I went to Sunday School this past Sunday for the first time in a long, long time. I also stayed for worship and was delighted that at the end of the two hours or so I was in the building the roof managed to stay attached to whatever the roof is attached to. In other words, it didn't fall on my head. That is always happiness.
As it turns out, we were talking about Matthew chapter 18 on Sunday. I will quote it in full before offering a few comments:
At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
2 He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. 3 And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5 And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.
Causing to Stumble
6 “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. 7 Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble! Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come! 8 If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. 9 And if your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell.
The Parable of the Wandering Sheep
10 “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven. 
12 “What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? 13 And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. 14 In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish.
Dealing With Sin in the Church
15 “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. 16 But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’17 If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.
18 “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 that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.”
The Parable of the Unmerciful Servant
21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”
22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.
23 “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold[h] was brought to him. 25 Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.
26 “At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ 27 The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.
28 “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins.He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded.
29 “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’
30 “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened.
32 “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ 34 In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
35 “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
This is a great section of teaching by Jesus, but there is a problem that is easily identifiable by the little numbers scratched between sentences. The problem with these little numbers is that they make the section fairly incomprehensible to most people reading the section. I say this because the little numbers (along with the section divisions) make this section out to be a collection of smaller teachings instead of one large section of teaching addressing one particular 'subject' which, in this particular instance, is found in verse 1: "At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, "Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?"
So strip away all the verses and section dividers (things like, "Causing to Stumble" or "Dealing With Sin in the Church"). These are all artificial and, frankly, meaningless precisely because they do absolutely nothing to help us understand what Jesus was getting at and, to be sure, do everything to obfuscate what he is talking about. He is answering the question: "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" Everything in chapter 18 that follows this question is designed to answer this question–all 34 verses. I know this peculiar teaching section of Jesus ends at 18:35 because in 19:1 we read this: "When Jesus had finished saying these things…." This marks the end of one section and the beginning of another.
If we look at it this way, without verse divisions and the like, we can see that Jesus' intent in all of these seemingly disconnected stories is actually a singular cohesive point: The greatest in the kingdom of heaven is the person who refuses to stand on his/her own rights. That is, we are less concerned about ourselves than we are of others. In other words, the greatest in the kingdom of heaven is the person who thinks of others first, foremost, always. So chapter 18 is a collection of five stories all, in different ways, telling us that same exact thing.
He begins by telling us about a child: "Whoever becomes like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven." I know what people have traditionally said about this: children are quiet and humble and unassuming. Well, of course, raising three sons has taught me that this is absolute balderdash. I think what it means is something like this: a child has nothing to stand on, nothing. They are completely at the mercy of others. They cannot demand justice. They have no rights to demand or stand upon at all. If this is true now, it was especially true when Jesus had the child stand in his midst. Children are dependent upon others for everything, yes, but I think the issue here is, really, this idea that children essentially have nothing and can make no demands upon anyone.
You want to be great in the kingdom of heaven? Be like a person who lays no claim to personal justice, personal safety, or the lives of others. This is his thought. This is what Jesus is driving at in 'chapter 18.'
You want to be great in the kingdom of heaven? Deal with your own sin first (6-9). This is important in today's world because many, many people are concerned about the sins of others.
You want to be great in the kingdom of heaven? Be willing to put your own safety at risk for the sake of others (10-14). This is ties everything together by use of the phrase 'these little ones' (18:4, 6, 10, & 14).
You want to be great in the kingdom of heaven? Forgive. I think that's what Jesus was talking about in verses (15-20) because that's how Peter understood Jesus: "Lord, how many times shall I forgive someone who sins against me?" (21) Why would Peter ask this question if Jesus was talking about something else? Again, I think there's a clue to be found in the verses. Look at verse 17: "If they still refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector."
Well…well. How do we interpret this? How should we treat a pagan? How should we treat a tax collector? Well, how did Jesus treat them? "While Jesus was having dinner at Matthew's house, many tax collectors and sinners came and ate with him and his disciples" (Matthew 9:10). And, "I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners" (Matthew 9:13). That is how we are to treat tax collectors and sinners. We are to treat them the way Jesus treated them: with grace, forgiveness, deference, and welcoming. How much forgiveness are we to offer? Endless amounts. In other words, when it comes to other people, we are to forget about our rights. We have no rights to stand upon when it comes to others in the kingdom of heaven.
Being a Christian means that we no longer demand our rights. Being a Christian means we have no right to withhold forgiveness from the person who asks. Being a Christian means we have no rights. The greatest in the kingdom of heaven is the person who understands these things and puts them into practice. The greatest in the kingdom of heaven is the person who knowing their rights abandons them in favor of grace, in favor of reconciliation, in favor of healing and peace in the kingdom of God. The greatest in the kingdom of heaven is the one who knowing their own value abandons it in favor of preserving the lives of others. The greatest in the kingdom of heaven is the one who has a legitimate beef with another person and yet utterly forsakes their own demands for justice, their own claims to righteousness, and forgives–frequently, often, much.
It is unreasonable, frankly, that Jesus demands such hyperbolic levels of forgiveness, but that's what he does. 70×7. 77 times. Doesn't matter how we look at it, Jesus demands it. The kingdom demands it. The kingdom principle demands that we relinquish our claim to justice in favor of forgiveness, grace, and love. And frankly, there are some people we may have to wake up and forgive every day for the rest of our lives. Jesus demands it. Greatness demands it. Look what Jesus did.
Forgiveness is not a matter of law or steps or procedures. Forgiveness is a matter of grace. It's a matter of the kingdom. Forgiveness is the ultimate abandonment of our rights. Forgiveness is our way of saying, "I relinquish my claim on your life. You owe me nothing. I make no demands of you." Forgiveness is our way of saying, "This is the way things operate in the kingdom of heaven. This is what life in the kingdom of God is all about, every day, all the time."
This is what it means to be a Christian.