Thursday, December 7, 2017

19. Who is the Greatest?

According to Matthew”
A study of the Gospel of Matthew

We continue our study 'According to Matthew'. We have seen how in his gospel Matthew is creating an account of Jesus as being the Servant-King, the One chosen of God to rule over a new kingdom whose priorities turn conventional wisdom upside down and inside out. We heard a kingdom manifesto proclaimed in the Sermon on the Mount. We have witnessed unique acts of miraculous service at the hands of Jesus, everything from healing to feedings of crowds and stilling of storms. We have witnessed how Jesus carries with Him an authority that we defined by the Greek Word 'exousia'; an authority that expressed itself in freedom of action and through the love that seemed to ooze out of His life.

In our last session we were taken up a mountain and witnessed a meeting with Moses and Elijah and heard for the second time a voice proclaiming 'This is my beloved Son, listen to Him!” And we witnessed how the disciples are struggling to come terms with such revelations. They are still confused and unsure where all this is leading, even though Jesus has now begun to teach them quite plainly that He will travel to Jerusalem, be betrayed by those who held the keys of earthly power and would meet His death, only to be raised again to life three days later.

We've come along a way since Jesus began His public ministry with a baptism in the River Jordan. But as we've made the journey we get a sense that the kingdom John the Baptist was preparing people to welcome, truly has dawned in the person and ministry of Jesus Christ.

The values of this New Kingdom conflicted with the values that were already in place. In the kingdom of humankind there was always a pecking order. Kings knew their places and servants knew theirs. The two never became confused. Position was everything. Certain people never even dreamed of having status. Slaves, women and children had no political rights and were considered as property by the law.

Against this background you can imagine the disciples wondering what the New Kingdom may mean for their own lives. They had, after all, left everything to follow Jesus, and He kept teaching them about the Kingdom. Their question was, “What would their position in this New Kingdom turn out to be?” It's all very well having a revolution and overthrowing society, but when the new came to be, where did that leave them?

So we read Matthew 18:1-5

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a little child to Him, and placed the child among them. And He said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. 
 
As stated earlier, children at the time of Jesus had no rights nor power. The very fact that Jesus called a child to Himself to illustrate who was important in the New Kingdom was a parable all by itself without Him having to say a word. A number of times in the preceding chapters He has invited those who were the movers and shakers of His day to come to Him and they refused to come near. Now He calls a child over and the little one stands right with them.

It's also interesting that the disciples presume that, because they are disciples, they are automatically, going to be part of the new Kingdom, and have a significant place within it. When Jesus is in the picture it never seems safe to assume anything, particularly if its based on our own feelings of self-worth. 
 
We are Americans (well some of you are!), we are decent law-abiding citizens, we take care of our families, we try and be nice to everybody, we attend church, give to charity, for goodness sake, today we've even taken time to come and study the Bible. Shouldn't that count for something in the eyes of God, and at least garnish us a few brownie points?

Bear in mind that when Jesus brings this child into their midst He is not speaking to the crowds but to the inner circle of His followers, the committed ones, the good guys. And what does He tell them in verse 2? “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” What? Me? Need to change? Or I limit my chances of entering the Kingdom... oh no that's not how it goes... unless we change we'll never enter the Kingdom? Ouch!”

The conversation is turned on it's head. The disciples want to know what they can do to be a significant entity in the new order of things. Here is Jesus saying that there was absolutely nothing they could do to impact their status as a child of God. What they needed to do was trust in God and so be in a position of total dependence upon God that mirrored the way a child in their society was completely dependent on others for everything they needed in life. Nothing more, nothing less.

As the New International Bible Commentary explains: 'To become like a little child is to humble oneself, giving up all pretensions of self-importance, independence, and self-reliance and turning in trust to the heavenly Father. The story is not a call to imitate the (presumed) character traits of children, but to accept a radically different understanding of status. The first rule for life together in the new community formed by Jesus is to abandon the quest for status and accept one’s place as already given in the family of God.'

In John's Gospel, chapter 3, a character called Nicodemus, a pharisee belonging to the ruling body in Israel, the Sanhedrin, respectfully asks Jesus what can be done to be part of the Kingdom life that he perceived was taking place through Jesus. Jesus answers Nicodemus that there was nothing that he could do, except he be 'born again' or 'born from above'. That belonging to the Kingdom was a matter of trusting in what God could do for him, not what he could do for himself.

In a similar way Paul's great epistle to the Romans speaks of the only way, for anybody, Jew or Greek, to be right with God, was through faith. Whatever 'works' a person did, whatever position in this world they thought they occupied, whatever status their background or breeding or pedigree may confer upon them, their 'works' couldn't help them. As Martin Luther would later make the dominant theme of Reformed theology, justification was by faith alone. Only those saved by grace through faith could ever see the Kingdom.

It's not about what we can do, it's about what God has done in Jesus Christ. It's about throwing ourselves into God's arms. I remember when my children were little, they loved to play those jumping games. Jumping into your arms. Swinging them around. 'Catch me daddy' … and, ready or not, they'd make a leap of faith and laughing and giggling it would be a moment of unabashed joy. If they tried it these days they would probably put me in hospital... but that's not where we are going with this!

If we want to be a part of the Kingdom, what's needed is the trust and faith of a little one. An attitude of complete reliance on God as our parent who will catch us when we jump. 'Whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. '

That last phrase is also significant, because it forms a transition into what comes next. Faith wasn't just about how you trusted God, but also how you offered welcome to others. Just as God welcomes our faith, so we are to extend that invitation to others. We are invited to become the sort of people that others can trust to catch them when they are falling. There is a community aspect to this, an acknowledgment that faith is never purely personal because it also involves acting responsibly towards those around us. When we do that... 'Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. '

One of the themes often stressed during Communion, is that the communion table is a place of hospitality. We share a communal meal. We set a place for all to come, where all are welcome, from the littlest to the greatest, from the weakest to the strongest. Only God knows exactly who qualifies to be in each category. The first shall be last, the humble will be exalted, those who are fallen will be raised, the cross becomes the place of resurrection... that whole reversal thing is always going on in the Kingdom.

Our next verses have been described as some of the most radical and extreme in the whole of Matthews gospel. We stay with the theme of 'little ones' but move quickly into disturbing images of self-inflicted amputations. Read 6-10

If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble! Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come! If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell. See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.”

The words of this section are best interpreted against the background of passages such as 1 Peter 4:17 'For it is time for the judgment to begin with the household of God …' and Matthew 7:4 “How can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' and behold, the log is in your own eye?”
It's a section about discipline, discipline within the community of faith and self-discipline.

The early church, by its very nature of being something new, was a church of new believers who were finding their way. The church of today is mixture of seasoned saints and those just beginning their spiritual journeys. For those who have been around for a while, these verses are a caution. They invite us to be patient with one another, and particularly patient with the 'little ones', be they literally children or those who are spiritually children. To act in a way that is open and forgiving, not intolerant and disapproving. Many a potential new member of today's churches have been driven out by thoughtless words and judgmental actions of established church members. 
 
People know the difference between being tolerated and welcomed. Church institutions are notorious for having their unwritten codes of conduct and expectations in everything from the way folk dress to how well they understand the pecking order of a particular congregation. Have you ever considered what a weird experience it is walking into one of our congregations for the first time? To not know where to sit, let alone what the expectations are as to what to do? To be expected to understand that we follow a bulletin and sing hymns we have never heard before from a blue book, that sometimes we stand and sit... and if you look real close there's a footnote that tells you when to do it? That people are going to come around with plates and want you to put money in them?

Again, we are back to ideas of hospitality and welcome. But its so much more than that. It's also about having a lifestyle that backs up our profession of faith. It's no good acting by one set of rules in church and then living your life by a different set of rules everywhere else. Because when you encounter some of those 'little ones' who are just coming to faith, you are going to demonstrate that actually 'faith' doesn't mean anything in the real world. And they will be quick to follow your example. As William Barclay titles this section in his commentary, it's about “The Terrible Responsibility.” Terrible, in the sense that we have a 'huge' responsibility to build the faith of others.
To underline that depth of responsibility towards those less mature in the faith than ourselves we have these words: 'If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. '

The large millstone referred to here is, in Greek, a 'mulos onikos'. 'Onos' is the Greek word for 'donkey', 'mulos' for a millstone. The stone referred to is the big grinding stone that needed a donkey to turn it. Jesus is not mincing His words here! In no uncertain terms we are being reminded that we are responsible for the lives of new believers and need to take care that we do nothing to drive them away. 
 
How do we face up to such a responsibility? We begin with ourselves. In an age that stresses “If it feels good, do it' the notion of 'self-discipline' is not at the top of our priority list. So it is as appropriate for our generation, as it would be for any other, that Jesus gets our attention with images of cutting off limbs and gouging out eyes. Of course these verses are not intended to be interpreted literally.

There is a verse in the N/T book of Galatians 5:24 that tells us: Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. The Message Bible transliterates that verse; “Among those who belong to Jesus Christ, everything connected with getting our own way and mindlessly responding to what everyone else calls necessities is killed off for good—crucified.”

The phrase used by past generations for such spiritual discipline was 'self-mortification.' A phrase like that reminds us that following Jesus was never meant to be easy. It is the most demanding thing we can ever gear our lives towards. Jesus asks everything of us. Our most basic confession of faith is three words “Jesus is Lord.” He informs us that we have this huge responsibility to nurture the faith of others, to go into all the world and make others His disciples. He holds us accountable for our personal actions.

Matthew Henry in his commentary suggests that Christian discipline is both an inward and an outward process. Firstly he suggests we have to deal with our wrong thinking. The appetites and inclinations that lead us astray have to be kept in check and controlled. In his wonderful 19th century language he writes; “Inward lust must be mortified, though it be as dear to us as a hand or an eye... that which we have rolled under the tongue as a sweet morsel, must be abandoned.” Such ideas take us right back to the sermon on the mount where Jesus identifies sin as something that begins in the heart of a person.

Secondly, Matthew Henry suggests that we seek to avoid situations that we know we have a hard time dealing with. Or as he phrases it: “The outward occasions of sin must be avoided, though we thereby put as great a violence upon ourselves as it would be to cut off a hand, or pluck out an eye.” He gives the examples of Moses who left all the glory of Pharaoh's palace in order to be true to his destiny, and Abraham who fled the idolatry of his native land for a new country where God could be honored. He concludes “We must think nothing too dear to part with, for the keeping of a good conscience.”

On a lighter note some of us may have come from homes where in order to nurture our faith as children we were taught bedtime prayers. For example: 'Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray dear Lord my soul to keep, May angels guard me through the night, And keep me safe 'til morning light. Amen. '

If you had ever wondered where the idea that little children have special guardian angels watching over them comes from, it is from verse 10 here in Matthew. When speaking about the exalted place 'little ones' have in God's affections, here is Jesus saying: “For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.” Their personal angels are constantly in touch with the Almighty. There appears to be a special place in God's heart for the little ones.

What follows are three illustrations of how a childlike faith may be nurtured. We are given three examples.
  1. Caring for the lost.
  2. Treating each other as brothers and sisters.
  3. Being forgiving servants.
Firstly, caring for the lost and the parable of the wandering sheep. Verses 11 -114
What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish.

Shepherds did not have the best reputation at the time of Jesus. When people told jokes about shepherds they were usually derogatory. Rather like the way West Virginians tell jokes about people from Kentucky (Because the rest of the country makes redneck jokes about West Virginia). So this tale is along the lines of a joke. 'Did you hear the one about Shepherd who leaves 99 sheep in a field? And then he goes off and spends the whole night looking for just one of them. The he finds her and he comes home with a big smile on his face saying 'I found my sheep, I found my sheep. I'm so happy! Ha! What do you make of that!”

You can picture his listeners thinking, “Well. That's a good one Jesus. Those shepherds, huh!” Then Jesus turns the tale right around. “You know how crazy those shepherds are about their sheep? Well that's how crazy God is about all those who are lost and in danger of perishing!”

William Barclay takes a more pastoral approach to the parable and draws out the pictures of God's concern that flow through this story.

He notes that the love of God is an individual love. God wasn't happy until every last soul is bought home. It's patient and seeking love. People, like sheep, can be stupid. They easily wander off the right road. But God seeks them out. The love of God is a rejoicing love. Whenever we turn to God the result is not a rebuke but a welcome. Finally the love of God is a protecting love. We are the sheep of His pasture and He is our Good Shepherd. Psalm 23, 'The Lord is my Shepherd' immediately springs to mind in this context.

The intent of the parable to both remind the listener that they are cared for, and encourage them to offer care towards others. To seek out those who are lost. To rescue from peril those who are perishing, even if they are a minority of one! There is something childlike and naive to the shepherds tale. It extols the virtue of caring as being a hallmark of a Kingdom lifestyle. Another attribute of childlike faith has to do with treating each other as brothers and sisters, and it is with that in mind that the next verses are best interpreted.

Read verses 15 through 19.

If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector. “Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. “Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” 
 
Some commentaries suggest this passage is about church authority and discipline, and that it paved the way for the practice of excommunicating people from church communities who didn't tow the line. To myself such an interpretation removes this section from the context of this whole section which is strongly pastoral in nature. The issue is not about control, but how lost sheep can be restored. It's not about closing doors to folk who stray from the path, but rather keeping as many doors as possible open wide for them to return.

Eugene Petersen in the Message Bible captures this sense so well in his transliteration of this section.
"If a fellow believer hurts you, go and tell him—work it out between the two of you. If he listens, you've made a friend. If he won't listen, take one or two others along so that the presence of witnesses will keep things honest, and try again. If he still won't listen, tell the church. If he won't listen to the church, you'll have to start over from scratch, confront him with the need for repentance, and offer again God's forgiving love.” 
 
When Jesus tells them at the end of the story to 'treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.' they would no doubt be bearing in mind the way He treated pagans and tax-collectors. He didn't cast them out. He called them to follow Him. Now if Jesus had said, “Treat them like ta whitewashed tomb brained Pharisee or dead in the letter of the law Sadducee, that would be a different matter! But He doesn't. The emphasis is on seeing them as the lost sheep the shepherd will go great lengths to bring home.

The final section about 'whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven' is not easy to interpret. It seems to be connected to the idea in the sermon on the mount where Jesus told the disciples that when they said 'yes' they should mean 'yes' and when they said 'no' they should mean 'no'. It's about being single-minded about what needs to be done, and in this context would be about agreeing with others what action was needed to help a person through a time when they were kicking against their faith.

This comes out in the next lines, “if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven.” I've heard people quote that verse completely out of context and suggest that it means that whatever they pray for, as long as its something another brother or sister in the faith totally agrees upon, then God was duty bound to answer such a prayer. That interpretation can only lead to huge disappointment. The whole context of the passage is about restoring lost ones to their faith. 
 
Again I think Eugene Petersen hits it right on the mark as he transliterates these verses as meaning: When two of you get together on anything at all on earth and make a prayer of it, my Father in heaven goes into action. And when two or three of you are together because of me, you can be sure that I'll be there." I do however love the promise in the traditional words “For where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” 
 
Only in Christianity can 2 or 3 be counted as a crowd! It reminds us that faith is never about numbers, but about the presence of God. His presence is the only numeric value that really counts for anything. But obsessed with numbers we tend to be. And the disciples were no different. Particularly as they mulled over all this talk of forgiveness and restoration, they struggled with the idea of how many times they needed to forgive somebody, before they punched them in the nose or did something even worse. At least that's what seems to be on Peters mind.

Read verses 21 through 35.
Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.

Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. Since he was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children and all that he had be sold to repay the debt. “At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go.

But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded. “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’ “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt.

When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened. “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.

This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

Seven times seemed like a good number to Peter. He thought he was being generous. Rabbinical teaching suggested three times was quite sufficient. So he's doubled that and added one for good measure. But Jesus replies seventy times, or in some translations “70 x 7”... which didn't mean Peter could keep on counting till he got to 490 and then take revenge, but meant Peter had be infinite with his forgiveness. Why? Because God is infinitely patient and forgiving towards us. And to illustrate that fact Jesus tells this story about an unforgiving servant.

The amounts in the story are maybe not as clear to us as they were to the original hearers. The servant who finds forgiveness owes a debt that is completely out of this world. Call it millions of dollars if you like. The one the forgiven servant won't forgive owes only a small amount... lets say a few hundred dollars. That is what so outrages the other servants. They know this guy has been let off of a debt that was huge and un-payable. But then he goes and demands blood for a comparatively meager amount.

It's a story about forgiveness. Whenever we say the Lord's prayer we use that phrase, 'Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.”Here it is in an expanded form. Why should we forgive our debtors? Because God, in Christ, has forgiveness us for all our debts, all our trespasses, all our sins, sins that we are totally incapable of atoning for by own efforts.

Our chapter began with a question about 'Who was the greatest?' and Jesus placing a little child in the midst of His disciples, explaining to them that unless they had the child-like faith and trust of a little one, then they hadn't a hope of being part of the Kingdom of God, let alone of having a significant position within it.

Jesus moves on from there to talk about how God was not concerned with the way they jostled for position and tried to better themselves. God was watching to see how they cared for each other, how they expressed hospitality and welcome to others and how willing they were to change their ways in order to make the Kingdom accessible to others. Along with that came what William Barclay called “The Terrible Responsibility”. Those who were mature in their faith had a responsibility to nurture the faith of those who were just starting out on their journey. To put no stumbling blocks in their way. Discipleship was not an easy option, but demanded a disciplined approach.

But lest we get too fearful of such a commitment we are gently reminded that 'little ones' have guardian angels. So having the faith of a 'little one' meant trusting somebody was watching out for you!

We are then given three examples of how the faith of a little one may express itself. A shepherd searching for a lost sheep reminds us that we need to care for the lost. A passage about forgiving our brothers and sisters reminds to always keep the door of grace open wide. A story about an unforgiving servant reminds us that as servants we are entirely dependent on God. So we should treat others in a similar fashion to the way God has dealt with us. Namely... with love, forgiveness and tenderness.

That's what it takes to be great in the Kingdom! There's a wonderful passage in one of the later letters in the New Testament, that shows how the disciples took this message to heart. The letter is traditionally attributed to St Paul. Verses 7 to 12 of 1 Thessalonians speak of how he and his co-workers conducted their mission in Thessaloniki.

We were like young children among you. Just as a nursing mother cares for her children, so we cared for you. Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well. …. For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children, encouraging, comforting and urging you to live lives worthy of God, who calls you into His kingdom and glory.”

'Greatness' was the opening theme of our chapter. Greatness is the opposite of smallness. This chapter challenges our tiny world, with all its limitations and misunderstandings, it's petty squabbles and prejudices, and invites us to expand such confining boundaries and instead be Kingdom people, 'little ones' of faith.

Next time, chapter 19, we will hear what Jesus had to say about marriage and divorce, witness Him again using a child as an illustration of faith and hear some startling words to a rich young ruler about his possessions.

Over the next few chapters we see how many of the themes we have already been introduced to are repeated and expanded. The final narrative will be the account of His final days on earth and the new beginning of the Resurrection. But all that is a little way down the line.

I know.... you can't wait.
But be patient.
All will be revealed!

The Reverend  Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

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