In the TV show Big Bang Theory, Sheldon, a brilliant physicist who purports to have a “working knowledge of the universe” but can’t understand basic social practices, develops a sort of flow chart for making a friend. In this episode Raj, Leonard, and Howard, two physicists and an engineer, return to Sheldon’s and Leonard’s apartment to discover that Sheldon as mapped an algorithm for making friends with his nemesis on their large white board which is typically employed for physics equations. He says he has “isolated the algorithm for making friends” and will no longer make the same mistakes made in the child’s picture book “Stew the Cockatoo is New at the Zoo.”
The flow chart starts with “ask to share a meal” if not interested invite to enjoy a hot beverage (in this one he even has options listed to suggest) if not interestedà perhaps a recreational activity. At this point in the trial run his nemesis keeps suggesting activities that Sheldon has no interest in. He keeps looping back and his algorithm falters, unable to handle this unexpected turn. Fortunately, Howard is able to jump in and add a loop counter and escape option into the whiteboard chart.
The Matthew 18 passage provides a similar step-by-step instruction but for the purpose of restoring a relationship rather than making a new one. Before we take a closer look at these verses starting at verse 15 however, I want to note some the context of the first part of this chapter.
The context is that of “not losing.” Chapter 18 begins with the question of who is the greatest. Jesus brings a child in to their midst. You must be like this child to enter the kingdom Further more if you welcome this child then you welcome me.
Then from verses 6-14 we have 3 variations of not losing.
- If you cause one of these children to stumble, that is lost, it would be better for you to be sunk in the sea with a weight around your neck
- If you yourself are wandering away dramatic action is needed
- And third the parable of the lost sheep. In this parable the shepherd leaves 99 sheep in the fold to go out in search for the one that is lost.
So by the time we get to verse 18 we have heard Jesus challenge the disciples’ questions about greatness and we see a recurring theme on not losing.
Into this context we hear “Go”. If your brother or sister wrongs you go to them. This seems to be a general formula or procedure for addressing wrong doing. This feels like a sort of process flow chart. Remember back to Sheldon and his algorithm for making a friend.
These few verses seem a bit like this but for conflict in the congregation. Go to the person. If that works, great! Process finished. If it doesn’t work then take someone else. If that works, great! If it doesn’t work tell it to the church. If this works, great! If it doesn’t work treat them as if they were a Gentile or tax collector.
The Gentile and tax collectors are those who are outside the community but who we seek to bring into reconciliation with God. And then also reconciliation with one another.
After we get this fairly detailed process of addressing wrong doing we read to more general, not particularly clear, but seemingly related bits.
“Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19 Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”
What you bind and loose is bound and loosed in heaven. Where a handful of you are, there too is God. Written as it is in at this point it the passage, we see that it is written to give assurance in the face of a difficult task. For all the simple straight-forward elegance of this teaching it is certainly not simple. Or perhaps it is simple but because it is difficult we imagine it to be more complicated than it is. Whatever the case, the assurance is given that we are truly doing the work of God. That God has entrusted it to us– is with binding and loosing. God has entrusted us but God is also with us. God is with us in the non-glamorous gathering of two or three.
So what? Perhaps I can claim that we have a tentative grasp of this passage.
This is a rather straight forward passage. We can do it or we can not do it. I could have, as On Earth Peace, an agency of the Church of the Brethren, has done and create a guide and workshop expanding on the specific practices that can come out of Matthew 18. This adds even more practicality to the teaching. This material is in fact called “Matthew 18”. Or I could work to convince you that a healthy community and conflict resolution is critical for the well being and growth of a congregation. This would be the empirical backing for a very practical passage—do it because it works. Or I could also give a deeper theological rationale for why reconciliation is part of our very DNA as followers of Jesus.
These are all important but I am going to take this in a somewhat different direction.
I think it is safe to say that this passage deals with reconciliation. This reconciliation obviously affects the relationships between people but also seems to affect relationship to God.
Furthermore this passage suggests that God is not merely interested in our souls but that salvation is a part of reconciliation and this is bodily.
Some church worlds and Christians focus almost exclusively on the salvation of souls. Some church worlds and Christians focus almost exclusively on how we live and what our faith means materially. In the former reconciliation is with God. In the later reconciliation is with people.
I recently read a book (while waiting for a much delayed flight home from Chicago via New York) called “Making Peace with the Land: God’s Call to Reconciliation with Creation” written by Norman Wirzba, Research Professor of Theology, Ecology, and Rural Life at Duke Divinity School and Fred Bahnson a permaculture gardener and pioneer in church-supported agriculture.
“Today’s church suffers from a reconciliation deficit disorder. The cause of this disorder is an impoverished imagination. As Christians, we have a hard time imagining that God desires all creatures—human and nonhuman, living and nonliving—to be reconciled with each other and with God. For some reason we have come to think that God cares primarily, perhaps only, about us.”
Reconciliation is the repairing or healing of a relationship. If wrongdoing has caused the damage then it also includes stopping this action and setting things right. Proclaim the Gospel to all—human and nonhuman—proclaim that God is reconciling all things.
Wirzba continues with what he calls “ecological amnesia”:
“Ecological amnesia is so devastating because it leads us to forsake the material world. It contributes to an impoverished understanding of reconciliation because it trains us to think of ourselves as no longer dependent on clean water, fertile soil, diverse forests and fields and multitudes of insects and animals. As amnesiacs, we live an illusory life. We have forgotten what is not only good but absolutely fundamental: that we are bodies bound to each other through webs of food, water, breath, energy, inspiration, pleasure and delight.”
Remember this connection. Remember and be reconciled. This proclamation happens through the sort of classical proclamation of words—through preaching and prayer and song but also happens through our life together. In 2 Corinthians we read that we are actually reconciled. But we recognize that though this may be reality we still have yet to fully embody this—hence the detailed instruction in Matthew 18. Though in status we are reconciled to God and one another we yet have work to do. Though we have been reconciled to all of creation we yet have work to do to fully realize this reality.
So we have specific recommended actions—almost a formula (or algorithm)—for confronting wrong doing and embodying reconciliation in our community. I expanded this to a more general understanding of reconciliation. We then shifted this general understanding slightly to include not only our relationships to each other and God but also to include all of creation. Can this be brought a full circle back to specific guidelines but now to include these three categories of Divine, human, and non-human?
Interestingly much degradation of the environment happens at the hands of people—in this case our process from Matthew 18 is quite effective. We may need to confront (with all requisite love) our brothers and sisters who live as though creation is not a gift from God given for our care.
Kulp Bible College, where we lived in Nigeria, is in the northeast part of the country. It is on the edge of the Sahel, which is dry land savanna, which is the edge of the Sahara. Due to deforestation, global climate change, and damaging farming practices, the desert is rapidly expanding south. Every day during the late afternoon or early evening we would go for a walk or run through the fields surrounding the campus. These fields were forest just 10 years earlier but were gradually cleared so that very little forest remained. One day we saw an overfilled truck bring a load of firewood from the field and unload it just outside campus.
This continued for days with load upon load of firewood being brought in. A local businessman had bought and was clearing land out in the “bush,” the scrubby unused land. He was clearing to grow beans to sell. This action and many others like it was a good short term investment but in the long run undermining the possibility of life in this area.
Secondly, our going to another because of wrong doing assumes we are being attentive to wrong doing. This wrong doing is certainly not limited to everyone else—it includes us. I am one of the wrong doers. At times this is towards others at times this is toward God and at times this is towards Creation.
This reconciliation is thus closely linked to mutual accountability. This accountability and attention to the reconciling of relationships is at the very core of the creation of the beloved community in which God, humans, and all of creation is reconciled and made whole.
 Fred Bahnson and Norman Wirzba, Making Peace with the Land: God’s Call to Reconcile with Creation (Downers Grove: IVP, 2012), 21.