Greatness, Stumbling Blocks, and Care for the Little Ones (Mt 18:1-14) As noted in the previous post, there are many verses that come between the gospel readings for the 22nd and 23rd Sundays in Ordinary Time, Year A. It seems to me to take a moment and at least consider of the “in between” passages before moving on to Mt. 18:15
1 At that time the disciples approached Jesus and said, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”2 He called a child over, placed it in their midst,3 and said, “Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.4 Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.5 And whoever receives one child such as this in my name receives me.
6 “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.7 Woe to the world because of things that cause sin! Such things must come, but woe to the one through whom they come!8 If your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter into life maimed or crippled than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into eternal fire.9 And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter into life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into fiery Gehenna.10 “See that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that their angels in heaven always look upon the face of my heavenly Father.11 12 What is your opinion? If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them goes astray, will he not leave the ninety-nine in the hills and go in search of the stray?13 And if he finds it, amen, I say to you, he rejoices more over it than over the ninety-nine that did not stray.14 In just the same way, it is not the will of your heavenly Father that one of these little ones be lost.
“Who is greatest in the kingdom of Heaven?” is a very narrow discussion in Mark 9:33-34 between the apostles on their relative importance. Here in Matthew the discussion is broader, but the intent is the same. People are trying to understand where, how and why they fit it to this newly forming community. Consider it in this light: if Jesus claims a special relation with the ‘king’ of heaven, how do the authority structures of this new kingdom of heaven relate to those of ‘the kings of the earth’? At stake is not a question of church hierarchies or grades of importance in heaven, but about the whole principle of importance in God’s sight. These people are part of a culture that treats questions of rank very seriously. Naturally, they ask how then are they to be treated in God’s society?
Jesus’ answer is radical, amounting to a total reversal of human value: “Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children…” In first century Jewish life, a child was a person of no particular importance. Children were subject to the authority of the elders, not taken seriously except as a responsibility, one to be looked after, and not one to be considered as a model. To turn and become like children is therefore a radical reorientation from the accepted world view.
The phrase “turn and become” uses the simple verb strephomai (‘turn’). Matthew does not use the word, as does Luke, to speak to conversion (metanoia) in which one would aspire to characteristic quality of children, such as humility, innocence, receptiveness or trustfulness. It is the status of the child that is the point – complete dependence on, and trust in, their parents. To be great, the disciples must have that same status with respect to God. The ‘greatness’ of such ‘children’ lies in their relationship to Jesus.
Disciples are vulnerable, and stumbling-blocks are a real danger. They can be found both in ourselves (vv. 8–9) and in other members of the disciple-group (vv. 6–7) and they are a danger to the “little ones.” Here the little ones here are not only the less important or more vulnerable members of the congregation, though what is said here applies particularly to them. Anyone who trips a fellow disciple, whether by attitude or by action, or even by failure to act, incurs such judgment that by comparison a quick drowning would be merciful. The seriousness of all this is seen in “It would be better for him to” suggesting not only that it would benefit the community to be rid of him, but as the Greek makes it clear, that it is preferable from his point of view too.
The ‘little ones’ are the ordinary Christians, who in their vulnerability need the care of their fellow-disciples. That message is now backed up with the thought that God’s care extends to every one of them. It is in this connection that Matthew includes the parable of the straying sheep – even the one is important. To look down upon (despise) the one is to show that you have not grasped the principle of true greatness (vv. 1–5). It is also to part company with my Father, to whom everyone is important. The point is clear, and the implication for the disciple is that he must share God’s concern for each ‘little one.’ Mt 18:15-20 will show what this means in practice.