I am guilty of being the person who hears corrective teaching and elbowing the loved one sitting next to me. Like, “Did you hear that? Because that is for you.” Or reading portions in scripture that are calling out some behavior and making a list of all the people who I think have that problem too. Of course, I would do the Christian thing and turn that list into a prayer list, and pray for God to do something about it. I was like this because that was the church culture I grew up in.  A judgy culture. Judgement in the heart that was justified by re-labeling it as “Love,” or “Concern.”

In the last few years God has gently pointed out that I am not the judge, He is. He further pointed out that I needed that elbow every bit as much as the next member of my family. I experienced the love of Jesus through every humbling epiphany, and His love showed me that my judgy-love was not love at all, but something more like contempt.

So now every time I feel that old urge to judge people around me when I read my bible, I stop and do a heart check. More often than not, the Holy Spirit is there whispering, “I’m talking to you, about you, in order to save you.” So I work it out with Jesus from there, before going back and praying for other people. Because once I’ve worked out my own stuff I am free to pray for them out of the love I received from Jesus in that area.

I read through the book of Revelation recently. Chapters 2 and 3 are words of correction and affirmation for 7 churches. I could see the current Church in all of those ancient churches, and I could hear the Holy Spirit whispering again about my own heart.

In that moment I realized something about God: He practices what He preaches.

In His lovingkindness, the Lord takes a moment to show me what’s come between us. The sin that is damaging me and damaging our relationship. He comes to me to see if we can’t work it out – just like Jesus teaches us to do in the gospels. God doesn’t ask me to do anything He isn’t willing to do Himself!

In Matthew 18, Jesus preaches and tells parables. In between parables He says, “Moreover if a brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother.” (Matt. 18:15 NKJV) In other words, if somebody wrongs you, go and talk to that person and see if you can work it out.  

This bit is sandwiched between the parable of the lost sheep, where the shepherd leaves the 99 to find the one, and the parable of the unforgiving servant. That’s the one where a master forgives the astronomical debt of his servant. The servant turns around and leans harshly on a fellow servant over a small debt. When the master finds out he rebukes the servant for not showing the grace he was shown and throws him into debtor’s prison. (Matthew 18:10-14, 21-35)

I can’t help but notice that both parables are about lost-ness. The sheep is lost because he wandered away. His relationship with the shepherd is broken when he drifts too far. In fact, his relationship with the flock is broken by his distance as well. The shepherd restores their relationship by going to find the sheep. When he restores the sheep to the flock, his relationship with the group is restored. The shepherd rejoices when he finds his sheep.

In contrast, the servant experiences a break down in relationship with the master because of his debt. The master restores their relationship by forgiving the debt. The servant rejoins the group of servants, and there is a breakdown in those relationships too over debt. But instead of carrying the restoration he experienced with the master into those relationships, his actions with the servant in debt to him grieve the whole group. When they go to the master for help, the servant is sent away, and then he is really lost.

The shepherd and the master practice the lesson of Matthew 18:15-20. They go to the person separated from them through sin. Be it a sin of drifting or intentional sin. The sheep yields to grace and is restored from lost-ness. The servant resists grace and becomes more lost.

If the master is symbolic for God in this story, then the servants are symbolic for believers. God showed us compassion by coming to us over our sin and offering forgiveness. We must do the same. It’s not always a simple process, which Jesus acknowledges when he gives plan B and plan C in case of failure in plan A:

“But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.” (Matt. 18:16 NKJV) Aka plan B.

“And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.” (Matt. 18:17 NKJV) Aka plan C.

This whole scenario is between believers. When (not if) conflict arises among the group, we are to take the compassion we are shown by God and show it to each other. We can learn from the cautionary tale of the unforgiving servant and forgive. Even when it becomes complicated, we are to steward our hearts and forgive.

To me the parable of the lost sheep is looking at this whole thing from God’s perspective. We get to see what He does when sin comes between Him and His people. The parable of the unforgiving servant is from our perspective, and shows how not to respond.

Here’s what I mean, let’s say the two parables are merged and the sheep can talk and rationalize like the animals in Narnia. One sheep separates from the Shepherd and the flock. The Shepherd leaves to find the sheep. When he does, he forgives the sheep and takes him back to the others. The forgiven sheep goes the sheep that was supposed to be his grazing buddy so they didn’t get lost. He yells at the buddy instead of offering forgiveness. The other sheep are horrified and tell the Shepherd what happened. The Shepherd confronts the forgiven sheep and asks him how he couldn’t forgive his grazing buddy like he, the Shepherd, had forgiven him for wandering away? The sheep remains obstinate over the situation and leaves on purpose this time and never returns.

The unforgiving lost sheep seems utterly ridiculous. But I believe that’s what Jesus is trying to show with these parables and the lesson in between them. God forgave you believers who were lost. Here’s how you should treat each other. If someone insists on rejecting the grace of God by withholding grace for others, let them go.

God comes to each of us, whispering, “I’m talking to you, about you, for your sake.” And finds us when we’re lost. We too must take the time to talk to our brothers and sisters in Christ with grace and compassion so that none should be lost.

-Etta Woods