This blog provides a meditation on the Episcopal daily readings along with a headline from world news:
Bahrein prosecutes child for helping street protest
28 And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done.29They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips,30slanderers, God-haters,* insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious towards parents,31foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.32They know God’s decree, that those who practise such things deserve to die—yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practise them.
The Righteous Judgement of God
2Therefore you have no excuse, whoever you are, when you judge others; for in passing judgement on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, are doing the very same things.2You say,* ‘We know that God’s judgement on those who do such things is in accordance with truth.’3Do you imagine, whoever you are, that when you judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself, you will escape the judgement of God?4Or do you despise the riches of his kindness and forbearance and patience? Do you not realize that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance?5But by your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgement will be revealed.6For he will repay according to each one’s deeds:7to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honour and immortality, he will give eternal life;8while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury.9There will be anguish and distress for everyone who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek,10but glory and honour and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek.11For God shows no partiality.
“God shows no partiality”-this blunt summing up of Paul’s diatribe against complacency reminds us that the classic Lutheran view of Paul, that the “righteousness of faith” is not an actual righteousness but one only “imputed” by God, is mistaken. “God will repay each one according to his deeds,” Paul insists. It’s true, yes, that Paul’s tactics in this letter are a bit slippery and we can’t aways be sure that everything he wrote is to be taken at face value. It would however be hard to find anything less ambiguous than the ” wrath and fury” promised to those who are self-seeking.
In the course of the letter, this resolute insistence on God’s holiness and severity is absorbed into the more comprehensive story of God’s saving love for humanity, but it is neither denied nor by-passed. God’s holiness is a component of his love. God’s love is greater than God’s justice but it is never less. What Paul means is that in his son Jesus God has taken on the astonishing task of making human beings holy.
As I observe my own character, I have to say that in my case at any rate this task is ongoing and will probably not be completed in this life.
18At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’2He called a child, whom he put among them,3and said, ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.4Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.5Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.
6 ‘If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.7Woe to the world because of stumbling-blocks! Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the stumbling-block comes!
8 ‘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 lame than to have two hands or two feet and to be thrown into the eternal fire.9And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into the hell* of fire.
Jesus’ teaching, as organised here by Matthew also addresses the issue of complacency and spiritual arrogance. The greatest in the community of disciples is the one who is “turned around” (a very strong word) to become like a child, that is, one who has no rights and must receive all good things as a gift. This is the same teaching as is found in John 3:16, that we must be “re-born from above”. Within the community of Jesus there is no place for self-seekers and top-dogs. The true disciple looks to receive unearned goodness from God and other disciples.
When Matthew reports Jesus talking about “little ones” therefore he understands him as referring to both actual children and to all true disciples who have become as children in their modesty and simplicity of life. “Stumbling blocks” ( ancient tools of the battlefield) are associated in the Bible with malicious cruelty (placing one in the way of a blind person, for example) and in Matthew’s gospel with behaviour that causes someone to trip on the road of life. In this sense Jesus himself is said to be a stumbling block to the religious leaders of his people. In this passage I guess Jesus is referring to contemptous treatment or bullying amongst his disciples. Sometimes however the thing that makes us stumble is within ourselves. In this case, Jesus tells us, absolute rigour is required. We should show no mercy to any aspect of ourselves that brings us down. The shrewdness and urgency of Jesus’ teaching is well represented here. As a minister I’ve noted a tendency to lord it over others, in others and in myself; and sadly I’ve seen and continue to see the work of bullies within the church, especially those who are sure of their own righteousness. These are all “stumbling blocks” to the little ones who trust in Jesus; and the only remedy for those who place them is the “complete turn around” which Jesus demands.