Tag Archives: Dick Lentz

A Christians’ call to action may not be what we think it is

A guest opinion I wrote in response to an editorial by George Saurwein titled, “A Christian call to action,” was published recently in the Longmont Times-Call. In it I show why I disagree with Saurwein’s claim that Christians have a call to take back the moral authority of their culture and support what I believe Christians’ call to action actually is, to be salt and light in the world in which we live so that people will glorify the One who lives within us.

Saurwein’s editorial can be found here: “A Christian call to action.”

My response can be found here: “Christians’ call to action isn’t what writer thinks.”

Here is a text version of my response:

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I am writing in response to George Saurwein’s  guest opinion on August 9 titled, “A Christian call to action.” In my studies of the Bible, I have found no “Christian call to action,” at least as Saurwein describes it, a call for Christians to “take back [their] moral authority” and to “unite as Christians and put the word of God back into the public forum.” Instead of a call for Christians to change their culture and its moral standards, what I have found in the Bible is a call for a change within, one that can happen only by having a personal relationship with Jesus.

I believe that Saurwein errors in this respect by focusing more on actions, on “collective ways of living,” rather than on what’s within our hearts. His quote from Matthew 5:19, “And so if anyone breaks the least commandment, and teaches others to, he shall be least in the Kingdom of Heaven,” ignores both the context and intent of Jesus’ words. The religious leaders at the time, the Pharisees, were telling people that they had to be obedient to the laws of God if they wanted the messiah to come and the kingdom of God to be established. The leaders then came up with an extensive list of rules people had obey if they wanted this to happen. Jesus attacked the Pharisees and their concept of what it meant to be holy by first telling the people that God’s standards of righteousness were so high that they had to exceed the standards of the Pharisees if they wanted to enter God’s kingdom (Matthew 5:20). Jesus then gave several examples of this by saying among others things that God equates anger with murder and lust with adultery (Matthew 5:21-47). Lest they miss the point, Jesus concluded by telling them all they had to do (if they wanted to enter the kingdom of God) was to “be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:48)” This of course was impossible. The Apostle Paul understood this and pointed out in Romans 3:11-22, “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God.”

Jesus’ as well as Paul’s purpose in pointing this out wasn’t to establish new rules of behavior that if followed would somehow garner God’s favor. It was to show that a rules-based relationship with God is futile. It was to counter and sometimes attack those who continued to say, “Act this way and you will be right with God.” It was to show people that they couldn’t redeem themselves and to introduce a new concept of salvation based not on what they could or had to do for God but instead was based entirely on what God did for them in order to save them.

That doesn’t mean that following God’s instructions isn’t a good thing to do. We should love others, be committed to our spouses, and avoid entertainment venues that corrupt or harden our hearts. We should use biblical guidelines to help guide our political processes and other decisions we make in life. Paul confirmed this by noting that though ignoring God’s instructions may be permissible, it is not always beneficial (1 Corinthians 6:12). And clergy do have a responsibility to clearly articulate this. Jesus and Paul emphasized however that our ability or desire to be obedient to God has very little if anything to do with our standing with Him since none of us can meet God’s standards of righteousness.

Christians do have a “Call to action” in this respect. It isn’t to change the morals of their culture, however. As I see it, the primary call of Christians is to “let their lights shine before men so that [others] can see their good works and glorify their Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 5:16)” It is also to communicate boldly and unambiguously that without Jesus and what He accomplished by dying for our sins on a cross (John 3:16), no one would be able enter the kingdom of God.

 

 

 

 

Lack of moral compass can send us adrift

I wrote this in response to an article published in the Boulder Daily Camera on August 1, 2015 titled, “Founders’ Religious Beliefs.” My published response can be found at this link:

Daily Camera: Lack of moral compass can send us adrift

The article I was responding to can be found at this link:

Spencer Nelson: Founders’ religious beliefs

Spencer Nelson’s guest opinion August 1 titled “Founders’ Religious Beliefs” though well-written seems to be a bit misleading regarding what our founding fathers actually believed about God. Though many of our nation’s founders may have been influenced by Deism, trying to put them all in the same boat regarding their beliefs about God, Jesus or Christianity is a bit disingenuous. George Washington for example seems to have been a devoted member of the Anglican church but was very private with regards to his personal faith. Although he frequently used “Providence” in lieu of “God” when referring to God in his communications, it seems that he did believe in God’s personal involvement in the affairs of man and that humans were not passive actors when it came to discerning and following His will. His infrequent references to the name of Jesus in private correspondence may have more to do with the conventions of his day and the traditions of his faith rather than his personal beliefs about Jesus.

Regarding Thomas Jefferson’s statement that a “wall of separation exists between church and state,” this phrase shows up in a letter Jefferson wrote to the Danbury, Connecticut Baptists in 1802. The purpose of this letter was to reassure Baptists that “the legitimate powers of government reach actions only and not opinions.” The 2nd amendment which says that the government may “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” created according to Jefferson a “wall of separation between church and state” that was meant to keep the government from intruding into religion, matters that lie solely “between a Man and his God.” It wasn’t until the middle of last century that this phrase was reinterpreted as a mandate to keep the church from affecting the state rather than as a promise to protect the church by the state and in some cases, from it.

Nelson credited John Adams with a statement that “The government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.” The origin of this statement does not appear to be from John Adams himself, however, but is found in translations of a treaty between the Barbary Pirates and the United States in 1797 that was originally written in Arabic. The purpose of this statement was not to describe the founding principles of our nation but was to reassure the Muslim state that secular laws and not Christian views would be used to interpret and enforce the treaty. This phrase was controversial even in its day and was dropped in a later version of the treaty between the two parties ratified by Congress in 1805 that superseded and effectively nullified what was written and approved earlier.

Nelson said that the founders of our nation “were resolute that ours be a secular government devoid of religious influence of any kind.” But in his farewell address delivered in 1796, George Washington said, “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and Morality are indispensable supports… Let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion … Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”        George Washington recognized the important part religious views play in making moral decisions; that good governments must be moral but that morality cannot exist in the absence of religious principles. It seems to me that religious views serve as a moral compass for a nation, one that if absent can leave a nation rudderless and send it adrift. If this is true, then the question is not should religious views affect our political decisions but rather which ones do we need to take into consideration.

Benjamin Franklin who Nelson says “did not adhere to Christianity at all or [if so] did so only lightly” thought that the moral teachings of Jesus are “the best the world has ever seen.” If this is so, then maybe the teachings of Jesus ought to be play a bigger part in the process we use for making moral decisions today, not less.

 

One Upright Man Among A Thousand, But No Upright Woman? – Ecclesiastes 7:28

“While I was still searching but not finding — I found one upright man among a thousand, but not one upright woman among them (Ecclesiastes 7:28, NIV).”

I’ve got to admit that the above verse may be one of the most perplexing in the entire Bible. On the surface it appears that Solomon, the writer of Ecclesiastes, was comparing men with women and that though he could find at least one upright or righteous man among a thousand men, he could not find even one upright woman among that same number of women. I’ve even heard a number of sermons over the years that were consistent with this understanding of the passage;  that men are somehow more upright than women, perhaps because it was Eve who was first tempted by Satan in the Garden of Eden.

I believe this understanding of the passage is flawed, that it results from a misunderstanding of the context in which it was written, and that taking into consideration Solomon’s background may give us a better understanding of what this verse means.

Solomon’s Thousand Wives

The first thing to note is that Solomon seems to have had at least one woman in his life who he deeply loved and respected. The Song of Songs, probably written by Solomon early in his life, is a vivid and wonderful expression of the longing he felt for this one woman.  Although we don’t know who this woman was, she could have been the daughter of Pharaoh (1 Kings 3:1). What is apparent is that Solomon had a very high opinion this woman and was totally enamored by her beauty and her charms.

The problem that Solomon may have had with regards to women is that he was not satisfied with having just one in his life. He eventually had a harem that totaled one thousand. 1 Kings 11:1-6 gives some details regarding this and what happened because of it:

King Solomon, however, loved many foreign women beside Pharaoh’s daughter — Moabites, Ammonites, Edomites, Sidonians and Hittites. They were from nations about which the Lord had told the Israelites, “You must not intermarry with them, because they will surely turn your hearts after their gods.” Nevertheless, Solomon held fast to them in love. He had seven hundred wives of royal birth and three hundred concubines, and his wives led him astray. As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods, and his heart was not fully devoted to the Lord his God, as the heart of David his father had been. He followed Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and Molech the detestable god of the Ammonites. So Solomon did evil in the eyes of the Lord; he did not follow the Lord completely, as David his father had done. 

1 Kings 11:11 describes God’s response:

So the Lord said to Solomon, “Since this is your attitude and you have not kept my covenant and my decrees, which I commanded you, I will most certainly tear the kingdom away from you and give it to one of your subordinates.” 

Who then was Solomon referring to then when he said, “I found one upright man among a thousand?” I believe he was referring to himself. I don’t think he was saying, “I found one upright man, me, among a thousand men,” however.  I think he was saying, “I found one upright man, me, among a thousand women.” If this is so, then the women he was referring to were most likely the thousand he’d gathered into his harem. And it appears according to I Kings 11 that none of them, including the daughter of Pharaoh, worshipped God.

An Upright Man who Lost His Focus

What then does upright mean in this context? The mistake I believe many make at this point is bringing a New Testament understanding of uprightness into the passage and equating upright with being righteous. This can lead to concluding that the passage is talking about a righteous man who was unable to find a righteous woman. But I think that in the context of Ecclesiastes that being upright has more to do with where a  person decides to look for wisdom regarding how best to live life “under the sun (Eccl. 1:3),” and not the result of that decision.  Solomon was an upright man in the sense that he looked upwards to God for wisdom and guidance, at least early in his life. The same could not be said to be true regarding the thousand women he gathered into his harem. It seems that none of them was upright in their spiritual lives, not in the same sense that Solomon was or should have been. All of them worshipped other gods.

1 Kings 11:4 notes the influence that Solomon’s thousand wives had on his own spiritual focus:

As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods, and his heart was not fully devoted to the Lord his God, as the heart of David his father had been. 

Solomon may have been sharing his feelings about this in Ecclesiastes 7:25-26:

So I turned my mind to understand, to investigate and to search out wisdom and the scheme of things and to understand the stupidity of wickedness and the madness of folly. I find more bitter than death the woman who is a snare, whose heart is a trap and whose hands are chains. The man who pleases God will escape her, but the sinner she will ensnare.

If this verse is referring to how Solomon felt about his decision to have so many women in his harem, then he found the results to be more bitter than death, used words like stupid, madness, and folly to characterize his choice, and acknowledged that these women  became snares, traps, and chains

Solomon may have been an upright man at one point in his life. But because of his decision to have so many wives, he lost his upward focus and his heart turned to other gods.

Solomon concluded this portion of Ecclesiastes with these words:

This only have I found: God made mankind upright, but men have gone in search of many schemes (Eccl. 7:29). 

If Solomon is referring to himself in this verse, what he’s noting is that his life was characterized at one time by an upward or upright focus but that eventually he quit relying on God’s advice and instead followed his own schemes, a decision he came to regret.

A Better Choice

What would Solomon have done differently if he had an opportunity for a do-over in this area of his life?  I think he would have stopped at one. A clue to this is may be found in the advice he gave in Ecclesiastes 9:9:

Enjoy life with your wife, whom you live, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun.

He also advised this is Proverbs 5:18-19:

May your fountain be blessed and may you rejoice in the wife of your youth. A loving doe, and a graceful deer — may her breasts satisfy you always, may you ever be captivated by her love. 

The focus of Ecclesiastes 9:9 is what do to when you feel that life is meaningless. The focus of Proverbs 5:18-19 is what to do if you are attracted to the charms of a person other than your own spouse. Both have the same message. They are urging men and women who are married to be satisfied with the spouse they have and to quit looking elsewhere for fulfillment in this area of their lives.

As we grow older and our lives, bodies, and circumstances change, we need to adapt to those changes and reject the notion that “changing models” or “adding to the harem” is somehow better than living in a committed and meaningful way with the spouse we already have.

That’s my understanding of this passage and its implications, at least as I see it today.

Train up a child in the way he should go – Proverbs 22:6

Training up a child – Proverbs 22:6

“Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it (Proverbs 22:6, NIV).”

I don’t know how many times I’ve heard the above verse quoted in church services during the dedication of someone’s child. And as I’ve heard it explained, “the way he should go” means, “The Lord’s way,” and that what God is promising is that if a parent raises a child according to the ways of the Lord that the child will continue to follow those ways when they become an adult.

This understanding of the verse seems to make sense when you note how it is footnoted in the New American Standard translation of the Bible. This version indicates that the “way he should go” literally means, “according to his way.”  If one substitutes the second phrase for  the first, the verse would read,

“Train a child according to his way, and when he is old he will not turn from it.”

The predominant conclusion among those who quote this verse with this understanding of it seems to be that “his way” means “God’s way” and that if we teach a child to follow God’s commandments and the ways of His wisdom when that child is young, when that child becomes an adult they will not turn away from those ways.

Is this a guarantee that if a child is raised right that they will pursue what’s right?

I used to think this was a pretty terrific promise. What parent would not want to know that they could ensure their child’s future spiritual health by teaching them the ways of God’s wisdom and exhorting them to follow His commandments.  This presumes of course that children simply need to be pointed in the right direction and that once they understand it and know its benefits will embrace it. Seems like a pretty good principle of parenting: teach what is right in God’s eyes and what follows will be a lifetime of obedience to Him.

Over the years I noted, however, that there is a huge gap between what is happening in the lives of the children of Christian parents and what some conclude this verse means; that if we parent right our children will follow what’s right when they grow older. Time after time I saw parents raise their children according to what they deemed to be sound biblical principles only to see those children abandon God’s ways when those children reached adulthood. I also observed that Christians who parented multiple children didn’t always have the same outcome even though they seemingly raised all their children according to God’s wise advice. One child might end up following the ways of the Lord when they became an adult, for example, while the other or others might choose a more worldly path. Godly parents who seemingly did everything right might not even have one child who stayed in a relationship with God into adulthood. It seemed that good Christian parenting no matter how much focused on what’s right in God’s eyes didn’t guarantee that a child would continue to be obedient to God when that child reached adulthood.

Treating this verse as a promise that if a child is trained according to the Lord’s ways that when that child grows old they’ll keep following those ways didn’t stand the test of reality. Although some might attribute bad results in this regard to bad parenting,  I suspected that it was my understanding of Proverbs 22:6 that was flawed.

Does “His way” mean “the Lord’s Way”? 

I then began thinking about the significance of the word “his” in “according to his way.” Since “his” is a pronoun, it has to have an antecedent; a noun it refers to. The general rule of thumb is that the antecedent for a pronoun is the closest noun in the same sentence or paragraph. The problem when assuming that the antecedent for “his” is “God” or “the Lord” is that neither is mentioned in this verse. There are references to “the Lord” in other verses in the chapter but these have no textual connection to Proverbs 22:6. The implication of this is that “his way” cannot be accurately interpreted “the Lord’s way.” It’s more likely therefore that “his way” is “the child’s way” since “child” is the only personal noun referenced in the verse.

If “his way” really means  “the child’s way,” then the passage would more accurately be translated, 

“Train up a child according to the child’s way, and when he is old he will not turn from it.”

What if “his way” really means “the child’s way”?

If this is the correct translation of the verse, if “his way” is really “the child’s way,” then it may be telling parents that if they train up a child according to the child’s natural inclinations that when that child grows old they will keep on living according to those inclinations.

In order to understand the implications of this, it’s important to understand what a child’s natural inclinations are. According to the Apostle Paul,

There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one (Romans 3:10,11).”

Paul said that no one inherently does what is good. Nobody is naturally inclined to be obedient to God. This includes children. So what happens if you let a child be themselves? If they have the choice between doing what is right in God’s eyes or pursuing what’s wrong, will they automatically embrace the good and forgo the bad? I suspect that if a child is raised according to what they are naturally inclined to do and those inclinations are wrong in God’s eyes that they’ll continue to live that way well into adulthood.

Many if not most children seem to have an abundance of good qualities, however. Whether these are caught, taught, or are innate is a subject for debate. But regardless of how a child has acquired these positive traits, what happens if those traits are nurtured? If children are raised according to their positive character traits whether they acquired or inherent, will they continue to embrace them when they become adults?  I suspect that they will.

Children also have natural talents and gifts. These as well as other paths they choose in life may have very little to do with right or wrong. They simply represent traits and desires that make them different from others, including their parents. If parents encourage their children to pursue and develop interests and abilities that are inherent within them, ones that may be neutral in God’s,  will that child continue to pursue those interests  when they become adults?  Once again, I believe that they will.

This verse could be both a warning and a promise.

If this verse means that when you train up a child according to the child’s way that when they grow old they won’t depart from it, then it could therefore be both a warning and a promise. It could be warning parents not to give into every whim a child has as many of these whims represent ungodly tendencies, ones a child will continue to pursue if not corrected early in their lives. It could also be a promise that when a child’s exhibits positive traits and gifts and these are nurtured and developed that these will continue to be a big part of the child’s life as well when they become adults.

That’s my understanding of Proverbs 22:6, at least as I see it today.

Where two or three come together in My name – Matthew 18:20

Where two or three are gathered – Matthew 18:20

I’ve always been a bit bothered but what some people say that Matthew 18:20 means, a verse that reads,

“For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them (NIV).”

My first exposure to this verse occurred nearly four decades ago. I was involved in a ministry to servicemen at the time and every Sunday the leaders of the ministry would gather as a group in our small prayer room to pray for the ministry and for each other. There were typically about ten to fifteen of us who gathered for prayer and the head of the ministry, our pastor, would invariably begin our prayer time by quoting this verse from Matthew and than reminding us that we could pray with confidence knowing that Jesus was in our midst.

Is it about praying in groups?

At first I thought this was pretty neat. Jesus was with us as we prayed and that was a pretty big deal. And why was He with us? According to our pastor, it was because we were gathered as a group praying in Jesus’ name. But at some point I began to question how our pastor was using this verse. It seemed that he was saying that because we were praying in a group that our prayers had more power than if we were praying for the same things individually. “if Jesus is only around when I’m praying in a group,” I thought as I considered this, “where is He the rest of the time? And if Jesus bestows some special blessing on those participating in sessions of group prayer, does that mean that when I pray alone that my prayers are less effective or that Jesus might not even be with me?”

I then remembered that Jesus said this regarding personal prayer:

“When you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done is secret, will reward you (Matthew 6:6).”

This verse seemed to indicate that when I prayed, I ought to find a private place where I could commune with God and that I could expect to be rewarded for doing so. This contradicted what our pastor was saying; that it’s when we pray as a group that we are assured of Jesus’ presence and any special blessings that come with it.

Is it about church discipline?

I came to a different understanding of what Matthew 18:20 means a number of years later when I went to a Christian conference on how to resolve interpersonal conflicts and heard the speaker explain what he thought the context of this verse was. He said that it was intended to be the capstone of a set of instructions given in Matthew 18:15-17 regarding how to deal with individuals in our churches who have sinned against us. These verses read,

“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. But 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. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, threat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”

The speaker said that if a brother in Christ sins against us, we are first to try to resolve it privately. If that doesn’t work, we should bring in one or two others who can confirm that this person sinned and are willing to confront that person with their sin. If that doesn’t resolve the issue, the person should be brought before the entire church and the issue explained so that the whole assembly can confirm who is at fault. If the errant party still refuses to repent, they should be asked to leave the church. The congregation is then to have nothing to do with the one who sinned. They are to treat this person like a non-believer, a pagan, or like tax collectors, who were hated by the Jews in Jesus’ day. The speaker concluded by saying that when two or three are gathered in Jesus’ name to confront a brother with his sin, that is where Jesus will be, overseeing and endorsing a process that could result in throwing an unrepentant sinner out of the church.

Is it about forgiving others?

I initially thought that what this speaker said about Matthew 18:20 made sense. I had even seen it become the written policy of some congregations if they found a need to discipline a member of their church. But I was a bit troubled by this understanding of the passage. For one thing, when I did see it applied this way, it rarely if ever resulted in the person repenting. It just humiliated them. It seemed to contract Paul’s statement in Romans 2:4 as well, a verse that says that it’s God’s kindness that leads sinners to repentance, not His harsh treatment of them. It also failed to take into consideration Peter’s question following Jesus’ instructions,

“Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times (Matthew 18:21)?”

Peter seemed to be responding directly to Jesus guidance regarding how to deal with a brother who has sinned against a fellow believer. If this is so, then the outcome if that person refuses to repent is not to sever our relationship with them or to ostracize them but is to forgive them. Perhaps it’s when we’re willing to forgive a brother for his sins even if he refuses to repent where we’ll find Jesus in our midst blessing what we’re doing.

Is it about protecting the rights of the accused?

As I thought about this a bit more, I began to think that Jesus’ statement that He is with us when we’re dealing with the sins of a brother could be more of a warning than the endorsement of a process for confronting and disciplining those who have sinned. What Jesus may have been saying is that we need to tread lightly if our brother has sinned against us and we think we need to confront them with their sin. Matthew 18:15 indicates that this needs to initially be done discretely.The purpose of involving more people in the process is not to increase the number accusing the errant party, however, but is perhaps to make sure we’re on firm footing when doing so.

This makes sense when you consider Jesus’ reference in verse 16 to a principle established at the time of Moses; that when accusing a brother of something, it must be confirmed by two witnesses. According to instructions given to Moses by God, no one could be put to death for murder on the word of one witness alone (Numbers 35:30) and no one could be convicted of any crime or offense unless at least two witnesses confirmed it (Deuteronomy 19:15). The purpose of this was to protect people from unsubstantiated accusations against them. The passage in Deuteronomy continues in verses 16-21 by describing a process of escalation, one very similar to the one Jesus proposed, where the matter could be taken before the priests and judges in office at the time. The purpose of this was make sure that the accuser was telling the truth, however, not to lay further blame on the accused. If it was found that the one making the accusation was lying, those judging the issue were told,

“Do to him [the accuser] as he intended to do to his brother [the accused]. You must purge the evil from among you (vs. 19).”

What was evil in this context was not what the accused may have done but instead was making an unsubstantiated accusation.

By referring to this principle in Matthew 18:16, Jesus may have been warning those who feel compelled to confront a brother with his sin that Jesus will be there in their midst making sure that the rights of the accused are protected. Those who are guilty of falsely accusing a brother of sin or who do so without adequate evidence will not get Jesus’ approval for their actions and could face His condemnation.

Is it about seeking and restoring the lost?

I still felt that didn’t have a complete understanding of the context of Matthew 18:20, however. I understood that I needed to be on firm ground if I felt the need to accuse a brother in Christ of sin. But with what attitude did I need to approach this?

I thought I found the answer to this in verses further back in the chapter:

“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? And if he finds it, I tell you the truth, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost (Matthew 18:12-14).”

If the lost in this passage includes those who have sinned against us, then Jesus may be telling us that our goal in confronting them is not to beat them up emotionally or spiritually for what they’ve done wrong or to cut them off from the flock (our churches) if they wander away. It is to continually look for ways to bring them back into fellowship with the rest of the flock. Perhaps that is where Jesus is, in those situations where we know a brother has sinned and choose a path that restores them to fellowship rather than one that drives them away.

Is it about unlimited and unconditional forgiveness?

This understanding of Matthew 18:20, that its context could be how to restore a brother who has sinned against us and the importance of forgiving them, is consistent with the parable of the unmerciful servant that follows in Matthew 18:21-35.

This passage begins with Peter asking how often he needed to forgive a brother who sinned against him. Jesus responded by saying,

“I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times (vs. 22).”

I don’t believe that Jesus was giving Peter a fixed number of times that he was required to forgiven someone and that when Peter had forgiven that person that many times, he could quit doing so. It’s more likely that Jesus was saying that our forgiveness of others should be limitless.

Jesus then told the story of servant who owed his master ten thousand talents, a sum equivalent today to millions of dollars. His master threatened to throw the servant and his family in jail until the debt was repaid. The servant begged to be given more time to repay the debt and his master took pity on him and canceled the entire debt.

Later, the servant encountered someone who owed him 100 denarii, equivalent today to just a few dollars. The servant grabbed and choked the one who owed him so little and demanded that the debt be repaid. The debtor asked for patience, much like the servant asked of his master, but instead of getting pity from the servant was thrown in prison. When the master heard how unforgiving the servant had been after being shown such great mercy,

“In anger, … [he] turned him [the servant] over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed (vs. 34).”

Jesus concluded with these words,

“This is how my heavenly father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart (vs. 35).”

That almost put the icing on the cake in terms of my understanding of this passage. Where two or three are gathered in Jesus’ name to forgive others to the same extent that they’ve been forgiven, that is where Jesus will be.

Or is it about treating pagans, tax collectors, and sinners the way that Jesus treated them?

If this is what the passage is about, forgiving others to the same extent that we’ve been forgiven, then what did Jesus mean when He said,

“If he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector (Matthew 18:17).”

I continued to struggle with this final piece of the puzzle until I remembered how Jesus treated pagans, sinners, and tax collectors. Jesus didn’t cut himself off from them but instead deliberately sought ways to connect with them. When Jesus traveled to Jericho for example, He chose to stay at the home of a Zacchaeus, a Jew who was collecting taxes on behalf of the hated Romans (Luke 19:1-10). Jesus reminded those who objected to this that,

“The Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost (vs. 10).”

Jesus also invited Matthew, a tax collector, to be one of His twelve disciples (Matthew 9:9-12). Jesus was criticized by the Pharisees for doing so as well as for socializing in general with tax collectors and others the Pharisees considered “sinners” (vs. 11). The Pharisees eventually labeled Jesus as a friend of tax collectors and “sinners” (Matthew 11:19), a label Jesus willingly and gladly embraced. Jesus told those accusing Him of hanging out with the “wrong” people that,

“It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners (Matthew 9:12-13).”

I suspect that Matthew had Jesus’ treatment of tax collectors and “sinners” in mind when he heard and later wrote that we’re to treat those who sin in the same way that Jesus treated them.

So when is Jesus in our midst?

Jesus came to seek and save the lost, not to drive them away or to keep some space between “them” and “us”. He sought out the sinners, pagans, and tax collectors of His day and tried to connect with them. He showed them the way to the Kingdom of God not by beating them up emotionally or spiritually but by loving them and spending time with them. He socialized with those His religious culture rejected, forgave these “rejects” for their sin and tried to draw them into a relationship with Him so they could benefit from His love and forgiveness.

I believe that it’s when we treat those who have sinned against us in the same way that Jesus treated the pagans, sinners, and the tax collectors of His day that we’ll find Jesus in our midst.

That’s my understanding of Matthew 18:20, at least as I see it today.