Brotherly Care and Personal Trespass.

Matt. 18.

Geo. Cutting.

Christian Friend, vol. 13, 1886, p. 197.

This question, asked by the disciples, in the first verse of this chapter, led the Lord to speak of the moral state that was suited to that kingdom. As a fitting model of the spirit which God looked for in those who belonged to it, He placed in their midst a little child, and, in reply to their question, said, "Whosoever shall humble himself as this little child, the same is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven." Meekness and humility - littleness in our own eyes, whatever our insignificance in the eyes of men - were the equivalents for what was truly great in the sight of God. "Thy gentleness," said David, "has made me great." (Ps. 18:35.)

Verses 10 to 14 give us the Lord's thoughts as to these little ones, and withering indeed are His words to those who cause them to stumble. Indeed, the "woe" which He pronounces against His own betrayer is expressed in almost the same language as that pronounced upon the one who should "offend" His little ones. Of the one He says, "Woe unto that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed;" of the other, "Woe to that man by whom the offence comes." (Matt. 26:24; 18:7.) How constant the care that should be found in us, therefore, lest, even unwittingly, we should do anything to stumble or even discourage the feeblest of His own.

In verse 15 the Lord takes up another side of the subject. He is no longer warning His disciples against offending others, but giving instruction as to what their behaviour is to be if a brother should trespass against them. "If thy brother shall trespass against thee." The spirit of gracious consideration for the welfare of others is to characterize their conduct under every circumstance, the very opposite of the spirit of him who said, "Am I my brother's keeper?" in verses 8 and 9 we are told to make no allowance whatever for our own hand, or foot, or eye offending. The utmost severity is to be shown in such a case, even to cutting off or plucking out the offending member, as though the Lord had said, "You can't be too severe with yourselves when you go wrong, and you cannot exercise too much carefulness in your conduct towards others." How natural for us to act directly opposite to this! Any amount of consideration we are ready to show towards ourselves; the cleverest excuses can be produced at the shortest notice in palliation of our own failures, yet there is no lack of righteous indignation if the failures of others are in question.

It is noteworthy that personal trespass between brother and brother is the first disturbing element mentioned in Scripture in connection with the gathering together of the saints to the name of the Lord Jesus, and He proceeds to lay down in the most simple and explicit manner what is to be our line of conduct under such circumstances. Let us carefully consider these important communications. "If thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone." Mark well, in the first place, there is to be no making light of the trespass: "Tell him his fault." In the gospel of Luke (Luke 17:3) it is even stated more strongly than this: "If thy brother trespass against thee, rebuke him: and if he repent, forgive him." The natural course might be to avoid him, and to say nothing to him about his fault; or we might be determined in our own mind to bear the injury in longsuffering towards the offender, and, as it is sometimes expressed, "try to live it down." Such might at first sight seem very plausible, and have the appearance of grace on my part; but it omits one all-important item of consideration; viz., the spiritual condition of my offending brother; and whoever may commend it, it is certainly not the Lord's way of treating the matter. Besides, staying away from my brother might leave a tinge of bad feeling in my own heart; and even if it did not, am I to rest while knowing that the conscience of my erring brother is defiled? (See Lev. 19:17.) No. I am to go and plainly lay his fault before him; for if he is to be truly recovered it must be through the exercise of conscience and the judgment of his state before God. "Go and tell him his fault" are words that cannot very well be mistaken. It is not even, "Go and write him a note." Alas! who can measure the mischief that has come in among God's people by this very thing, either through ignorance of the Lord's mind about such matters, or through failing to act upon it when known. To send what I think a very faithful letter may both spare my feelings and suit my pride; but He who knows us far, far better than we know ourselves says plainly, "Go and TELL him his fault."

Then, again, what wisdom and grace are embodied in the next few words - "Between thee and him alone." Yet is it not sadly too common to discuss a personal trespass somewhat more publicly than this? Perhaps there is some brother whom we know to be not on the most amicable terms with the one who has injured us. We have but little doubt that he (i.e., the brother just referred to) will lend a ready ear to the tale of our wrongs, and the danger is that, in our selfishness, we go to him, though, if we considered his soul's welfare, he would be the last person in the assembly to whom such a thing would be breathed. But it suits us better to share the story of our grievance with others, who may be ready to sympathize with us, and tell us how shamefully we have been treated, and the like, than to go and seek "to gain" the one who has done us an injustice. How is this? It is much to be feared that we are not altogether sorry to be able to inflict a punishment upon our brother by lowering him in the estimation of others. But is it obedience to the Word thus to act? Is it the Spirit of Christ? Is it not rather only another, though more subtle, form of the same flesh that manifested itself in our brother's trespass?

Next comes a sentence of the very deepest importance to us - "If he hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother." Does not this let us into the secret of why I am to tell him his fault, and why it is to be between him and me alone? It is "to gain" my brother. The Lord had, just before (v. 12), been speaking of His own search among the mountains for the lost sheep, and of His joy when the straying one was brought back, in order, no doubt, that we might see the value which He put upon one of His own, and that we might learn to act toward them accordingly. Notice here that nothing is said about the redress of any wrongs. The Lord does not say that "if he hear thee, all thy wrongs shall be put right," but, "If he hear thee, thou has gained thy brother." No doubt, if grace really works in him, if he is really "gained," one of the earliest fruits of it will be an ardent desire for the redress of those injuries; but the securing of this is not to be the motive which prompts me to go to him. Leaving my wrongs with the Lord, I am to seek my brother's blessing. But this going to "gain" him will necessarily put my own soul through deepest exercises. If, in true love to him, I am set upon his recovery in a righteous way, what godly watchfulness and carefulness will be wrought in me? With what earnestness and fervent desire shall I plead for him before God! When a bird has left his cage, any rude hand or discordant voice can drive him further away; but how great the care and caution that is exercised by the one who really desires to bring him back to food and shelter! If my errand to my brother were only to pain him, the task might easily be accomplished without a particle of exercise; but if I am to gain him, then grace must work both in him and in me.

But now we proceed a step farther. Suppose that the best-intentioned efforts to restore my brother prove fruitless, what then? Am I therefore to take it for granted that he is henceforth beyond recovery? Not so. How do I know that my manner of dealing with him was not the cause of my failure? Or perhaps our interview has made the discovery to him that I have put what he considers to be an unwarrantable colour upon his conduct, or attributed motives to him which he is conscious he never had. In that case, I should only have given to him what he judges a righteous ground for resisting me, and have left him harder than I found him. I am therefore now to take with me "one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established." And even should this prove unavailing, another step is yet to be taken; the assembly must be told. If, after all this, the offender still manifest wilfulness, if repentance be not wrought in him, the word then is, "Let him be unto thee as a heathen man and a publican;" for there is no higher court of appeal for the saint upon earth than the "two or three" gathered to the name of the Lord. (vv. 18-20.)

But there is another danger, into which, if not very watchful, any one of us might very easily fall. I might go to the brother who has trespassed against me, not so much with a desire to "gain" him as to satisfy my own conscience, in a hard, legal way, that I have acted scripturally toward him. Suppose such a case. I go and "tell him his fault;" but instead of finding him hard and unrepentant, he is thoroughly broken down. He freely owns that he has trespassed against me, and shows every sign of genuine contrition. But what follows? Alas' I am more concerned about the injury which I have sustained than I am for my brother's restoration to happy fellowship with me. The pangs of wounded pride spur me on, and I make it but sadly too manifest that I would prefer my brother getting the discipline of the unrepentant, rather than the forgiveness of the repentant. Grace has wrought in him, but not in me, and in my heart I do not forgive him.

Now what follows in this chapter seems to be addressed to such a case. Let us examine it. In verse 21 Peter asks the Lord this question, "How oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? till seven times?" And the question is answered by, "I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven." And then (by the word "therefore ") He connects this statement with the parable of the merciful master and the unmerciful servant. Two cases of debtor and creditor are brought before us in the parable. The first debtor owes his king ten thousand talents. Yet upon confession of the debt, and the expressed willingness on the part of the debtor to meet his creditor's demands, the whole debt, immense though it was, is immediately forgiven. The same servant leaves his gracious master's presence, and finds a fellow-servant, who owes him "a hundred pence." He takes him by the throat, and demands immediate payment. The poor debtor confesses to the legitimacy of the claim, and makes known his willingness to meet the righteous demands of his creditor. Yet what do we find? No mercy whatever is shown, no forbearance is exercised; he cast him into prison "till he should pay the debt."

Now mark well what follows; for it is full of solemn and wholesome instruction for us. The rest of the servants seeing such behaviour are "very sorry," we are told, and bring the tidings to their master, who summons the ungrateful servant into his presence and deals this most withering rebuke: "O thou wicked servant," he says, "I forgave thee all that debt, because thou desiredst me: shouldest not thou also have had compassion on thy fellow-servant, even as I had pity on thee?" (vv. 32, 33.) And then it is added, "His lord was wroth, and delivered him to the tormentors, till he should pay all that was due unto him."

The Lord next applies the parable by saying, "So likewise shall my heavenly Father do also unto you, if you from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses." It need scarcely be said that this parable does not speak of the salvation of the soul, but of the principles of the government of the King in His kingdom, principles as applicable to the real possessor as to the mere professor. It is an unchanging fact that upon the cross Christ took the consequences for eternity of every believer's sins; but as to our conduct in this world, it is an unalterable principle in the government of God that "whatsoever a man sows, that shall he also reap." (Gal. 6:7.) Another broad principle of His government is expressed in Psalm 18:25-26: "With the merciful Thou wilt show thyself merciful; with an upright man Thou wilt show thyself upright; with the pure Thou wilt show thyself pure; and with the froward Thou wilt show thyself froward." And again, in Matthew 5:7: "Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy." Now which of us, as he reviews his past history, whether as saint or sinner, and thinks of the governmental consequences of all he has said and done, can say, "I stand in no need of governmental mercy"? Do we not rather each feel ourselves to be more like needing the mercy shown to the ten-thousand-talent debtor, and say with all our hearts

"Nothing but mercy will do for me;
 Nothing but mercy, full and free"?

Let us then remember, if tempted to show a hard, unmerciful, unforgiving spirit to our brethren, that while, through the grace of our God, our sins and iniquities He will remember no more, yet that according to His government, "with what judgment you judge, you shall be judged: and with what measure you mete, it shall be measured to you again." (Matt. 7:2.) Let us bear in mind that precious exhortation to the saints at Ephesus, "Be ye kind one to another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ has forgiven you." (Eph. 4:32.)

Is it not significant that the chapter which instructs us as to the Centre to whom we should be gathered (Matt. 18:20) should be so similar, in the scope of its moral teaching, to the chapter which gives us the ground of our gathering; viz., the truth of the one body? (Eph. 4) In Matthew 18, as we have seen, the spirit of childlike lowliness and gracious consideration for the welfare of others is brought before us as that which should ever characterize us. In Ephesians 4:2 the exhortation is, "With all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love; endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace."

It is said of a blind man that, when asked why he always carried a lantern at night, he replied that, being himself unable to see, the light was therefore not to preserve his own feet from stumbling, but to prevent others stumbling over him. May the Lord keep us each walking "as children of light;" and then not only will our own feet be kept from stumbling, but we shall be no occasion of stumbling to others! On the contrary, may our care for each other in the sight of God be more and more apparent! (2 Cor. 7:12; 1 Cor. 12:25.) Remembering that He who was the "merciful" was also the "faithful" (Heb. 2:17), and that He who was perfectly "holy" was equally "harmless" (Heb. 7:26), let us never seek to show mercy at the expense of divine principle and practical holiness, nor mistake hardness and harshness for firmness and faithfulness. Geo. Cutting.