PROCLAIMING THE GOSPEL Matthew 18.1

Matthew 18:1-10

1 At that time the disciples came to Jesus. “So, then,” they said, “who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 2 Jesus called a child and stood her in the middle of them. 3 “ I’m telling you the truth,” he said. “Unless you turn inside out and become like children, you will never, ever, get into the kingdom of heaven. 4 So if any of you make yourselves humble like this child, you will be great in the kingdom of heaven. 5 And if anyone welcomes one such child in my name, they welcome me. 6 “ Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to trip up,” he went on, “it would be better for them to have a huge millstone hung around their neck and be drowned far out in the deep sea. 7 It’s a terrible thing for the world that people will be made to stumble. Obstacles are bound to appear and trip people up, but it will be terrible for the person who makes them come. 8 But if your hand or your foot causes you to trip up,” Jesus continued, “cut it off and throw it away. It’s better to enter into life crippled or lame than to go into eternal fire with both hands and both feet! 9 And if your eye causes you to trip up, pull it out and throw it away. Going into life with one eye is better than going into hell with two! 10 Take care not to despise one of these little ones. I tell you this: in heaven, their angels are always gazing on the face of my father who lives there.

12“ How does it seem to you? If someone has a hundred sheep and one of them wanders off and goes missing, what will he do? He’ll leave the ninety-nine on the hillside and go off after the one that’s missing, won’t he? 13And when, eventually, he finds it, I’ll tell you the truth: he will celebrate over that one more than over the ninety-nine that didn’t go missing! 14It’s the same with your father in heaven. The last thing he wants is for a single one of these little ones to be lost.

ALL THE PIECES OF STAND-ALONE INFORMATION

  1. This happened in Capernaum following the previous incident.
  2. The disciples came to Jesus and ask him a question.
  3. They wanted to know who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?
  4. Jesus called a little girl and placed her in the midst of them.
  5. What he was telling them needed to be taken as irrefutable truth no matter how strange it may seem.
  6. They needed to completely change their attitudes and ideas about greatness.
  7. Greatness in the kingdom required a person to adopt a humility like that of a small girl among adults.
  8. This kind of humility is a primary characteristic of greatness in the kingdom of God.
  9. When people acknowledge small children by welcoming them, they are honouring Jesus.
  10. Causing children to stumble as they grow up is considered as profoundly wicked.
  11. Such people would be better off if they killed themselves than suffer the outcome for such acts.
  12. There will always be obstacles along the way.
  13. The outcome for people who cause such things is truly horrible.
  14. That being the case, it is better for a person to cut off an offending part of their body in order to stop this from happening than to experience the final consequences.
  15. If the offence was caused by an eye, it would be better to lose sight than to experience these final consequences.
  16. They needed to take very great care of the small vulnerable children and not despise them.
  17. These children have angels in heaven who are assigned to guard their well-being.
  18. These angels are always standing in the very presence of the Father in heaven.
  19. Jesus introduced yet another aspect to the matter of treating the little children with love and care.
  20. He asked whether a man who had a hundred sheep and found that one was lost would leave the ninety-nine in their yard and go to search for the lost one.
  21. He said that the value placed on every one of the hundred sheep would be known to all because, when the man found the one that was lost, he would celebrate more about that accomplishment than he would over having the other ninety-nine safely in the fold.
  22. Jesus said this was the same with the Father, God.
  23. His care for each person was so acute that he was not prepared to stand by and see a single one remain lost and separated.

THE MESSAGE OF THE STORY

1 At that time the disciples came to Jesus. “So, then,” they said, “who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”

If I had been a member of the editorial board of Christianity’s primary promotional product (i.e. the Bible) I don’t think I would have included an incident where the primary group of leaders-in-waiting as such a blatantly unflattering question. Why the sudden interest in hierarchy? The short answer would probably be, “Because they are normal humans and normal humans seem to care about where they are in the pecking order. But that pecking order, in the case of Jesus and the disciples is not so easy to pick. In the first place, Jesus has chosen a team of twelve without nominating a leader or deputy leader. We have seen that there is a hint of a core group when Peter, James and John are selected to do special duties on a few occasions, but nothing definitive. If we were to adopt the projected posture of the disciples themselves, following around Israel’s long awaited Messiah, it is easy to see that someone will get to sit on his right and left when he ascends his throne in Jerusalem. What makes that line of thinking difficult in this situation is that Jesus hasn’t seemed to give any impression that such a thing is about to happen anytime soon. We were witnesses to his comment in a previous incident that certain people could be “least” in the kingdom [1]. If there was going to be a ‘least,’ would it not follow that there would also be a ‘greatest?’

It seems that the quest for supremacy is one of the most universal experiences going around. It is not limited to humans either. In the natural world, both flora and fauna are often found pitted against each other for their very survival. Charles Darwin was responsible for the idea of ‘natural selection’ and then an economist called Herbert Spencer adapted it to his field of study and talked about “survival of the fittest.” In a culture like ours, where so much happens in an around the free market economy, competition becomes the great motivator in human enterprise. All of the reality TV shows thrive on who is going to be eliminated next. In the classroom and on the sporting field we are going to measure winning or losing. In conversations around cafe tables or bars, our knowledge and skills are pitted against each other; the best idea, the wisest or funniest statement or the best story. When elections come around with televised debates between the competing candidates we saw the emergence of “the worm.” It was a device to show audience approval or disapproval all the way from the start of the debate to the end. The question is: “In the kingdom of God, what makes the ‘worm’ go up and down?”

Behind the question posed by the disciples was a bunch of egos trying to figure out who will get the places of honour, power or both. Jesus used the phrase, “Truly, truly I say to you…” often, but deliberately. The repeated word is found fifty times in the gospels and the single word, more than a hundred. I think it is his way of saying, “I know this is going to sound totally unfamiliar to you, perhaps outrageous, but I want to assure you that it is the truth.” I have often referred to the “surprise factor” as an indication that we are seeing the ways of the kingdom of God contrasted to the kingdoms of this world. When Jesus uses these words as a way of asking his disciples to take special care to listen and understand, he is doing the same thing. Will see from his explanation that this issue is very easy for us to avoid. We have another phrase in our language to identify this: “Now, read my lips…..” We must look carefully at what Jesus is going to say here to avoid the tendency to do kingdom of God work using kingdom of this world attitudes.

2 Jesus called a child and stood her in the middle of them. 3 “ I’m telling you the truth,” he said. “Unless you turn inside out and become like children, you will never, ever, get into the kingdom of heaven. 4 So if any of you make yourselves humble like this child, you will be great in the kingdom of heaven.

The text I am using at this point is from “The Kingdom New Testament.” It was translated by Bishop Tom Wright. His way of interpreting the original language is part of his characteristic boldness and integrity. All of the other translations I looked at presuming that the child was a young boy. And that is linguistically possible because the form of the original is neuter. I agree with Wright’s reasons for making this choice. The issue here is to contrast normal ideas of greatness with that of a child who happened to be nearby at the time. On the social scale, the child is going to score a big zero while the sporting hero is will score a nine. If the child in question was a girl, then the comparison becomes even more powerful. Girls were often rated below zero in the world of that time. Girl babies were often left to die in some remote place because they were considered by their parents as undesirable. Jesus makes the point that the culture of the kingdom of God places no value on human measures of worth or status. As such, humanly derived importance will play no part in the proclamation, advance or operation of the kingdom on any day of the week any week throughout eternity; not now, not then, not ever.

This is a huge challenge. Even though humans are the image bearers of their Creator, that image has been disfigured by sin. The idea of adopting a no-status posture seems outrageous. Sin has twisted and contorted the kingdom of God idea of complementary calling into ubiquitous competition. Jesus further emphasises the matter by telling the disciples that they had to completely change direction on this matter. Our translation uses the phrase, “turn inside out.” This requires a reversal of what we have come to think is natural, normal and even virtuous. In our culture, we couch this under the idea of “ambition.” There is nothing wrong with ambition. It is part of what God has created in us. It is selfish ambition that has no place in the kingdom of God. It is wonderful for a person to want things to be better than they are and own a commitment to bringing about change. When that ambition is only concerned with promoting my own welfare at the expense of others it is destructive and wicked.

This kind of ambition comes naturally. We imbibe its characteristics just by waking up and breathing in this world. Taking the posture of a small child – especially a young girl in the culture of Jesus’ day – requires a whole lot of serious deliberate decision making. First, to set aside the natural inclinations. Secondly to adopt a no-status attitude. How do you do that? Thirdly, to pray and practice until our hearts are shaped like that. Now there is a magnificent and worthy challenge. For that to become the culture of a group of people would be mind-blowing. Jesus told the disciples that it was a condition of entry to the kingdom. What does that mean? People from my cultural background tend to be obsessive about rationalistic analysis. We might assume that we won’t be saved and go to heaven. There is a more fitting way (i.e. according to the culture assumed in the New Testament) of looking at this. Jesus is emphasising the fact that this is a principle that is part of the kingdom of heaven from the very beginning. If we try to embrace the kingdom with a hierarchical mindset we will miss it, whether it is our first day or our last. We will only ever embrace what the kingdom of heaven is about WHEN we throw out the idea of worth or success being based on social status. Only when we do a complete u-turn and then adopt the no-status posture will we ever get to see kingdom of God things happening. How sad, that we have sincere kingdom of God goals but think that they will be accomplished by grabbing, holding and defending some social or institutional position. Just as sad is the idea that when we have no such status that will somehow limit our opportunity to see the kingdom of God come.

When we DO take this posture as we serve God’s purpose we have the opportunity of being “great.” I would love us to give some consideration as to what kind of “greatness” that might be? It won’t necessarily have any human notoriety and might never be honoured in the Australian Day list. My suspicions are that it will look, sound and feel a lot like Jesus. It will be known by the number of other people whose lives are benefitted and changed for the good.

5 And if anyone welcomes one such child in my name, they welcome me. 6 “ Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to trip up,” he went on, “it would be better for them to have a huge millstone hung around their neck and be drowned far out in the deep sea.

With a small girl (?) in front of the group, Jesus slightly shifted the direction of the teaching to deal with the issue regarding the lack of worth ascribed to children in general, perhaps girl children in particular. In the day, children were not accorded any social value until they reached puberty. As I have already mentioned, girl babies were often killed or left somewhere horrible to die.[2] This could rank as one of the most radical social statements Jesus ever made. Due largely to the contribution Christianity has made to human wellbeing, the idea of valuing children seems so acceptable to most of us today. It will be hard for us to imagine the impact Jesus began to make in his own cultural setting. With disciples and others around him and a young girl beside him, he began to make revolutionary statements:

  1. little girls like this are to be considered as worthy as I, the Messiah am worthy.
  2. causing little girls like this to stumble carries more serious consequences than the taking of your own life.

But wait, there’s more.

7 It’s a terrible thing for the world that people will be made to stumble. Obstacles are bound to appear and trip people up, but it will be terrible for the person who makes them come. 8 But if your hand or your foot causes you to trip up,” Jesus continued, “cut it off and throw it away. It’s better to enter into life crippled or lame than to go into eternal fire with both hands and both feet! 9 And if your eye causes you to trip up, pull it out and throw it away. Going into life with one eye is better than going into hell with two! 10 Take care not to despise one of these little ones.

  1. bad things happen to innocent people in this world that are not directly caused by other people, their values and decisions.
  2. when they are the result of deliberate decisions by responsible people the consequences for that person are simply horrific.
  3. consequences for culpable damage to little girls like this are far worse than losing your hand, your foot or your eye. So you would be better off taking those drastic steps in order to stop doing those things than it is to experience the ultimate consequences.
  4. People whose culture and conscience permit them to treat such vulnerable people as if they have no value should be warned that such actions will lead to horrible personal consequences for them in the future. Jesus calls people to notice that there are two ways in which bad things happen to otherwise innocent people. This is a powerful statement in its own right. The destructive forces of evil work directly in this world through the brokenness of nature itself.[3] This includes human frailty. Things happen, not through our deliberate choice but because we make sincere mistakes. All of this adds to human pain and misery but does not involve individual fault. Separate from that are the forms of pain and suffering that are willfully and/or knowingly caused. There is probably more suffering in this category than all of the natural disasters combined. Whether it is poverty or curable illness or the range of damage caused by hatred, envy, sexual abuse and addictions of various kinds, the damage is as horrendous as it is avoidable. As often seems the case, the consequences for the victims seem to be far, far greater than for the perpetrators. Jesus reveals that this is not the case. He describes a longer-term set of consequences that are more horrible than losing the use of a part of your body. Those consequences are described by comparison rather than in detail. If I was causing pain to someone it would be better to cut off my hand and avoid creating that pain again, than to suffer the long-term outcomes of such an action. I am not convinced that this is just talking about something that happens in the afterlife. He does mention the fires of hell. I think such persons also do damage to their own personhood in the process. It may create a shame and guilt base or a seared conscience and the like. Whatever those consequences are they are dire and to be avoided.

I tell you this: in heaven, their angels are always gazing on the face of my father who lives there.

The final testament to the status and worth of small vulnerable humans like the one standing next to Jesus comes from heaven; from the very presence of the Father God. We get to see a small glimpse of what would otherwise be unseen and unknown. We are told that in heaven, in the presence of the Father there are angels. These angels have direct access to God. The idea of the angels always gazing on the face of God is a metaphor for intimacy. These angels get to hold court with the Almighty God. But the angels are not there just to indulge themselves in the glory of God. They are representatives. They are assigned to the children Jesus has been talking about. If such children can be discarded by the people on earth, they are both noticed and honoured in the presence of God.

There could hardly be a more poignant contrast. Just imagine a family on earth where the mother has given birth to a baby girl but she or her husband or both decide that she is nothing more than a liability. Perhaps they were not intending to have more children. Perhaps they were wanting a boy who would become an asset to the family when he became strong enough to work. While they are deliberating on these matters the assigned angel in heaven is noticing and begins to do battle with the thoughts and intentions of the parents, seeking to persuade them that this child is loved and valued by God regardless of the circumstances on earth. The Father intended this child to be valued as an image bearer, raised as a presence carrier to be able to fulfil the purposes of this same Father. The kingdom of this world does not agree. She is valued on a totally different scale – economic benefit or liability. She might later be sold to become a sex object to an older man – if she turns out to be desirable. Or she might just be seen as another body to feed in a situation where there is already not enough to go around. So the battle continues. Even if she is left on the river bank on a cold winter’s night to freeze to death, her angel in heaven will bear her on his wings to a place where she will be free to love and be loved forever. It’s not just about the battle. It is a divine testament to intrinsic human worth.

In our day it wouldn’t be a cold river bank. It would be a doctors surgery. It would probably be a pre-natal event rather than post-natal. Today the mistreatment would come from homes plagued by addiction, anger, sexual perversion or violence. Sadly the most vulnerable are failed in every generation and every culture. Angels are still assigned to them and still grieve and fight for them to receive what God has designed and decreed. Stumbling blocks take many different forms. Children in our day and culture may well be caused to stumble as much through over-indulgence as any who were mistreated or deprived. God has created them to be treated as having inestimable worth. When they are born they may be perfect, but not complete. The completion of their journey to wholeness will require understanding and loving nurture.

The worthiness of young vulnerable children cannot be measured by their physical appearance, ability, wholeness, personality or behaviour. Cultures like ours in Australia, and in Western culture generally are so prone to establish a very narrow band criteria for measuring worth. Babies are born with defects and craven weak fathers leave the marriage. Young people get into trouble and are blamed and abandoned by their self-absorbed parents. Children fail to fulfil the expectations of one or both of the parents and are treated with obvious or subtle discrimination. One or other of the children in a household becomes the favourite while the other(s) are consigned to live in their shadow. Parents load their children up with the unfulfilled dreams of their own lives and their sacred uniqueness is sacrificed on the altar of those broken dreams. We need to hear and keep on hearing the words of Jesus in these matters until we learn HOW to value them and how to enable them to grow into their God ordained destiny. Children don’t get a choice about parents and parents don’t get a choice about children. We simply have the opportunity to value what God values and represent what God entrusted to our care. Failure to do so will end in peril: theirs and ours.

 

12“ How does it seem to you? If someone has a hundred sheep and one of them wanders off and goes missing, what will he do? He’ll leave the ninety-nine on the hillside and go off after the one that’s missing, won’t he? 13And when, eventually, he finds it, I’ll tell you the truth: he will celebrate over that one more than over the ninety-nine that didn’t go missing! 14It’s the same with your father in heaven. The last thing he wants is for a single one of these little ones to be lost.

Jesus provides one final picture to show how completely God the Father values each individual child. This is a famous story and probably sums up the heart of God behind the plan for his Son to come in order to “seek and to save that which is lost.”[4]  Having grown up on a sheep farm where my family kept approximately three-thousand wool producing sheep, I can’t remember a single occasion where we noticed that one was lost. We always lost a few. They would sometimes die from disease or from foxes etc. It was a very different situation to the one that presumes the middle-eastern culture of shepherds leading small numbers. It is hard for me to think that a shepherd would know that one was missing from a mob of one hundred, but that would be absolutely true. They would know them all and probably had names for them. I remember being in a meeting with the leadership group of a community organisation. Somehow the leader made a quip that he could never understand why the owner of a hundred sheep would be all that worried if he lost one. Without trying to be smart-mouth and almost in an involuntary way, I blurted back and said, “It would only be so if that lost one was representing your own son or daughter.” He quickly moved to the next item on the agenda, but the point was clear. If you have four children you would grieve beyond measure to lose one. If God has a hundred children each one is precious in its own right. Not one of them is expendable or worthless.

We still in a story where Jesus has called a little girl and asked her to stand in front of everyone. Jesus made it quite clear that neither she nor any other person born on this earth is just a number to God. His esteem and care for each person are described here. He is not prepared to see even one lost without going out to find them and provide a way for them to come home. In the context of this story Jesus has, perhaps, taken the human person with the least social worth – a little girl like the many who were considered so unworthy that they could be left in the cold to die. How wonderfully poignant it was that Christians all around the Mediterranean became famous for patrolling the common abandonment places and picking up the baby girls, bringing them to their homes and lovingly raising them as part of their own families. There could be no greater expression of the mission of Jesus and the heart of the Father than this.

We need to listen to this. It is not just about some otherwise unknown and neglected child. It is not just a sad little excerpt from a TV news story that comes and goes. We sigh at the signs of lostness on the screen but can quickly move on to the next story and the next and the next. We so need the heart of God here. If we had ninety-nine percent of any town following Jesus we would be running conferences telling churches everywhere how we did it. God would not be as interested in being part of those conferences as he would be out seeking the one percent who were still lost from his love and his house.

IF THIS WAS BEING FULFILLED IN MY LIFE, WHAT WOULD IT LOOK LIKE?

  1. I would get used to doing u-turns. I will so easily and readily defend some kind of human status: as a husband, a father, a citizen, a Christian leader, my accumulated knowledge and the opinions I form. All of these become snares and want to tell me I have the ability and therefore status. I do have abilities of course and I am certain God wants me to use them. It is just that I have to keep on learning that those abilities are not the measure of my status. I can still find myself posturing to win an argument just to prove that I am right and someone else is wrong. I am still able to denigrate people who disagree with me. So I need to keep on u-turning and starting again from the bottom. As if humanly contrived status ever achieved anything of value in the kingdom of God in and of itself.
  2. Greatness: I need to keep the definition described by Jesus in front of me. I need to deliberately assume the least status and work from that platform rather than waiting until I have gained some human advantage and then presuming such advantage will be a vehicle for the kingdom. It will never be the case.
  3. I have been given the highest status anyone could ever wish for. I am a son of God and servant of Jesus Christ. From that exalted position, I should be willing to forego the accolades of human recognition and the trappings of human success in order to walk a journey of proclaiming the kingdom of God and offering it to everyone from a no-status position. I need to keep learning that I am yoked together with Jesus and powered by the Holy Spirit. That’s all I need to fulfil my purpose. Recognition and human reward are shallow, deceitful and of no value in the kingdom of God.
  4. I need to take special notice of the people who are most vulnerable and those who are considered least worthy in any group of people I might find myself involved with. My calling is to see people from a different point of view. I need to practice something I saw a great man doing – going to the person in the group he thought might be considered the least important and making sure they feel accepted and important. This will always be so of my children and their children, not to mention other people’s children. They need to be protected from harm but not from the challenge. They need to be shielded from neglect but not from hope. They need to be believed in but not pampered and indulged. This is a community responsibility, not just a nuclear family issue. I must be willing to value the worst in order to give them a shot at the best.
  5. I want my heart to beat with the same loving pulse as the Shepherd in search of one lost little one. I want to overcome my selfishness. I want to break down my self-imposed limitations. I want to care more about seeking lost little ones than watching the next episode of my favourite TV series or going on my next holiday to the beach. I want to relate to people based on lostness. The more they are lost the more I want my heart to go out to them and meet them with the offer of a way back to safety in the warmth of Jesus/cross-like love.

HOW THE GOSPEL WAS PROCLAIMED

  1. The good news of the kingdom is told here in the way Jesus decommissions human arrogance and the futile quest for human success, status and power. As Paul later says, “everything that gave me human status, I now realise was nothing more than garbage compared to the opportunity to know Christ.”[5] The good news is that we can simply opt out of that race. We can fail to show up at any starting line that might be drawn with other competitors. We can turn away from the fight. There is no value in winning that competition. Instead, we can make ourselves nothing, like Jesus did [6] and treat every other person as being more important than we are in any given situation. That way we will qualify to see the kingdom of God proclaimed and advanced.
  2. The gospel was also proclaimed as Jesus called the adults to recognise the treasures they were neglecting right in their midst. I doubt that the little girl (?) Jesus beckoned to the centre of the gathering was noticed by anyone – save her parents, perhaps. I doubt that anyone present looked at her like her assigned heavenly angel did that day and every day. The message was that these little ones were a treasured trust from heaven. They were to be guided and moulded to love God and serve his purpose. They were to be treated as image bearers of divinity from the moment they were conceived, let alone born. Like all gospel messages, this one had consequences based upon acceptance or rejection. Accept and young lives would be valued and moulded in a loving environment – prepared to take their place in life as worthy sons and daughters of God and of their earthly parents. Reject and the consequences inside the neglecters would be dire and drastic. These little ones are neither expendable nor avoidable. Relinquishing this responsibility can only court tragedy. That is a clear and definitive gospel message.
  3. There could hardly be a more powerful and central story of the gospel than the idea of a shepherd becoming aware that one out of a hundred is not accounted for. From that point on all he can think about is leaving the ninety-nine and going after the one. I want to be that gospel message as well as live it as well as proclaim it.

[1]         Part of Jesus’ comparison between John the Baptist and members of the Kingdom of God. See Matthew 11

[2]         It was a known fact in the first few Christian centuries that Christian families used to patrol known baby abandonment places in order to rescue unwanted babies left there to die. As a result, the churches included the largest numbers of marriageable young women. It actually became a significant growth factor for new (male) believers.

[3]         Eg. In Romans 8 Paul refers to the fact that the natural order has been impacted by people’s decision to live independently from God (sin). We get to see this through natural deprivation and disasters: floods, tsunamis etc. The animal kingdom also suffers: e.g. survival of the fittest. Paul tells us that this dysfunction expresses a grief as the created order waits for the relationship between God and his children to be restored.

[4]         This verse (v. 11 in some versions) is omitted from more recent translations on the basis of textual reliability but is still reliable in that it was quoted by Jesus in relation to Zacchaeus, the tax collector (see Luke 19:10).

[5]         See Philippians 3

[6]         see Philippians 2

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About Brian

Passionate follower of Jesus. Member of a family that keeps on growing because I keep on meeting up with more great people from every nation and background who I belong to because of Jesus. Husband of an amazing woman, father of four forgiving kids and eight almost perfect grandkids. And loving it.