motivation of gratitude problematic, it is not the real problem with that answer to the question why be good. The problem is, it is not the answer Jesus gave and thus not the complete biblical picture. Jesus was clear. The motivation for a life of obedience to all that God has commanded us is that we love Him. “If you love me you will obey what I command”. (John 14:15) The ultimate motivator for obeying Jesus is not gratitude for being forgiven, as important as that is. The real motivator is that we love Jesus Christ with a reckless abandon that compels us to obey him, even when it hurts!
What does the voice in your head sound like when you read, “If you love me, you will obey me”? Think about it for a moment. Whenever we read something we have a tendency to give those words a voice in our head. When I am reading something from an author I have heard speak many time, I can hear their voice when I read their words. When I read The Provocative Church by Graham Tomlin, I hear Grahams wonderful British accent and understated humor. When I read anything by R.C. Sproul I hear the very familiar Pittsburgh accent and his distinctive inflections.
When you hear Jesus say these words, what voice do you hear? The words themselves can often dictate the voice and thus the interpretation without us even realizing it. If the words you hear are similar to a manipulative parent who used those words to force submission out of you then all you will hear in the words of Jesus is a sense of duty and obligation. You have to obey because you are forced to by a manipulation of love. In that instance the obedience becomes a burden that lacks all joy. It will result in either a lifeless obedience with no joy or an obedience marked but grumbling and discord. Either way there will eventually be an end to that behavior and a break in the relationship.
Some of you might hear a similar yet different voice. It is the voice of that person you dated who made it clear that if you loved them, you would have sex with them. That voice put you in a position of having to give up yourself or give up them. It was a voice that underneath was saying, “I don’t really love you. I just want something from you”. It was a voice that told you rejection was coming if you did not comply. It differs from that manipulative parent in that you are pretty certain they won’t go away if you refuse, much as you might want them to. This voice is more sweet and urging yet underneath more sinister.
Either way, you may very well hear a voice in the words of Jesus that has some sense of obligation to it. “If you love me, prove it. Do what I say”. It is a voice of earning something from God. It is a voice that says you are not good enough and you need to make it clear that you are by doing something above and beyond.
Nothing could be further from the truth of the matter. The kind of love motivated obedience that Jesus is speaking of has nothing to do with proving your worth or value or even proving your love for him. The kind of obedience that Jesus speaks of is one that overflows out of a heart that is head over heals, crazy nuts, in love with him. It is something that you don’t need to be forced or manipulated or pressured into. It is a love that comes rushing out of you looking for a way to express itself in obedience to all that Jesus expects or asks.
So how do we get that kind of love? Part of the answer has to do with really understanding the depths of our sin and the magnitude of our forgiveness. In the early days of this blog I did a four part series on that.
The context of John 14:15 gives us further clues one how to develop that kind of love. It has everything to do with abiding in a relationship with Christ throught the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. Like any relationship of love, the more we live in fellowship with someone, share life together, serve them, care for them, hear their heart, we will grow to love them more and more. You love for Jesus will only be as great as your heart knowledge of him.
It may be the most often quoted and yet most misunderstood verse in the whole Bible. People who have never even cracked open a Bible have heard and quoted this verse. “Do not judge so that you will not be judged” Matthew 7:1
Usually that verse is used like a hammer to immediately stop any discussion about the rightness or wrongness of a persons behavior. Almost invariably if someone claims that a certain action or behavior is wrong, someone will say, “But Jesus said we are not to judge anyone”. The clear implication is that we can never say if some behavior is sin or not because we are not to judge. Sometimes these words are shouted out in anger and rage, “You can’t judge me!”.
What is possibly more amazing than the fact that so many people quote this verse and the concept of not judging, is that so many people could get the real meaning so completely wrong. This is especially true since the context makes it clear what Jesus meant by these words. When Jesus said that we should not judge unless we be judged also, he was not saying that we are to never judge if behavior is sin or not. What he was doing was giving us a caution to make sure that we are willing to be judged by the same standard of judgment. This verse is not a warning against judging an action. It is a warning against self deception and hypocrisy.
The way we know this is the same way that we usually know what the Bible teaches. We look at the context. The verse that immediately follow helps explain what Jesus was saying. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you. Matthew 7:2 In other words, if you are going to say that what someone else is doing is wrong then you better be prepared to be judged by the same standard. If you don’t want your life to be scrutinized, then don’t judge others. If you can stand the scrutiny then go ahead. Think of Al Gore telling us that we need to cut down our energy use in order to save the planet and then finding out that he has three large homes and the carbon footprint of Godzilla. He needed to read this verse first.
Just in case we still have not figured out that this is not a complete prohibition on judging behavior, the next few verses make it even more clear.
“Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ and behold, the log is in your own eye? “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye. Matthew 7:3-5
Before you ever start to tell someone else what is wrong with their life, make sure you take a good look at your own life first. But notice, Jesus does not say, take the log out of your own eye and don’t say anything about the speck in the others persons eye. That would be the result of never judging anyone about anything. Instead Jesus says that after you take care of your own stuff, then go and help your brother. So you are to help then with their issue but only once you have done a personal spiritual check to make sure that you are right with God.
We need to see this as a matter of helping someone, not beating them down. Jesus used the example of having something in your eye. In order to get it out, you often need the help of someone else to see it and remove it. When we see something wrong in the life of a friend we need to point it out and help them deal with it. When we do that, we are serving them, not condemning them. What this is really all about is determining if something is right or wrong behavior, sin or not sin. We can and should do that with a loving attitude and not a condemning, superior, hypocritical attitude. Pointing out destructive behavior in another person is actually an incredible and brave way to love your neighbor. We understand this when the situation becomes so serious as to require and intervention. How much more loving would it be to step in long before it got so serious?
There are a couple of final reasons why this verse cannot mean that we are never to judge if what a person does is right or wrong. First, Jesus makes it very clear that we are to forgive people when they sin against us. In the Lord’s Prayer we pray that God would forgive us as we forgive others. Well in order to forgive someone, you have to first, “judge” that they have done something wrong. The very act of forgiveness that Jesus teaches so clearly, requires that we identify some behavior as wrong. To fail to judge it as wrong or sinful in the first place, makes it impossible to forgive.
Secondly, the Bible is filled with admonitions that we avoid evil, flee from temptation, cling to what is good and lovely. In order to do that, we have to make judgment calls. We have to decide that one thing is good and another is not. We make these decisions all that time as a matter of course in life. We do it if we are a follower of Jesus or not. Everyone has somethings that they decide are right to to and others that are not. Every society and culture has these things and every member of those cultures has to think and decide, has to judge what behaviors fit the standard.
Bursting forth with the words, “judge not”, should in no way intimidate anyone from deciding if something is sinful or not. If anything slows us down it should be the warning from Jesus that we not be hypocrites who are unable or unwilling to live according to that same standard.
How many times have you heard the statement, “I can forgive, but I can’t forget”? When I hear those words they are nearly always spoken with a tone that says, “I am holding on to the pain and I will deal with the offender accordingly”. What seems to be said is, I forgive, therefore I will not seek revenge, even though I could, but, I will treat this person differently as a result of their offense. If I am right and that is what often lies behind the statement, then we really do not understand the nature of forgiveness or forgetting.
If you are to truly forgive someone then you must never forget what they have done. Yes, you read that right. If you are to truly forgive someone then you must never forget what they have done. If you forget it, then you have not forgiven. Look at the encounter between Jesus and Peter following the resurrection. In John 21 Jesus asks Peter three times, “Do you love me?” At the third asking, Peter is heartbroken. Why? Because the last time Peter was asked the same question three times he denied even knowing Jesus. Jesus knew that and remembered that. In an incredible act of grace he out that event back on the table and let Peter know that it was alright. He was forgiven and restored. In order to truly forgive Peter, Jesus had to remember the betrayal. Then, in spite of the pain that the betrayal gave Him, Jesus then treated Peter as a brother whom He loved and forgave.
Forgiveness is about treating someone with the love of God, in-spite of what they have done. When you remember the pain of rejection, the anguish of betrayal, the shock of being sinned against, forgiveness becomes evident when you still treat that other person like Jesus treated Peter, like He treats you. If I never remember what they have done, I am not being forgiving. I am just absent minded.
Forgiving and remembering means that not only do I refuse to take revenge, but I also determine to do something positive. I determine to treat you with love, respect, and dignity and I will not hold your sin against you. That sounds and awful lot like the way God treats us because of Jesus Christ and His death on the cross.
Finally, the person whom we are to forgive also needs to know that we know and remember what they did. If Jesus would have never brought the denials to the table, yet treated Peter well, there would have always been a lingering doubt. Peter would never have really known if he was forgiven or if Jesus simply forgot about the denials. He would have been eaten alive by guilt and doubt. But by putting it all out in the open Jesus makes it clear that He knows what Peter did and He still loves and forgives him. Forgiving and forgetting is not the answer. Remembering and forgiving is.
The classic trilogy written by J.R.R. Tolkien has been dissected countless times as people have sought to plumb its philosophical and theological depths. There have been volumes written on the world view presented by Tolkien, on the nature of good and evil, on the place of sacrifice and honor, on courage and fear, and a host of other things. What strikes me is that I have never seen anything that deals with the nature of community or what the Bible calls fellowship. What surprises me about this is that the first book in the trilogy is called, “The Fellowship of the Ring”. So that got me thinking, “What can we learn about fellowship or community from the writings of Tolkien?”
One of the most striking things that I get from the book when it comes to community is that real community requires forgiveness. It requires forgiveness even in the face of the most painful of trespasses. There are two instances where this truth is revealed. One is in the betrayal and death of Boromir and the other is the friendship that develops over time between Gimli the Dwarf and Legolas the Elf.
Nine very diverse characters set out on a journey that will seal the fate of the world. They must take a magic ring to a distant volcano and throw it in so that it, and the evil that inhabits it, will be destroyed. Failure to do so will mean that evil will, in all likelihood, dominate the world and destroy all men. The evil of the ring is alive and it tempts people to make use of it. It deceives people into thinking that they can use the power of the ring for good when in fact the power of the ring will use them for evil. The warrior Boromir falls to this temptation. He thinks that if he can take the ring from Frodo, the bearer of the ring, then he can use its power to save his people. His attempt to take the ring fractures the fellowship. When Boromir quickly realizes his error, his sin against the others, he repents to the point of his own death while protecting the two Halflings, Merry and Pippin. The surviving members of the fellowship could have easily remained bitter towards the dying Boromir. As a result of his attempt to take the ring it looks as if their mission will fail. But instead they give him compassion and forgiveness and honor him in death.
For Gimli and Legolas the issue runs far deeper. Their two races have been suspicious of one another for generations. Past clashes and betrayals and misunderstandings have built a huge wall of division between two peoples who once were allies. During the course of their journey and their life and death struggles together, these two mismatched characters become the closest of friends, willing and ready to die for one another. It is truly a demonstration of the words of Jesus, “greater love has no man than this, that he lays down his life for his friends”. Gimli and Legolas become that kind of friend to one another because they learn to forgive and to trust.
In both cases forgiveness does not come easy or cheap. In order to forgive Boromir the group had to recognize that they could have just as easily come under the tempting spell of the ring. They understood the truth of the proverb, “There but for the grace of God, go I”. Looking deep into your own soul and seeing your own short-comings and even brokenness is not a pleasant exercise. But it must be done if we are to have the strength and motivation to forgive others. In the case of Legolas and Gimli they both had to admit their own sin and repent of it. They both had to acknowledge that they were wrong about the other and that their actions and attitudes were wrong. They had to in some way reject generations of heritage that they were raised in, rejecting the things taught them by their own people. Any one of those things is a painful task. To have to do all of it seems nearly impossible.
There is a part of me that wonders if some measure of the popularity of Lord of the Rings isn’t to be found in our unexpressed longing for community and fellowship like that of Tolkien’s characters. Somehow there is a recognition that we are far too alone and isolated, our relationships are too shallow. We long for a world of relationships where people do forgive one another and they do sacrifice for one another and the do love one another to the point of ultimate sacrifice. Ever since Adam and Eve and the division that sin brought into human/divine relationships, we have had this ache in our souls for real community. How wonderful is it that Jesus promises to restore those relationships through the cross and by faith. The Cross opens the door for them, but we must be willing to do the hard work of forgiving others because we too have been forgiven. The Holy Spirit gives us the true power that we need in order to face our own sin and forgive the sin of others.
“Bear with one another and forgive whatever grievances you have against each other. Forgive as the Lord forgives you” Colossians 3:13
As Christians we are usually very in tune to having been forgiven by Christ, at least when we first come to faith in Him. What is much more difficult is forgiving people as we have been forgiven. We pray it every time we repeat the words Jesus gave us, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors”. Yet how often do you blow right passed those words without really asking, “Have I forgiven others in the same way that I want Jesus to forgive me”. Paul urges us to forgive whatever grievance, no matter what. After all, isn’t that the manner of forgiveness that we have received from Jesus?
Forgiveness is costly and painful. You don’t need to spend much time looking at the cross to know the price that was paid, the pain that was experienced for us to be forgiven. Jesus paid that price. He calls on us as His followers to be just like Him and be willing to face the pain for forgiving others. For us that pain is in a very real way, dying to ourselves. What we want in the flesh is to make the other person pay. We want them to somehow pay for they way they have hurt us. We want to somehow even the score. What would we face if Jesus approached us that way? We would be completely without hope. Forgiveness in the way of Jesus means that we take the pain. We die to our fleshly desire to revenge or vindication. We swallow our pride and carry our cross. How different would the world be if we forgave as we have been forgiven?