Matthew 18:1-20 / Proper 18A/ 04 September 2011 / Holy Trinity – Hacienda Heights, CA
“Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Interesting question. I wonder what the disciples had in mind. Were they thinking of themselves? They would be later on in the upper room on the night Jesus was betrayed to death, the same night in which He gave them His Body and Blood in the context of the Passover. There they argued about which of the was the greatest. They’d argued about it on the way.
How would you answer that? How do you measure greatness? We usually think of greatness in terms of achievement and accomplishment. Great men and women accomplish great things, they make a great difference, they make a significant contribution. In sports we think of the ones who are at the top of their game, the ones who dominate, the ones who make the difference between winning and losing. In business the great ones are the titans of industry, the ones who build huge companies, employ thousands of people, make billions of dollars. In politics, the great ones are the ones who change the course of history, the ones who make history.
Greatness is about power and influence. Great people don’t simply live in the world, they rearrange the world. That’s greatness, at least among the kingdoms of this world. But what about the kingdom of heaven? What about this kingdom in which the last come in first and the first wind up dead last, this kingdom that begins almost imperceptibly small and insignificant like a mustard seed or a bit of yeast. What about the kingdom of heaven?
Jesus calls over a little child. We tend to think of children as cute and innocent. We idolize childhood. In Jesus’ day, children were thought of pretty much as losers, liabilities until they could work the land or the family fishing business, or if you were a girl, get married and have babies. Childhood was apprenticeship in Jesus’ day, training to get to the serious business of adulthood and the sooner the better. There was no time to waste on childish fun and games.
It must must have struck the disciples as very strange to have Jesus stick a little kid in their midst and say, “There’s greatness for you. This little one. And unless you turn (that is, repent) and become like this little guy, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” It’s kind of like the opposite of Disneyland. At Disneyland you have to be this big or bigger to go on the cool rides. In the kingdom of heaven, you must be this smaller or smaller or you will never get in. We think you have to be big to be great. Isn’t “great” just another word for “big?” In fact, they even go together. “Great big.” We don’t say “great little” or “little great.”
Unless you turn and change your way of looking at things, unless you become little you cannot know the greatness of the kingdom of heaven. It’s the greatness of humility, of being humbled, of becoming as nothing. John the Baptizer, whom Jesus called “the greatest to be born of woman,” said pointing to Jesus, “He must increase, and I must decrease.” Greatness in the kingdom of heaven is the humility of a little child.
It’s not about achievement. It’s not about your religious works and accomplishments. Little children don’t have achievements or works or accomplishments. They live by grace through faith (trust) in another. They have little to give. They are “giveable to,” on the receiving end of things. Which makes them perfect pictures of faith. And faith is the point here. The greatness of faith, trust in Jesus and what He has done for you and what He gives to you, that’s greatness in the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus is zealous for faith. He guards the little ones of faith closely with dire warning to those who would cause them to stumble. I prefer to translate “cause to sin” as “cause to stumble” like sticking your foot out in front of someone to trip them, or putting a rock in their path that they trip over. The Greek word is “scandalizo” from which we get “scandalize.” A scandalon is a stumbling point, something that causes someone to stumble or trip. Jesus says that whoever causes one of the little ones who believe in Him to stumble in their faith would be better off having a large millstone tied around his neck and be drowned in the depths of the sea.
This makes more sense of the next paragraph. The world is full of such stumbling blocks, Jesus said. Almost everything you see and hear in this world is a potential trip point to faith. And that’s how it must be, Jesus says. That’s the nature of faith that trusts not in the seen but unseen and the heard. If your hand or foot causes you to stumble in faith, Jesus says it would be better to chop it off and enter life maimed than go whole hog to hell. And if your eye causes you to stumble in faith, it would be better to gouge it out and enter life with one eye than be cast into hell with both eyes wide open.
This isn’t moral improvement through dismemberment, otherwise there would be church loads full of one-eyed, one-handed Christians. Jesus’ point is that if what you do with your hands or where you go with your feet or what you see with your eyes causes you to stumble in your trust in Jesus’ death and resurrection and His Word that delivers these to you, you’d be better off crippled, maimed and blind so that you couldn’t see or do anything. If you doubt for a second that you don’t earn your way into kingdom greatness but what you do, then look at that sentence again. It’s better to be blind than to trust your eyes; better to be without a foot than to trust your walk, better to be without a hand than to trust your works.
You see, that’s what the world finds scandalous. The world expects religious people to be moral, and it goes out of its way to point out where they fail. Just look at the way religion is treated in the papers and on television and on the campaign trail. The world looks for the hypocrisies and inconsistencies. And the world will judge you and criticize you and tell you what it means to be a good Christian. It will point out that you don’t keep the 10 commandments, you’re not nice to other people, you don’t do the Sermon on the Mount. And the world would be right. And it’s even worse than that.
But what the world cannot stomach or fathom, what flies in the face of reason and senses is that fact that a sinner stands justified before God by God’s undeserved kindness, through nothing more or else than trust in Jesus’ perfect righteousness and His sacrificial death. What the world cannot fathom and is utterly scandalized over is that God actually forgives His enemies and justifies the ungodly. And that’s precisely where the scandal is, the stumbling block, the tripping point.
And we join in that worldly chorus when we begin justifying ourselves, or telling others to shape up and get with the program or they won’t make it in the kingdom. And when we measure kingdom greatness in terms of the world’s greatness and not that of the little believing child. It’s not about doing but trust. It’s not about chopping of hands and feet and gouging out eyes in order to become pleasing to God, it’s about how there is nothing you can do to become pleasing to God but you don’t have to. God has done what it takes for Him to be pleased with you.
Jesus drives the point home with a parable. “What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them goes away, doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine on the mountain and go searching for the lost one?” Well, what do you think? The world would tend to write that one sheep off as a dead asset. What do we say? A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Ninety nine sheep safely in the flock are worth a lot more than one chronically wandering sheep. And yet it is the joy of the Good Shepherd to seek and to save. It is precisely the sheep in its lostness that draws the seeking and saving attention of the Lord’s shepherding, and He is restless until we are found safe and sound, not wanting one of these little ones to perish.
You won’t understand the love of God in Christ until you understand this shepherd who is willing to lose all in order to save one who doesn’t deserve to be saved. You’re that sheep. He came to save you. Yes, the world, that’s nice. You. Specifically. You in your helplessness, your lostness, your death. For the joy set before Him, for the joy of returning you to the Father’s fold, for the joy of forgiving you, for the joy of your salvation, Jesus endured the cross and scorned its shame. He became Sin for you, He entered our wilderness of Sin and Death. He became the stumbling block to Religion, the stone the builder’s of Israel rejected. He died the cursed death so that you, baptized and believing as one of His little ones, might enter the kingdom of heaven through the small and narrow door of His death and resurrection.
He sought you in His death and He found you. He baptized you. He absolved you. You feeds you. He sustains you. He carries you to the flock of His Father’s kingdom with the joy of a shepherd who has just found His favored, lost sheep.
That brings us to the last thought of today’s rich Gospel text and to the Church. The Church, as Luther put it, is a “mouth house of forgiveness.” A place where this seeking, saving love of God in Christ comes to bear on sinners. We have a charge. If your brother or sister sins against you, go to him. The world would have you go to get even. Christ would have you go to forgive as you have been forgiven. Go to him. Tell him with the intent and purpose of forgiving. If he refuses, bring a couple of others. The whole church, if necessary. Can you imagine congregational life if we did this? Can you imagine the impact of the church in the world if we actually forgave one another and sought out opportunities to forgive? Sadly, it doesn’t happen all that often. We leave. We check out. We go somewhere else. We avoid. And in the end, we only cheat and hurt ourselves.
Go to him. Go to your brother or your sister who has sinned against you. Conflict avoidance is not a good thing here. Forgiveness is at stake. This isn’t about getting even or gaining your “pound of flesh.” This is about forgiveness, freedom and life. This is what the Church is to be about – binding and loosing. Binding Sin. Liberating sinners. Getting rid of every obstacle to faith, every stumbling block. Forgiving; being forgiven. With the confidence that what goes on here on earth also goes on in heaven with God. Jesus is bound to His Church as Bride and Groom. They are one flesh. What she says in His Name, He says. What she does in His Name, He does. And even as small a gathering as two or three in the Name of Jesus has the promise that He will be there too, right there in the midst of them.
Two or three may not seem like much of a congregation. Certainly not a great one by today’s mega-church standards. But it is a holy quorum in the eyes of the Lord. Jesus is fully present there in the humblest of gatherings with the fulness of His gifts. A congregation as few as two or three gather together in the Name of Jesus has the promise of His presence.
We learned something about greatness in the kingdom of heaven today – it’s a little child, a lost sheep, a congregation of two or three, a crucified Savior who comes in the humility of simple water, spoken words, bread and wine. All for the joy of seeking and saving you, a sinner redeemed in Jesus.
In the name of Jesus,