Friday, July 6, 2012

Is There Anything We Can Agree On?

Luke recorded the strangest parable that Jesus ever spoke, which was apparently aimed at loosening the purse strings of the congregation. Luke then went on to another parable regarding Lazarus and the rich man, which made it clear that (surprise!) Jesus believed in the eternal torture of Hell. As the Gospel continues, we find Luke's out-of-context reference to causing "these little ones" to sin. We will see another interesting edit by Luke, as we tag off to follow Matthew in this study.

Is There Anything We Can Agree On?
If you want to know how skillful preachers really are, see how they explain how certain verses are both true and not true. Oh, they would never come out and say that the verses are not true. How could they, when they are dealing with the book of ultimate Truth? Instead, what you will hear is a lot of clarification; this is what Jesus said, but this is what He really meant. We will take a look at one of the classic cases where truth is redefined, but first we have to deal with a matter of brotherly sin.

Matthew 18:15-17 starts us off with Jesus explaining how to handle when your brother sins against you. It is not clear what kind of brother Jesus means here, but I suspect that this is in the more broad sense; not specifically a family member, but rather in the spiritual sense of the family of fellow believers (a.k.a. the church), as is suggested earlier in Matthew 12:48-50, Mark 3:33-35, and Luke 8:21.

So, Jesus recommends progressive steps for handling transgressions against you from fellow church members; confront them privately, if that does not work then get witnesses, if that does not work then present your case to the church, and if that does not make him listen then, as Matthew 18:17 states,:
"... treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector." NIV
This passage is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, and most obvious, is that Jesus is implicitly condoning the poor treatment of pagans and tax collectors. (Note: What is translated as "pagan" in the NIV is the Greek word "ethnikos," used to denote Gentiles, non-Jews, or foreigners.) Jesus could have just said to treat him like someone who was not in the "family," but instead chooses people who would have been detestable to the Jews as specific examples of how to treat such a stubborn person.

But wait! (You may object.) Jesus was a friend to the tax collectors, and He came for Salvation of the Gentiles as well! This very Gospel was even (allegedly) written by a tax collector!

Indeed, but if that is the case, then what is the point of Jesus' reference here? When you consider that question, it becomes obvious that the distinction in treatment is necessary in order for Jesus' words to have any meaning at all. It also becomes obvious that Matthew was written primarily for Jewish believers.

The second reason this is interesting is because it contradicts Jesus' earlier teachings on the Sermon on the Mount, that of turning the other cheek and not resisting an evil person (because confronting them and suing them would be resisting) and that of forgiving sins against you (because if you truly forgive them, then there is no act of justice needed).

Perhaps because of these issues, Luke (the Editor) changed his version significantly. Luke 17:3 says that if a brother sins against you, you should simply confront him and see if he repents. And if he does repent, then forgive him. There are no witnesses. There is no case before the church. And there is no treatment like a Gentile or tax collector. Luke's Gospel does not include Matthew's submission to evil people, but it does still address the forgiving others in the Lord's Prayer, making this statement more of a clarification on the type of forgiveness you should grant people; conditional, based upon repentance.

A little later, Matthew 18:21-22 has Jesus explain to Peter that you should forgive your brother essentially as often as necessary. The Luke 17:4 parallel also extends that frequent forgiveness, but again emphasizes repentance as the prerequisite for forgiveness.

Yet before Matthew gets to that explanation, there are a few other verses.

The first is Matthew 18:18, which appears to be granting the power to the Disciples to make judgements of condemnation on earth; a power earlier given exclusively to Peter in Matthew 16:19. This second pronouncement may exist due to haphazard aggregation on Matthew's part. It may be that the pronouncement of power was originally added into the storyline of Matthew 18:18, and then later added into the story in Matthew 16:19, or visa versa. It may seem odd that the specific case of Matthew 16:19 would be a later addition than the general case of Matthew 18:18, but the Matthew 18:18 case has very little contextual grounding here, making it easy to miss if you were simply scanning over what had been previously written.

The next two verses come to the heart of this study. In Matthew 18:19-20, we find:
"Again, I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything you ask for, it will be done for you by My Father in Heaven. For where two or three come together in My Name, there am I with them." NIV
Can you fathom how powerful that truth is?!? Cancer... cured. Wars... ended. Evil... cleansed. In fact, with such power, the reason why the world is in such a pathetic state today must simply be because no two Christians can agree on anything. But, obviously that is not true.

It is verses like these where preachers really have to get slick in order to survive. They have to convince the congregation that these words are true, and yet not true, simultaneously. The preachers I have heard cover this verse say something to the affect of "Jesus did not mean absolutely anything you ask for will be done, but rather if you ask for something which is aligned with the will of God."

That interpretation is not sourced from the verse, or its context, but it is a reasonable conjecture, which is why it is so easy to accept. However, the practical application of it is quite messy. Why? Well, if two Christians pray together for someone to be cured of cancer, and that cure does not come, then you can only conclude that it was God's will for that person to die of cancer, and that is pretty messed up. Besides, an obvious contradiction to that stance is seen earlier in the Gospels when nine of the Disciples together tried unsuccessfully to perform an exorcism.

Christians will all-too-often claim that the afflictions of this world, such as cancer, are not consistent with God's intentions for us, but rather are a product of the affect of our own sins on this world. Yet if they are not God's intention, then they are not God's will, and therefore group prayer should be yielding miracles so frequently that they cease to be miraculous, but rather are the norm, and afflictions like cancer would be relegated to countries without God. That would make the evidence of God's existence and power undeniable.

But it is not. We live in a real world, where the mechanics and frequencies of afflictions are unaffected by the whims of those who suffer, regardless of their faith, or how much they agree that things are not the way that they should be.


  1. Luke's style of forgiveness -- forgiveness only after repentance -- seems to me at odds with "turn the other cheek". But I suppose it's more practical.

  2. I am with you Paul. Luke's limited forgiveness does contrast Matthew's open forgiveness, which is the philosophy I was raised with, but Luke's way seems a bit more logical and consistent with God's style of forgiveness as well.