Today’s meditation comes from Matthew 18:1-20
We got an email from our local public library that we now own a children’s book on dinosaurs. I guess, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise to us, we’re at the library almost as often as we are home, maybe more. Library books, easily and frequently get mixed in with the other books at the house, so it was actually surprising that this was the first one we had misplaced long enough to own it. So we dug through, find the truant book and went to the library with as sad and contrite faces as we could manage, (well, mom and dad did, the kids were busy running around playing hopscotch on the floor). When the nice librarian looked up Barrett’s account, she noticed something pretty strange, according to their files; Barrett was over 1,000 years old! Some quirk in the system instead of putting his birth date for 2007 entered in his birth date as 1007. With a wink and a smile, the librarian went on to tell us that because of his age he was considered a golden buckeye library cardholder and senior citizens never have to pay fines. I thought, I guess there really is a little kid in all of us, even at 1,000!
Children, in the very different cultures of the Biblical writers, didn’t fare as well and weren’t given as much leeway as we give our children today. At worst, children were frequently considered half-human, if that, and in particular newborn baby girls suffered the worst. Often in the Grecco-Roman context, “newborn girls were simply thrown away—left to starve or be eaten by predators, or sold for prostitution at an early age, because the family didn’t want another expensive daughter to bring up.” (NT Wright Matthew Part 2) Even more telling, even in the Greek language itself, the words for a “child” are typically not male or female, but neuter. Children were simply an “it.” This was not to say, that many of the ancients did not care for and love their children, but as a society as a whole, children were simply not considered important or valuable.
We’ve come a long way since those standards and quite honestly because of these simple words of Jesus in Matthew that were counter-intuitive and counter cultural and it was His disciples that through the centuries carried this belief and value for human life of all ages and situations with them, shaping much of the history of our culture, we’ve come a long way, but in so many ways the most vulnerable of us are still considered little more than trash by many.
When I hear this story I can just imagine Jesus there on the ground, playing with the children and having a great time with them. Just in the middle of another game of thumb wrestling, the disciples storm in and ask this all too grown up kind of question. Ignoring the children, “so then Jesus, who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” The Bible doesn’t share Jesus’ initial reaction but I know if it was me in His place the temptation to roll my eyes and heave a huge sigh would have been too hard to resist. Instead, Jesus stands up one of the little children in the middle of the group and says this little vulnerable child that people would rather throw into to the garbage heap or sell into prostitution. This child that is dependent and in need of care and love. You want to know who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven? Here she is!”
Coming from the world the disciples lived in; these words would have blown them away. This was completely opposite from any way that they then and we now, determine worth. Strength, brawn, brains, looks, glamour, charisma, money and the like are all how we as a society and in our own heads judge, even subconsciously, someone’s worth. We still have a hard time swallowing the idea that weakness, vulnerability and even tears are anything other than things to be ashamed of. But it is pride and arrogance that ultimately distorts and destroys human life in this world, not tears and vulnerability. So Jesus holds this little girl up, shy, vulnerable, in need of love and care but also ready to listen and be loved, to learn and grow. What Jesus was holding up there in the little one, was her vulnerability, her trust, her willingness to learn, all this directed to the only one who can hold all of those precious things without breaking them, Jesus Christ, the savior of little children. This is what greatness really looks like, Jesus says, come and learn what this means for you.
This is the Christian faith that turns the world upside down, what is great in the world is considered least in the kingdom of God, what is the least and most vulnerable is considered the most important and worthy of our greatest care. Victory is found in the least likely of places, the cross of Jesus Christ. In faith, in Jesus, you don’t have to be strong for Jesus. You don’t have to have all of the right answers for Jesus to love you. You don’t have to put on a brave face for Jesus because he knows the heart. You certainly don’t have to be perfect or even have it somewhat together, we can be a complete mess and Jesus still loves us the same and like a good parent gently helps us put the pieces back together. Come to Jesus as you are, indeed that is truly the only way you can, He knows the little child inside of us, and he welcomes that child with open arms.
Now as we are welcomed into the open arms of Jesus, just as we are, Jesus then turns us around and says there is one of my little ones, it’s time to welcome them as well.
When I was kid, I remember my excitement when mom bought me my very first telescope. It was a shiny slate grey with black handles and a box full of lenses I still don’t know what to do with all of them. I loved looking at the night sky, picking out the planets and counting the stars. Everything seemed so big! But I must have been a strange kid, because honestly, what I enjoyed even more was flipping that telescope around and looking in the big end and through the small end at how small and tiny everything became. This is how we are to look at each other, not through the big end and see how big everyone is but through the small end and remember small and in need of care and love everyone is. That person sitting across from you, no matter their age, is a child of God that is in the same need of care and love that the child of God inside of us is in need of as well.
It is that child of Christ inside of every heart, whether young in years or young at heart that Jesus issues a very strict condemnation to anyone that would harm that child. Imagine those large stone millstones from the past that were used to grind corn and wheat, they were so large and heavy it took a mule or donkey to move them along. They had a square hole in the center for the axle that rotated them along the mill. That’s the type Jesus is talking about, that he is saying imagine is around your neck as your being rowed to the deepest part of the sea, farthest away from the shore. That is a better fate than making one of these little ones stumble and facing God in heaven. This sounds extreme and violent, but maybe we have forgotten just how precious the children of Jesus Christ are at whatever age they come and just how much God hates the evil in this world that would hurt these vulnerable onesBut instead the faith life of these little ones is so important that it takes should precedence among the whole congregation of believers. This last part of our gospel reading today from Matthew 18 is typically considered a blueprint for dealing with conflict in the church, interpreted, if a brother or sister in the church has fallen into sin, go to them by yourself, then with a trusted elder or pastor and then finally before the whole congregation. Some many people have had a bad taste in their mouth from churches that misuse this passage and use it as an excuse to excommunicate someone for reasons that are less than good, like being kicked out of a club. But that is not what this passage means at all, when it is read, it needs to be read in the context of the little child in a church family.
I grew up in one of those neighborhoods in Old Brooklyn wherever everyone knew you and you couldn’t get away with anything because the neighbor down the street would call mom and let her know. It took a village to raise a child and I was a better child overall because of it. The care and responsibility of the children rested in part on everyone’s shoulders and everyone helped. The Matthew passage should be thought of in the same way, if one of our children were going to get hurt, every person would stop what they were doing and help. The welfare of the children of the church is so important that everyone has a part in it, sometimes one on one, sometimes in a small group of 2 or 3 and sometimes every member of the church family needs to be involved. Not just when there is trouble but for every opportunity to raise up the children of God in the faith, both young and old.
We are the children of God, each one precious in His sight, each one in our own ways vulnerable and in need of care, but most importantly each one considered the greatest in the kingdom of Heaven. So to we are to consider each one greatest in the kingdom of heaven and to give all that we have to raise up these children of God properly as Christians, their whole life through.