Pentecost 14 “Caring for the Greatest”
September 6, 2020 – Matthew 18:4
May you receive from God the good you have not deserved, not get the bad you have, and may you have peace with God through the blood of our Saviour, Jesus Christ.
The Child Example
Look at Caleb. Brothers and Sisters, I want you to bring yourself down to his level. In fact, I want you to see him as an example of the greatest Christian here. I do not want you to look at his carefree perspective or his childhood innocence. Those aspects are not what is important here.
I want you to be like him in that he is needy. Needy like he will desperately scream “snack, snack, snack!” every morning when he is hungry and throughout the day. He will scream it like he will die very soon if he does not get it.
Be like him in that he cannot be left alone around water because he could drown himself. He needs constant adult supervision.
Be like him in that he needs his messy diapers constantly changed by an adult or that he does not quite understand logic yet. He does not quite realize that if he spills a cup of milk on himself, it will be cold and wet and he could clean it up but instead panics screaming “uh-oh uh-oh uh-oh!” until he receives the help he needs.
This is not the most charitable picture of Caleb or children in general. We were all at one point children and often forget we were just as illogical, dependent, vulnerable, and needy. If you feel a bit shocked that I am telling you from the pulpit to be like him in all of these weak ways; just imagine how the disciples felt when Jesus took a child and set the child before the disciples as the example of the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. It is important to realize that at the time Jesus did this, children were seen as low class, unfortunately draining, people. In fact, many different cultures throughout time viewed children as creatures they would rather ignore until they are older and these weak characteristics go away or simply sacrifice them if they were not wanted. What we’ve grown up in, where children are loved greatly and respected is not as common of a mindset as you would think. As it is, that mindset appears to be changing.
When you look at the statistics in all of Canada, in 2017 there were 370,000 births and 100,000 abortions. That is over a quarter of our population, of what would be our children, being slaughtered. Why? A big reason for many people is they cannot financially, or emotionally, afford them. Yes, it is true that children take a lot. They are very dependent, and they take years before they can even start to contribute to a household – and then they leave and still require more help! In a business model they would be baggage that would need to be cut off.
For Jesus, He is presenting a lowly child as an example of the greatest in Heaven. He says that people who humble themselves and become like icky, sticky, whiney, draining dependents are the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
Why would Jesus say this? Jesus says this in direct response to a question from the disciples “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”
He is teaching them a lesson and turning their perspective upside down. They are trying to figure out, among those who have heard of Jesus and come under His kingdom, who is most important. Who deserves the greatest attention and respect. As the Lutheran theologian, Gibb’s, puts it:
“Jesus is redefining the greatest in the reign of heaven as the one who is like a child, the weakest, the most dependent, and the most vulnerable. In this discourse [Matthew 18:1-35], then, Jesus calls upon his disciples to regard such needy fellow disciples as the most important people of all and worthy of virtually unlimited care and forgiveness.”
The movement here is not just viewing children as the greatest but as any of us who are weak, dependent., and vulnerable. That person who is not in church this morning? They are the greatest in God’s kingdom. That person who has been struggling for years with their faith? They are the greatest in the Kingdom. The many people who have been confirmed and lost over the years? They are who God wants us to see as the greatest in the kingdom. They are not being fed, they are not knowing God’s love here or through us. They are lost and alone under the threat of the devil.
This principle is kept throughout Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 18. The little ones who are dependent or struggling are to be received and loved and never led into sin. These little ones are often like easily misled sheep. They are our brothers and sisters and when they wander, we are to search them out and bring them back to spiritual safety and nourishment. The Father’s will is that not one of them should be lost.
This theme continues into the next section where Jesus talks about a brother who is caught in sin and how we are to deal with it. This passage is often used to show how we are to confront a fellow Christian one on one. Bring others in turn, and eventually, if the person does not turn away from their sin, how to excommunicate them from the church. The heart of this passage, however, is to seek after the one caught in sin as a fellow disciple who God loves and calls back. The one who, by worldly standards is weak and lowly, yet who to God is the greatest in His kingdom.
Our Old Testament lesson this morning from Ezekiel emphasizes the importance of correcting someone who is caught in sin. God will hold you and I accountable for not warning someone of their sin. If we warn them, do what we can to bring them back, and they still will not listen, they will receive God’s wrath, but we will not be held accountable for unlovingly leaving them in their sin. But we are to regard the one caught in sin as the one who is greatest in the kingdom and most deserving of all our care.
We are to be drained seeking after these who have gone astray; no matter if they are “doing it to themselves” or not. Jesus, when He came to the world, did not stop short of the cross saying “Wow! These people really deserve the wrath of God they deserve. They are like a dog to its vomit! I think I’ll save myself and not go to the cross.” If He stopped short of the cross because he saw what we did to urselves, we would have no hope! If Christ thought about Himself first and not of us, we would be stuck in our mess bound to suffer God’s eternal wrath for our neglect and indifference to our neighbour. Jesus humbled Himself to the point of death on the cross! He thought of us, the weak, lowly, the struggling, and He sought us out to save us from our sin.
The most powerful teaching of all in Matthew 18 comes in what continues after our reading for today ends. The most powerful teaching comes after Peter puts a limit on the forgiveness that he is willing to offer a fellow disciple who has sinned against him:
The teaching continues as follows: Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.
23 “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants.[a] 24 When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents.[b] 25 And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. 26 So the servant[c] fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii,[d] and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. 31 When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. 32 Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers,[e] until he should pay all his debt. 35 So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
Jesus, after hearing about the limit Peter places on forgiveness, destroys the limit by placing the relationships between disciples in the context of the limitless grace and forgiveness of the Father (18:21–35). In this remarkable teaching of Jesus, the most important Christian in the fellowship of those who believe in the reign of God in Jesus is the one who is weakest, struggling the most, most in need of patience and nurture and forgiveness.
Sought after, loved and forgiven, brothers and sisters in Christ, you know who you need to go to. You know who is the greatest in the kingdom of Heaven. Give them your care as Christ confronts and cares for you.