The last two days we have read from Matthew 18 in Morning Prayer. I direct you to Tom Wright (Matthew for Everyone) as a guide, to get insight into Jesus' thinking.
The chapter begins with a focus on children, "the little one." The status of children in the Ancient world was abysmal. Wright indicates that in some places they were considered only half human, and frequently babies were exposed or sold into slavery because it was too expensive to feed another mouth. Girls, he said, were especially vulnerable to abuse and death. The Gospel of Jesus includes the cross. The cross is the ultimate negation of one's humanity. Jesus' teaching that we should become like children is another angle on carrying the cross.
We live in a culture of enhanced awareness of oppression. Every group is voicing its victim status with various demands for justice. The idea that Black lives matter, that women are equal to men, that the alien and immigrant have human status, that the mentally and physically handicapped are people, and that the unborn are deserving of life are all connected to the Western World's embrace of the teaching of Jesus. The "child" (a real child) is a metaphor for everyone whose humanity is negated. The poor, the needy, the outcast--even the criminal--are called to be children of God.
The importance of each human person to His heavenly Father, Jesus says, is absolute. The word picture, the shepherd searching for a lost sheep and leaving the ninety nine behind, illustrates the idea that no one can be thrown away. No one. All life is precious in the eyes of God. All human beings matter.
Another word image is less pastoral, but equally stunning. Jesus says do not harm the little one. Racism, sexism, violence, abortion--these and other human sins are offenses against the weak and are also sins against Jesus. He will be their champion and avenger. You would be better off with a rope tied around your neck, attached to a huge stone and thrown into the middle of the sea, Jesus said, then to harm a little one.
Here, of course, it gets political, doesn't it? Here is where our interpretations, reflecting our assumptions and politics, employ Jesus to our own ends. Here is where the Social Justice Warriors and the Old Time Religion enter into endless battle. I will refrain from commenting on that battle, besides, most folks have made their minds up. But I would caution us all, that Jesus is not laying down a mandate for politics or moral policing here. He issues a warning, do not lead the little one astray. Lead astray includes leading the little one away from Him, away from the truth, away from repentance and worship and obedience to the Word of the Lord. That would be the problem, wouldn't it? We prefer to choose only some parts...
The other issue is the invitation. Jesus is not laying down a program for social justice here, He is asking each of us to change. Become a child. Become a little one. Negate yourself and your agenda. Be a child, be my child. Be part of my flock, little lost lamb. Jesus makes it clear, if you do not become like a child you will never enter into the Kingdom. Become a child or perish...
What does it mean? Children are self centered and demanding, throwing fits and wanting their way, so being a child is easy, right? Once more, we are called to context. Children in our culture, at least the group I am part of, are the centerpiece. We schedule our lives around them. This was not so in Jesus' day. I return to my opening point, to become a child is akin to picking up the cross and dying to self. For Jesus and His followers, a child has no status, no claim, no rights, no importance. A child is a nobody. A child is not demanding. A child is dependent upon grace for survival. Jesus loves the children and they have value because He values them. He gives them value.
The church of Jesus, then, was a group of nobodies given value by His mercy and love. Repeatedly, Jesus makes clear that our attitude toward one another (in the church) was to be humble and loving. Servant, or slave, is another early church word image. We are slaves of God, the Apostle wrote. We are slaves of God, Jesus said. In fact, taken from Isaiah, one of the titles of Jesus is Suffering Slave/Servant of God.
In the church, mutual love and kindness rule the day. However, people are sinners. No one is perfect. At times we do things which hurt others. Jesus lays down a three stage plan for dealing with sins and offenses. Jesus does not call us to ignore it or pretend it did not happen. Jesus did not say, evil is fine, just ignore it. What did Jesus say?
Go to the person who sinned against you. Tell them what they did. Reconciliation has several dimensions. You must forgive those who harm you. They must repent and make amends. You release them from the debt and, to the extent possible, seek a more loving relationship. If they refuse to repent, then bring in two or three others. These are the witnesses. These are 'the other' who can provide insight. All of us have darkened minds/hearts. All of us perceive through our own filters. The witnesses, like a marriage counselor, provide us with the wisdom of the other and free us from our own biased opinion. If, however, this fails, then, Jesus says, we must go to the church. Sadly, for most of us, this option does not exist. In my life as a priest I have never experienced this. I know some churches do have this practice. It is not flawless and I have dealt with the victims of the malfunctions on several occasions. However, it is the teaching in Matthew that the church sits as the final arbiter. If reconciliation does not take place, Jesus says, then treat them like a tax collector of Gentile. Jesus speaks as a Jew here. Jews are a people. Jews are in fellowship with one another. Tax collectors were Jews who betrayed their people and worked for Rome (an oppressor). Gentiles are pagan people who reject the God of Israel and God's people. Jesus says, if you have done all you can to reconcile and it doesn't work, then break fellowship. Treat them as an outsider.
This is where it seems that Jesus muddies the water. Fellowship limitations--insiders and outsiders, members and non-members--seems to run counter to His teaching. I can hear the universalists rise in revolt. But, of course, Jesus is no modern (or post modern) American. Jesus is not a Right wing conservative Evangelical, nor is He a Social Justice Warrior (nor is He easily identifiable with any particular contemporary group). Our modern politics and contemporary beliefs are under His judgment, too.
There are outsiders, people with whom we do not have fellowship. That is why He sends us in mission, to draw them in. Lost sheep do wander away, even if the Father loves them all. Sometimes people break fellowship and divide. The sad reality of the church: Catholic and Orthodox split. Catholic and Protestant split. Protestant splits over and over into denominations. Denominations splint into varieties of sub-species of denominations. There is no repentance. There is no reconciliation. There are lots and lots of varieties. Each one right and wrong in its own unique ways.
This is why I believe we need a Savior to come. I think we must work to reconcile, with God and one another. I also know that we will fail, ultimately, to complete the task. But, if we become like children, refusing to seek our own glory, refusing to see ourselves as independent, autonomous and right, then there is hope.
It is hard to get this right. Very hard. Childlike can become childish. Self-negating can devolve from Christian holiness into victimhood and debilitating self hatred. A thin line divides true Christianity from a sick caricature. Yet, it is worth the trouble. Becoming a child is the only way to enter the kingdom. Dying to self. Trusting Him. It is hard to get this right, but there is no other option.