Audio transcript available soon.
Pentecost 13A Matthew 18:10-20
Do you remember a fortnight ago we had Peter’s great declaration about Jesus, Messiah and Son of God, and Jesus telling him that on him he would build his church? Well, here is another passage that relates to how we should behave as a church community. Last week we considered how we as individuals should respond when we see people in need, but of course that individual responsibility also carries over into the church- we as a church are called to respond to the little ones, as if we are responding to Jesus. This passage reminds us that whenever we gather, even two or three of us, Jesus is there among us- so this means that Jesus is a witness to every thing that we do or say as a church! What kind of God calls us to this life together? God the trinity is a God in relationship- God, Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer dancing the dance of love together.
The Lectionary is a funny thing- here we have the second half of a section. Let me just read you the first 10 verses of this section that were omitted.
At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ 2 He called a child, whom he put among them, 3 and said, ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5 Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.
6 ‘If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea. 7 Woe to the world because of stumbling-blocks! Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the stumbling-block comes!
8 ‘If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life maimed or lame than to have two hands or two feet and to be thrown into the eternal fire. 9 And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into the hell[a] of fire.
So this bit of teaching begins with a question about who is the greatest. The disciples are just like everyone else- they are interested in power, and who has it. It is unclear from this passage whether they were thinking about themselves in terms of who would be the most important or whether it was a more general question. Jesus answers them with a very personal answer, which has communal implications; he says unless you change (he literally says “turn around”) and become like little children you will never enter the Kingdom of heaven. So the disciples are being called to change their attitude to others! And what is it about children- well it is their humility, that Jesus values and requires in his followers, who make up the community of the church.
And then these humble people, or little ones as Jesus then calls them are very precious to Jesus- he says that if you cause one of them to stumble you might as well have been drowned at birth. And then he says that occasions for stumbling are bound to come- we can all stumble- but woe to the one who causes the problem-if, in fact, your hand or foot or eye causes you to stumble rip it out! Now this is obviously hyperbole, but sadly the consequences of stumbling is that same eternal fire that we met last week in the picture of judgement.
Then we get up to today’s section of the chapter. “Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones” Jesus says. Now this is frightening, I think, because it is so easy to despise other people, to not count their worth as God does. Remember in the passage we looked at last week when the goats failed to care for people who were the least of these- that’s the little ones? We have to respect them and look after them- they are so precious to Jesus that he wants them all to come in to the kingdom and not to be lost. So once again the bottom line is that we are called to love, to love people who others think are not important, to love people who are hungry, thirsty, strangers, in need and in prison as well as the most humble in our own ranks. This is about how we as a community behave.
I am going to pause for a minute and let you think about who are the little ones, here in this congregation, that you might cause to stumble. And then think of the people who you may have already caused to stumble because of a lack of love.
Pause for a minute
Jesus calls us to seek out and care for the lost. Jesus also calls us to solve our differences in a gentle and loving manner. Every community, because it is made up of fragile and broken people, has conflict in its ranks. Here Jesus tells us what to do- he gives us a model for resolution and a very terrible consequence of failure. The process goes as follows- talk to the person one on one. This does not mean that you tell all your friends the terrible thing they have done and have a good bitch about them and then go to see them- no, that would be totally counterproductive. Seek them out and speak reasonably. But if the matter cannot be resolved set up a meeting with some others- now, the purpose is not for them to make a judgement but simply so that there are witnesses to the conversation, if that fails, then the whole church, I think perhaps the leaders are indicated here, should listen to the matter. That is all very full-on, isn’t it? I am hoping, that most of our disputes can be solved at the first stage by loving and caring for one another. If the problem cannot be sorted out the church, as a whole, not one person, is to treat them as a Gentile and a Tax-collector. Now, we all know that these people were outcasts in Jewish society. However, let me remind you of how Jesus treated gentiles,- he talked to them, he healed them, he used them to spread the good news of the Kingdom of God, and as for tax-collectors- well just look at Matthew himself and Zaccheus- Jesus loved them and brought them in. If the community of faith does bind people, then they will also be bound in heaven. There is that legal language again. Do we want that? Do we want to judge who is in and who is out? We need to consider very carefully.
And then comes something that may be consoling, but may also be confronting. Jesus says that when two of us agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by his Father in heaven. I don’t know what this means- it certainly doesn’t mean that we can manipulate God into doing things just by agreeing- but there is something very powerful about us when we are working together in love. For when two or three of us are gathered, in Jesus name, he is there among us. This is the real presence of Christ, with us, here and now. I find this confronting because it makes me realize that everytime we are gathered, in any kind of a group convened by the church, Jesus is there and listening. If we took this seriously, if we realized its truth, it would change the way we spoke about others, wouldn’t it? If Jesus was making a third or a fourth in every gossipy conversation, would we speak differently? If Jesus was listening when we spoke in a racist way, or a demonizing way about another group of people, would we still say it? All this should lead us to examine ourselves, and to change our behavior. We need to learn both to forgive others and to be forgiven, David will tell you more about that next week.
Jesus calls us to care for each other and to care for those who are the little ones, the frail and the humble, outside and within our community. We are to care for each other by resolving our differences in a way that does honour to God’s precious children. We are to be like God, God’sself, dancing the dance of love, together. And why? Because it is love that characterizes God, and love that is to characterize us. Then we will be able to take our places in the Kingdom of heaven.