This is one parable of Jesus which cannot be understood without some deep background. On the surface the parable is about forgiving others, which of course is a good point. But that’s like saying the point of Christianity is to believe in God. True, but there is some background and depth to explore regarding this statement.
There are actually multiple layers to peel off to get behind this great text, going all the way back to the beginning of Matthew 18. It begins with Jesus answering the disciples’ question about who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus set a child in the midst of them and said, “Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever receives one little child like this in My name receives Me.”
Then He proceeds on a long discourse about “causing one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin.” To “cause to sin” in this context means “to stumble in the faith.” Those who would cause a little one to stumble in faith must be cut off the body, He teaches. For, as He concludes this section, “the Son of Man has come to save that which was lost.”
Ah, so now we’re not just talking about “little ones” but “lost ones.” Interesting shift, but that is how Jesus defines things, or moves things along. To receive Him like a little child is related to receiving Him humbly, as one who is lost. It’s to confess oneself to be in need of being found, in need of Jesus. the seeker of lost sheep.
Jesus says, “Even so it is not the will of your Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.” It is not the Father’s will that the lost, little ones should be made to stumble in their faith, because someone got in the way of Christ going out to seek and save them.
Jesus then goes on to teach, “Moreover if your brother sins against you…” Here’s clarification on what a “lost, little one” is. It’s someone who sins. The “moreover” teaches us this. That is, in the same way that Jesus the Shepherd seeks the lost, little ones, because it’s not our Father’s will that any of these should perish, so also should we seek our own brothers, if they sin against us.
Going back to the context beginning the whole section, the opposite of seeking our brothers who sin against us, would be to “cause one of these little ones [lost sinners] to stumble” by keeping them in their sins, so that they remain lost.” Better a millstone is put around our necks and we are thrown into the sea than any sinner falls from the faith because he did not see in his brothers the forgiveness of Christ. Christ is serious about forgiveness – He died for the sins of the world to make His Church a place of forgiveness.
And that leads to what just precedes the parable for this week. Jesus says the lost, little ones will be restored as they are brought to the Church, for wherever two or three are gathered in His name, there the power of absolution is present. There, the power to bind and loose is.
Now, the power to bind and loose is the power of the keys, something Jesus has introduced two chapters previous when He gave the keys to Peter. So Peter sort of represents this authority to bind and loose, him having been the first person recorded to have received that authority. And Peter, on behalf of the other disciples, asks Jesus is sensible question. In essence, he asks, “How often shall I use these keys? How often shall I use this authority? How many times shall I forgive my brother, seven times?”
And Jesus responds with the parable He gives, basically saying, “You forgive as often as you need to, abundantly!”
Because – backing our way back to the beginning of the text – not to forgive is to keep a lost, little one in their sin, and that would be to cause him to stumble, and so serious is Jesus that this not happen, that He threatens His Church with the millstone around their necks, and teaches if any part of the body (the Church) causes this to happen – that is, if any person or teaching causes the Church to diminish the centrality of forgiveness – we ought to cut it off, cut them off.
When someone humbles himself and becomes a helpless child, postured before God as one in complete need of forgiveness and salvation, woe betide the church which gets in the way of Christ’s forgiveness.
And then we get the parable, concluding with, “So My heavenly Father also will do to you if each of you, from his heart, does not forgive his brother his trespasses.”
Christ’s Church, from its ministers on down, will be a place of forgiveness, and this forgiveness will spill out of the church into the hearts of its members. It cannot be any other way. The heart of the Church is forgiveness. Other parts of the body can be cut off, but cut out the heart, and the body dies. So also the Church. Members stingy with forgiveness can be removed or excommunicated, but cutting out the ministry of absolution, or the minister who forgives, or the centrality of the teaching of forgiveness, and the body dies.
The little child – childlike in faith – deserves nothing less than a place where they are completely received. It is our Lord’s will.