PREPARING TO READ MATTHEW 18
There’s a lot here in this chapter — it’s one of the five teaching blocks that reminds us of the Pentateuch, the five books of Moses. Let’s start with what Jesus says about children, and if the post gets too long, which I predict, then I’ll post another on the next two teaching topics of Jesus: a classic text on accountability to brothers and sisters in the church when we sin, and a story that digs deep into God’s mercy and how we in turn ought to be merciful.
Who are the children Jesus is talking about? Literal children and later in the chapter he’s probably talking about all vulnerable people society tends to hide our faces from: handicapped, maimed, mentally ill, homeless, immigrants.
Remember how Jesus gets into this topic about children. The disciples have asked him a question, I’m paraphrasing what I think they are asking in today’s terms: “In this new kingdom of yours, how does someone work their way up the ladder of success?”
Jesus surprises them with his answer. Be like a child. This shouldn’t be difficult for some of us who act like children! I don’t think Jesus is really talking about being childish but humbling ourselves to be like a child.
There are shades of the ancient view still operative in some of us today: we think a child is really not a full human yet. We think their questions, dignity, identity, feelings are less important than adults. I fall into this. I endeavor to greet all children at our church, but I can also pass over them at times when they seem not to understand the gravity of my job or seem to want someone to play with and take up my time. We don’t think their fears, questions, futures, dignity matters as much as adults.
Maybe it was worse in the ancient world, but I don’t know. There is plenty of evidence our world enslaves, prostitutes, gets pleasure from abusing children, so there’s no judging the ancient world here. But it’s important to understand that Jesus knew adults in his time did not think children to be very important. Did he kneel down next to a girl? A girl would have been the least important to adults, nearly invisible. For some adult men, the girl is not important until she has sexuality. For others, shamefully, sexuality is forced on the little girl.
Jesus takes all this and completely turns it around. This little girl is important as a human being, an image bearer of God, and if you want to know how to be great, be like this little girl. Humble yourself, and become like her.
Then Jesus shocks further. Mess with this girl, and here’s what is going to happen to you. The center hole of a milestone wheel — the kind donkey’s pull around to mill grain — gets hung on your head and you get thrown into the deepest part of the sea. Get the picture? Jesus is serious about people causing little ones to “stumble” or be misled from God.
Greg Taylor preaches for The Journey. Greg’s wife, Jill, teaches math at Broken Arrow High School and Tulsa Community College. Greg and Jill have three adult children, Ashley, Anna, and Jacob. Greg is the author of many books, including his latest co-authored with Randy Harris, Daring Faith: Meeting Jesus in the Book of John.