Straight Thinking


Matthew 18:1-9

Text Comment

With 18:1 we begin the fourth section devoted to the Lord’s teaching in the Gospel of Matthew.  Remember, Matthew organized his Gospel in alternating sections of narrative and teaching.  We have just completed a narrative section at the end of chapter 17 and begin another teaching section that extends from 18:1 to 19:1 and ends there with the typical formula that Matthew uses to conclude each section of teaching.  The teaching in this section concerns relationships between the Lord’s disciples who are already being viewed as a distinct community.  The Lord teaches us here how he wants his servants to live with and treat one another. This is, in other words, preparation for the life of the church in the new epoch.

v.1       As I mentioned last time, Mark records a dispute that the disciples had had among themselves on their walk to Capernaum shortly before this.  They had fallen to arguing about which of them was the greatest.  Childish, to be sure, but an argument that continues to rage, if not openly, in the secret places of the heart of almost every single human being.  That dispute led to this question now put to the Lord.  And remember, as in our own similarly jealous thinking, there is always some imagined justification.  Think of the disciples here.  The idea that Jesus is the king has become more and more clear to them.  The messianic king will have a kingdom.  The prospect was firing their imaginations at this time.  The king would need high-ranking officials in his kingdom.  Surely he would draw them from his inner circle of supporters.  What is more, a few days before at the most he had called Peter the rock on which he would build his church.  Did that mean that Peter was greater than the rest of them?  These visions of power and glory were fueling their imagination and this led to their unbecoming dispute. The fact that they could be arguing about their relative greatness so soon after the Lord had on several occasions informed them of his coming passion, shows how completely they still misunderstood the nature of the Lord’s mission or its implications for themselves. [Guthrie, Jesus the Messiah, 183]  As one commentator tartly puts it:  “the very fact that they asked that question showed that they had no idea at all what the Kingdom of Heaven was.”  [Barclay in Morris, 458]

v.3       The Lord’s response is typically radical: before, he said that to be his disciple one must deny himself and take up his cross; he must lose his life, surrender to Jesus all that he has; and now he says he must become as a little child.  And, lest the point be missed, he brings a little child into the circle and has him stand there as he talks.  Surrounded by those grown men, the child must have seemed small and insignificant.  It has been often thought that Jesus is commending to his disciples certain child-like qualities, such as innocence or a trusting spirit.  One commentator actually argues that children are “untempted to self-advancement.”  [Allen, ICC, in France, 271]  That commentator apparently never had children. But some supposed virtue of childhood is not the Lord’s point at all.  He is speaking to proud men and telling them that their thinking requires a radical reorientation. A child was a person of no importance in society, subject to the authority of others, not taken seriously except as a responsibility, one to be looked after not looked up to.  [France, 270]  It is the embrace of being nothing, of being considered nothing, of being thought insignificant and foolish that Jesus is talking about.  Paul will later say the same thing when he says that Christians must be willing to be thought fools by the world.  If they wish for status in this world, they will not and cannot serve the Lord faithfully, because his service requires the abandonment of such a concern.

By the way, the NIV’s “change” in v. 3 is the verb “to turn.”  It is the language of “conversion,” of that fundamental change that alters the entire life.  Jesus isn’t saying that these men were unconverted here; he is making a general statement about what is necessary to be saved.  A man who is thinking of his own achievements and relying on his own success in the world cannot understand the kingdom of God and cannot enter it.  It is the man who knows himself like a little child in a world of men, utterly dependent upon God and his grace, Christ and his salvation – that man and only that man enters the kingdom of God.

v.4       Now the Lord makes the lesson explicit.  It is lowliness of heart, humility, not stature in the eyes of other men, that makes for a true disciple of Jesus Christ.  This true understanding of one’s place opens up the possibility of right thinking about everything.  The disciples had asked who was greatest.  Now Jesus answers by saying that the humblest is the greatest.

v.5       Now the application turns from children per se to the Lord’s disciples as the next verse makes clear.  They are “little ones” precisely because they have accepted their status as insignificant and lowly before God and man.  It is the habit of the world to serve the great and the popular.  It is the habit of the Christian mind to care for the lowly and the insignificant, not least because every Christian sees himself, spiritually speaking, a member of that class.

v.6       The NIV’s “things that cause people to sin” is a translation of a single word, scandal.  In some form the word occurs three more times in v. 7.  A scandal is something that trips someone up.  Obviously the concern is not a single violation of some commandment, such moral missteps as are common in every believing life.  This is a use of the word “sin,” like others in the Bible in which the ultimate issue of sin is in view – sin, that is, in the sense of turning away from God.  Scandals are not just any sins but sins that place a person outside the kingdom of God. Obviously the Lord is making the point that his disciples are vulnerable to scandals, stumbling-blocks are real dangers, and, therefore, his disciples need to look out for them, both for their own sake and the sake of others.

The NIV’s “large millstone” is literally the millstone turned by a donkey, that is, the very heavy upper millstone too heavy to be turned by hand.  “depths of the sea” means “far out in the open sea,” that is, far from shore where the water is very deep.

It is interesting to note that here in v. 6 we find the only place in the Synoptic Gospels – the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke – where mention is made explicitly of people “believing in Jesus.”  The same idea is expressed in other ways, of course, but only here do we read of “believing in Jesus” a way of speaking so common in the Gospel of John and the letters of Paul.

v.7       Such stumbling blocks cannot be entirely avoided, but you don’t want to be one to someone else.  That is the point.

v.9       Together with the statement in v. 6 that a swift drowning is a fate much to be preferred to the punishment that will await someone who undermines the faith of one of the Lord’s disciples, these two statements – in vv. 8 and 9 – recall the similar statement the Lord made in the Sermon on the Mount in 5:29-30.  These are intentionally grotesque images but, as we know, not unbelievable.  We have heard, even recently, of men, alone in the wilderness, who have cut off their own leg or arm because the limb was caught and they could not get loose and they realized they would die before they were found.  So they cut off a limb in order to save their lives.  They thought that being maimed was better than being dead.  The Lord extends the metaphor.  The fate to be avoided is not physical death but eternal punishment.  The Lord’s point is unmistakable:  anything is to be suffered, any sacrifice made in order to repudiate sin in your own life and so rid your life of what could be a stumbling block to others.

In taking his disciples down a peg or two, the Lord used a child, in his social insignificance, as a picture of every one of his followers, of every Christian.  He brought a child among them and looked at him and said to his disciples, “this is what I want you to be.”  That must have surprised them, even shocked them; it certainly would have confused them.  When, on another occasion, he told Nicodemus that he had to be born again, Nicodemus, clueless as he was, wondered aloud if that meant he had to reenter his mother’s womb and begin his life again.  And these fellows must have thought similar thoughts?  He wants us to become children again?  Does he want us to act like we’re six years old?  Does he want us to behave like children?  After all, adults are generally not supposed to act like children.  When we say to an adult that he is behaving like a child we are accusing him, not commending him.

But the Lord made a special emphasis of the fact that his disciples needed to become like little children.  He said that being changed into a child was absolutely necessary if one ever wanted to go to heaven.  Now what he meant, as he went on to explain, was that he wanted his disciples to see themselves after the manner of a child in adult society, as an insignificant virtual non-member of society.  By that he meant that every one of his followers must become little in one’s own eyes, in one’s own estimation.  That humility is the prerequisite of entering the kingdom of God.  Then he said that if every Christian must see himself this way, have such a small and low view of himself – then, in the nature of the case, he will not look down on other believers, on his fellow Christians.  He cannot. True humility looks up to others, not down.  The faithful follower of Christ never asks or imagines that he might be the greatest: for he sees himself as a little child and such humility prepares him to be a servant of others.

This is one of the places in the Gospels when Jesus as much as defines true humility.  It is thinking of oneself as someone who is little, so little as to be virtually invisible.  We know this about children here at Faith Presbyterian, don’t we?  After services morning and evening adults stay to talk to one another.  And around them and virtually unnoticed by them washes a sea of little children running and playing – noticed only when they cry or scream too loudly.  They are easy to ignore they are so little.  That is why the Lord says we must become little children.  And so you have many great Christians of the past speaking of humility in just this way.  “Desire to be unknown,” said Thomas à Kempis to the readers of The Imitation of Christ.  Jeremy Taylor, the great Anglican writer of the spiritual classics Holy Living and Holy Dying, prayed, “O teach me to love to be concealed.”  “Be ambitious to be unknown,” advised the saintly Scot Robert Leighton.  That is the Lord’s idea here.  No one sees the child; he is not large enough.  He needs people but they do not need him.  And, said the Lord, I want you to think of yourselves in that same way.  And if and when you do, it will change the way you think about and treat others. There is an unspoken but assumed premise in his syllogism.  You are like little children in your dependence and in your insignificance, but I have loved you, and chosen you, and I have come into the world to give myself up to death for your salvation.  If I have done that for little people like you, then you must certainly treat others mercifully and sympathetically.  If the living God humbled himself for a nothing like you, then a nothing like you is in no position to think himself something in comparison to others.

So when a man or woman comes to think of himself or herself as a little child whom the living God has loved, he will come to think more graciously of other people.  He will reproduce in himself the same spirit of self-forgetfulness that motivated the Lord Jesus when he gave up his rightful place, when he accepted a place far below that which he deserved, in order to save us from our sins.

The treatment of children has often been the index of the presence of this humility: whether it exists or not, and to what degree.  The Lord did not choose to make a child the example of Christian humility for nothing.  In his world, as in ours, children far too often counted for little.

In the ancient world children were sometimes even sacrificed to the gods.  Explain it how you will, it was the children, not the adults who received this treatment.  They had no one to defend them and were not strong enough to defend themselves.  In the ancient classical world there was no law against, there was not even any serious disapproval of abortion or infanticide.  Parents seemed to hold an absolute right over the life and death of their children.  In a collection of documents discovered in the sands of Egypt and dating from the first century before Christ, a letter was found in which a man named Hilarian wrote to his expectant wife Alis, “If it is male, let it live; if it is female, expose it.”  In many parts of the world similar things are said and done today.

It is true that in the Hippocratic oath, that dates from the 4th century B.C., the doctor vows never to give a woman an agent to cause an abortion.  Yet that oath was regularly violated in the permissive societies of Greece and Rome.  The early Christians distinguished themselves from their unbelieving neighbors in many ways, but also in this, that they repudiated abortion and infanticide; that they cherished all children.  And so it has continued in human history since.  It has been the glory of the Christian church that it has loved and cared for the children of the world, her own children and everyone else’s children.  I don’t say, of course, that she has done this perfectly.  Of course not.  The scandal that has darkened the reputation of the Roman Catholic church in recent days is not, alas, the first time that Christian ministers and churches and Christian institutions have failed children or have taken advantage of them.  But it is also true that no institution in the world has cared so much or invested so much in the care of children, society’s insignificant ones, as has the church, as have the followers of Christ.  And one of the reasons for this, of course, is that Christians see themselves in helpless children.

How many stories could we tell like that of Dr. Thomas Barnardo, who lived from 1845 to 1905.  Becoming a Christian at 17 years of age, and inspired by Hudson Taylor he entered medical school in London with the intention of going to China as a doctor and missionary.  But within a few months of the beginning of his medical studies his carefully laid plans for China were overturned by his discovery of the pitiable existence of so many children in London’s East End.  In 1870, at the age of 25, he opened his first home for them.  He was to remain in London and devote the rest of his life to the care, as he put it, “of the most helpless and needy of all God’s creatures – the destitute child.”  Over the next 40 years he raised enormous sums of money and established a network of homes for the care and the training of these boys and girls.  He rescued some 60,000 children from destitution.  We might, if we were Roman Catholics, call Thomas Barnardo the patron saint of street kids.  [This and what follows from Stott, The Incomparable Christ, 149-153 and from some Internet sites]

Barnardo’s dedication to these orphaned and destitute children had a dramatic beginning.  Among the street boys he met was John Somers, aged 11, known as Carrots because of his red hair.  This boy, like so many others, often slept outside even on cold and wet London nights.  On one of his first late-night forays to find and care for these children, Barnardo rounded up five homeless boys to take home with him for the night.  Carrots begged to be included but Barnardo told him he had no more room, but would give him the first spot next time.

A few mornings later, next to a warehouse, a workman rolled away from the wall a large empty sugar barrel.  In doing so he disturbed a sleeping boy, who awoke and immediately jumped up and made his escape. Lying next to that boy was another boy who was thought also to be asleep but was discovered to be dead.  The dead boy was Carrots.  The coroner pronounced the death due to exhaustion, exposure, and malnutrition.  This tragedy burned itself into Thomas Barnardo’s soul.  “Never again,” he said.  And outside his home for street children he posted a prominent sign that read “NO DESTITUTE CHILD EVER REFUSED ADMISSION.”  He later added the words “AN EVER-OPEN DOOR.”

Later Barnardo was able to claim:

“We receive children whom no other charitable institution will touch…children in the last stage of lingering disease; children who are lame, halt, and blind; children who, as a result of a long course of neglect and suffering, can be admitted only to die.  The one condition of eligibility is destitution.”  [In Stott, 152]

When Barnardo died some 1,500 boys attended his funeral.  At the time more than 8,000 were living in his homes and many thousands more had been settled in private homes.

What motivates a man to undertake such a difficult and thankless work?  Why this care and concern for the least significant in a society?  Well, in Barnardo’s case, it was his Christian faith.  In welcoming the little ones, he knew he was welcoming and receiving Christ himself.  The Lord here is talking chiefly about his disciples, not first and foremost about children per se.  He is talking about his disciples under the image of a child.  But, he did put an actual child in front of his disciples when he made these points.  It was the social situation of actual children that he drew their attention to.  We can hardly say that he isn’t interested in real, actual children.  And all the more because it is precisely in the destitution of a child that a Christian sees his true place in the world.  He is that weak, that little, that helpless.  And in his destitution Christ found him and saved him.  Christians care for children, they always have because in caring for children they are as much as acting out their own salvation.  They are doing to others what Christ did so much more perfectly for them.

You will have noticed the way in which the Lord moved so effortlessly from thinking oneself a child – the humility of a true Christian disciple – to treating others kindly, generously, compassionately, and carefully, treating them so as to advance their welfare.  The truly humble spirit in a person’s heart leads, must lead to a concern for others.

The Lord does not explore that connection here.  He does not explain it.  He doesn’t tell us why humility leads to compassion and a commitment to others.  But we are often told why that is elsewhere in the Bible.  It is not because children are genuinely insignificant or worthless that we are taught here to think of ourselves as little children.  No one made in God’s image, no one with eternity in his heart is insignificant or worthless.  Every human being, as to his being, his existence, is priceless.  But, as we are so often told in the Bible and as Jesus so often made a point of saying, we are little morally.  We most become as little children in our own eyes because we are so unworthy as sinners, we are so little when it comes to righteousness and moral goodness.  When one sees himself as without worth and insignificant in himself – chiefly because of his sin and his sinfulness, because there is so much in him and about him that is unworthy and ugly, his selfishness, his impurity, his pride, his evil desires – and when such a person realizes that in spite of what he is and what he has done God has loved him and Christ has redeemed him, that person must forsake all thought of his own stature and from that moment he cannot think of himself as better than others without utterly betraying everything he knows about himself and his salvation.  To look down on others, as if you were better than they, more important, more significant, at least for a Christian, amounts to a vicious kind of hypocrisy.  Perhaps for unbelievers, it is not hypocritical to look down on others. After all, they are measuring themselves only by what they can see and unbelievers don’t see their sin and guilt before God, they don’t see the infinite distance that separates them from a holy God, and, not having come to Christ, they don’t see the vast chasm that separates what they have received from what they have deserved. Pride is no more beautiful in an unbelieving heart, but, at least, it is easier to explain.

But Christians, followers of Christ, see all that the unbeliever does not.  They know that their sins made a separation between them and God and a separation so great that they could never bridge it by anything they could ever say or do.  They know that the differences between them and other sinners are insignificant compared to the difference between any sinner and an infinitely holy God.  We may think there is quite a difference between a 25-watt bulb and a 75-watt bulb.  But if we hold those two bulbs up to the sun the difference between them is annihilated; there is no difference.  So when they come to understand that Christ, at the price of terrible suffering, has bridged the chasm from his side to make it possible for us to get back to God and to heaven, the very last thing any Christian can think is that he or she is better than others.  The very thought is like an out-of-tune instrument badly but loudly played in the midst of the orchestra.  It is a thought that belongs to the old way of thinking, not the new; it is a false thought, not true; an evil thought, not righteous; a foolish thought, not wise.  It has no place in the mind or heart of the man or woman who knows the grace of God and the mercy of Jesus Christ.

A person who knows that he has been forgiven much loves much; a person who appreciates that he goes to heaven only because God has been so very gracious to him or to her, is too amazed at God’s mercy to think himself more worthy than someone else. He may, sinner that he remains, slip into such a thought, but he knows how wrong it is and how quickly and decisively he should repudiate it.

You see the reason Thomas Barnardo opened his heart and his home to destitute children is because he knew himself to be a destitute child, someone utterly dependent upon the good graces of another.  You don’t look down on yourself and in those helpless children Barnardo saw himself.  Jesus said that every Christian is to see himself in those who are considered to be the least of the society.  Fact is, we are worse than the insignificant child.  He’s just young and little.  We are little and evil.  Evil people who go to heaven because Christ gave himself for them are duty bound to remember what they were when Christ found them and brought them into his home, duty bound to remember what their lot would have been had he not changed it forever.  They are duty bound to remember how Christ’s love changed everything for them.

And when they do, they will care for others.  Not because others are so worthy of their care – I imagine that the children whom Barnardo cared for were very often real pests, children often are; street children perhaps especially – but because Christians see themselves in them and because they know that Christ’s free love which has lifted them up must be shared with others.  Not to share that love is to despise it, to behave as if it somehow belonged to us, as if we had a right to it, and that Christians cannot do. And so they will care that others find the same love and the same salvation they have found and they will care that they do nothing to put a stumbling block in the way of anyone obtaining that salvation.

It is in this way that the Christian who is most like the little child is the truest and the most mature adult.  The Christian who thinks himself the smallest is the greatest.