Division. It sneaks up on us so gradually. It feels so comfortable and familiar. Jesus understood the challenges the church would face after his death, and he begins addressing them here in Matthew 18. In this, his 4th discourse in Matthew’s Gospel, he echoes many of the ideas found in the initial Sermon on the Mount. Life in the kingdom of heaven is counter-intuitive to the world. And just as the Sermon on the Mount begins with the statement, Blessed are the poor in spirit, this discourse also places humility front and center in Kingdom life.
In this section of teaching Jesus covers the topics of humility, purity, accountability, discipline, reconciliation, restoration, and forgiveness. This is a lengthy list, but humility is front and center as it pervades each topic and ultimately breeds unity.
For some reason the disciples felt a need to ask Jesus, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Jesus doesn’t initially answer their question. Instead he responds by calling a child to him and telling them that unless they become like a child, they won’t even enter the kingdom of heaven. They’re much better off worrying about whether they’ll get in, than whether they’ll be great!
Humility is something that we grow indirectly. As we concentrate on the needs of others. As we love our neighbours as ourselves. As we do to others as we’d have done to us. As we refuse to compare and to compete, our humility gradually grows. We establish ourselves in the Kingdom of Heaven. The following applications demonstrate this:
Purity (v6-9)– Do whatever it takes NOT to cause others to stumble. (v6) Consider their circumstances.
Accountability (v10-14)– We’re accountable for those around us. How do we respond when someone leaves our church? Do we think, “Well, it’s just one person. There’s still plenty more here, and they were just asking for trouble straying so far from the flock.” If we’re to follow Jesus’ example we’ll leave our comfortable environment and go looking for that individual who’s wandered away. They’re more important than our comfort.
Discipline/Reconciliation (v15-20) – It takes humility to accept discipline. It also takes humility to administer it in a Godly manner. It’s easy to adopt an attitude of superiority when pointing out the faults of others, isn’t it? But Jesus doesn’t then prohibit discipline, rather he entrusts us to confront one another with a pure attitude. An attitude not of condemnation, but seeking to restore that person’s relationship with God and the church.
Restoration (v21-22) – After hearing this teaching on discipline, Peter asks how many times he must forgive someone. Jewish teaching at the time said 4 strikes and you’re out. But Jesus says if you really want reconciliation, or relationship, with that individual, you won’t limit your forgiveness. Pride, and standing up for my rights resists this idea. Humility says “we won’t keep count”. Later on Paul would write that “love keeps no record of wrongs.” Humility involves the same idea. It welcomes wandering sheep back into the room, even if they keep wandering. This teaching seems ridiculous to the disciples, so Jesus tells another parable to explain it.
Forgiveness (v23-35) – In this parable the bottom line is found in v32, “I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?” Within the Kingdom of Heaven Jesus expects us to forgive, because we’ve been forgiven. We need to humbly acknowledge that our place in the kingdom only results from the grace and mercy of Jesus. It’s only when we recognize the extent of God’s forgiveness toward us, that we’ll have the humility and patience to forgive the shortcomings of others, reconciling and restoring their relationship with God and ourselves.
None of these virtues are possible without humility. “God, may your Spirit overwhelm our spirit and allow us to serve and love others as you love and serve us. Help us to acknowledge our position as your children and to eschew greatness.”
- Do you agree that each of these points requires humility? Or is something else more essential?
- Do you know someone that you would characterise as humble? What behaviour of theirs most demonstrates that attitude?
- How do you work at becoming a more humble person?