Sometimes in the scriptures, particularly in the New Testament, it seems as though the text randomly and very suddenly jumps from one subject to another. One moment we're reading about forgiveness, the next about salt or sheep or coins, and the next about faith or knocking on doors or picking motes or beams from our eyes. The seeming disjointedness has often contributed to my own perception of the Bible as a more difficult text than its Book of Mormon counterpart.
That changed a little bit this week as my wife helped me see the connections in the seemingly unrelated passages of Matthew chapter 18. Focusing on the connections, rather than the apparent lack of connections, turned an obstacle into a blessing as I saw the Bible in a whole new light.
In Matthew 18, Christ teaches his disciples about caring for children, plucking out eyes or cutting of hands that offend us, seeking for lost sheep, dealing with those who have offended us and a king who forgave an unforgiving servant before delivering him to the tormentors because of his unforgivingness. Each passage seemed to be independently useful, but tangent from any core theme or moral.
Read more carefully, and inserting the Joseph Smith translations where they appear, the lesson transforms into a collage of focused doctrine, stories and experiences on a single theme. It began with this question: "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?"
Using a child as an example, Christ responded: Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 18:2-3). Remembering the teachings of Paul (Romans 8:16-17) and King Benjamin (Mosiah 5:7-8), we can understand from this reply that as we humble ourselves and take His name upon us through baptism, we may become joint heirs with Christ of all the Father has. The greatest in the kingdom of heaven are those who make and keep the baptismal covenant, returning through the Atonement to the Celestial Kingdom with the innocence of small children. Adding the requirement of faith in verse six, Christ provides a complete, profound yet succinct answer to the question.
Having highlighted our relationship with our Heavenly Father in his reply, the Savior then takes the rest of the chapter to teach us about our earthly relationships. This should sound familiar to those who have listened to any of the modern sessions of General Conference, which also tend to teach the gospel in a family-centered context. The essence of all of our relationships, Christ teaches, must be to prepare each other to return to live with God. He explains that:
If thy hand or they foot offend thee, cut them off, and cast them from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life halt or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet to be cast into everlasting fire. And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire. And a man's hand is his friend, and his foot, also; and a man's eye, are they of his own household.
In other words, it is better to end a relationship with a friend or family member than to miss your opportunity to live forever with your Heavenly Father because that relationship drug you down.
Recognizing this as the extreme case, Christ works backward toward the more forgiving ideal. While terminating relationships is an unfortunate possibility, just as our Father cast out Lucifer, the seriousness of that prospect demands additional attention. In this middle ground between ending relationships and the ideal forgiveness, Christ clarifies that we must do all we can to recover the relationships and the souls involved with three specific steps:
First, if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou has gained thy brother.
Next, if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.
And finally, if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church; but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.
What the disciplinary councils of the Church bind on earth is also bound in heaven (Matthew 18:18-19). That means that an unrepentant person who is excommunicated from the Church is also removed from his or her fellowship with Christ. They no longer bear his name nor do they qualify to enter the Celestial Kingdom of God. The very salvation of that soul is at great risk, so Christ promises that disciplinary councils will not face the decision alone: For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.
We are all children of a loving Heavenly Father. We can become pure as a little child and inherit eternal life from our Father in Heaven if we will be humble before Him and enter with faith into the covenant of baptism. Baptism is the covenant that allows us access to the full redeeming power of the Atonement. This is our relationship with God.
Because we are dependent upon the Lord's forgiveness of our every misdeed, we should also be quick to forgive others of their offenses against us. This is the ideal outlined at the end of Matthew 18. No collection of offenses they may have committed against us surpasses the mountain of offenses we have committed against the eternal laws of God. We should settle each offense against us with compassion for the offender.
In some situations, certain offenses may need to be escalated from a private discussion. A family, neighborhood, judicial court or other small group may be called upon to resolve an offense. Even still, compassion is required to provide every possible opportunity for the offended and the offender to recoup their stressed relationship with each other and reinforce their individual relationships with Christ.
When offenses cannot be resolved between individuals or a group of individuals, the disciplinary councils of the Church may intervene. Christ attends every such council and it is the Savior, our eternal judge alongside the Father, who directs the decisions of the disciplinary councils of the Church. Decisions made in these councils are binding on earth and in heaven.
Of those who refuse to hear the voice of the Lord in the councils of the Church, the Lord says to, let them be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican...for it is better for thee to enter into life halt or maimed than to have friends or family and be cast into hell fire.
So it comes full circle. Seeking the connections in the scriptures has highlighted a collage of principles and doctrines that I previously had not seen. The greatest in the kingdom of heaven are those who make and keep covenant relationships. We form one such relationship with our baptism. Others are forged in the temple, when we welcome a new child into the world or as we become one with our fellow Saints.
May each of us gain the light and truth we need for our lives as we search the scriptures, and may we live worthy to sustain and uphold our covenant relationships.