Bottoms are Tops in the Kingdom
Matthew 18:15-17 (CEV) If one of my followers sins against you, go and point out what was wrong. But do it in private, just between the two of you. If that person listens, you have won back a follower. But if that one refuses to listen, take along one or two others. The Scriptures teach that every complaint must be proven true by two or more witnesses. If the follower refuses to listen to them, report the matter to the church. Anyone who refuses to listen to the church must be treated like an unbeliever or a tax collector.
The Gospel passage is one that could bring back painful memories for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and trans-identified people who were disciplined by a church for just being who themselves. Generally, I’ve seen this passage applied to cases where one church member needed church discipline, or a church member had defrauded another church member.
Those who base church discipline practices on this passage often miss the real message. We are to treat those offend us like tax collectors. When we reflect on what that means, we need to reflect on Jesus’ life. How did Jesus treat tax collectors? He hung with them, He partied with them. He did not reject them, condemn them to hell, or tell them they were sinners who had to change.
While some principles from this passage can apply to church discipline, I am not convinced that is quite what Jesus was discussing. What Jesus was talking about might have much more meaning to the queer community than many of the more traditional interpretations of the passage on settling disputes in St. Matthew.
Important background to this passage is found in verse 1 of Matthew Chapter 18. The disciples approach Jesus and ask Him “who would be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (CEV). Jesus gives an interesting answer. I suspect Jesus’ answer was a shock to the disciples. Jesus called a child over and says those who are as humble as children are the greatest. Jesus continues, telling how shepherd who lost one of his 100 sheep will go and look for that lost sheep. To Jesus, the one lost in the wilderness was one of the greatest in the Kingdom. Those we dismiss as not being worth looking for are important to God.
This was stunning. Who would have thunk it? The weakest are the greatest in the Kingdom. The least are the greatest in the heavenly.
The respected Bible commentary Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown, which you may see abbreviated as the JFB Commentary, says this is probably still a reference to who should be the greatest in the Kingdom.1 Warren Wiersbe appears to see these verses as part of the response to who is greatest in the Kingdom. He discusses this passage in the context of humility.2
People who study behavioral sciences, education, fine arts, or performing arts often run into academic snobbery. Those who study more traditional university programs, at times, act like people in other programs are not very smart. After all, those other degree programs were “just common sense.” In some universities insults written in the bathroom stalls about agriculture majors are legendary.
There is a very unfortunate tendency for college and university graduates to look down on trades people and technicians. The attitude that trades and technical occupations are really “common sense” has some trades people and technicians responding that common sense - read almost any useful intelligence - appears to be missing completely in people who have gone to college or university. In my case, they are completely right!
When I was in college, one of my professors and a science major were trying to move a very heavy file cabinet. There was a reasonably long 2 x 4 close. I used the 2 x 4 for leverage and the cabinet was moved into place very quickly. The professor said, “It took an education major.”
Snobbery was present when Jesus was here. We still have snobbery in the church of Jesus Christ. There is racial, ethnic, social class, and educational snobbery in Christian circles. We could spend hours talking about racism, ethnic discrimination, and the social caste system in churches. There are a few problems in the church of Christ.
I want to limit the focus to Christian sexual snobbery. When queer people are recognized, they are often identified as “unrepentant sinners.” Being kicked out of church by the “greatest in the Kingdom” is an experience that is far too common in GLBT circles. Some of the “better” churches congratulate themselves for allowing gay, lesbian, and bisexual people to attend church. They think they are doing God’s queer children a wonderful favor by letting them come in the door and drop something in the offering plate. But they would never allow a queer person to serve in any position in the church. These actions scream, “You are the least in the Kingdom.”
I suspect this seems very childish to God. Everybody standing around like children chanting, “I’m God’s best friend, and you aren’t.”
Unfortunately, this attitude is not limited to the straight world. We have a tinge of the greatest and least attitude in the queer community. Butch lesbians, and effeminate men are in the “least” category. Tops are the greatest and bottoms are the least.
Jesus remarks challenge those who want to created a social caste system in the heavenly. In His remarks about the children, Jesus warns us to never say or do anything that could cause a powerless person to stumble.
Jesus was Jewish. He had a sense of who His audience was. Jesus was speaking to Jewish people. They had been conquered by the Romans. Jews were not the greatest in the Roman Empire. But this was not just any group of Jewish people. Some of the people who heard Jesus talk about how to settle disputes became members of the early Christian church. They were hated twice - for being Jewish in the Roman Empire, and once for being part of that Christian faction within Jewish circles.
There is a tendency for people who have lived with being put down their entire lives, or who have been members of powerless minority groups to respond to abuse by either becoming doormats or angry dictators. And those angry dictatorial outbursts can make the situation worse. Jesus may have understood that.
As Jesus talks about how to settle disputes, Jesus emphasizes showing respect for those who have treated us like we are the least in the Kingdom. That is why we are to go to a person privately first to try to settle the problem. Only then do we call other people to assist us. When the church cannot help resolve the dispute, you treat the person as a tax collector. To me, that means you no longer value the person’s opinion of you. You no longer listen to the putdowns. The humiliation of verbal abuse does not bother you as much, because you know this person’s opinion of you does not matter. Here and now you may be socially be a bottom, but in the Kingdom you are a top! Here you might be least in the Kingdom, but in God’s eyes you are the greatest in the Kingdom. So for God’s sake, treat yourself and others with dignity and respect.