A short Sunday blog offers a meditation on the Common Lectionary reading for today.
J.B. Phillips New Testament (PHILLIPS)
Jesus commends the simplicity of children
18 It was at this time that the disciples came to Jesus with the question, “Who is really greatest in the kingdom of Heaven?”
2-4 Jesus called a little child to his side and set him on his feet in the middle of them all. “Believe me,” he said, “unless you change your whole outlook and become like little children you will never enter the kingdom of Heaven. It is the man who can be as humble as this little child who is greatest in the kingdom of Heaven.
5-7 “Anyone who welcomes one child like this for my sake is welcoming me. But if anyone leads astray one of these little children who believe in me he would be better off thrown into the depths of the sea with a mill-stone hung round his neck! Alas for the world with its pitfalls! In the nature of things there must be pitfalls. yet alas for the man who is responsible for them!
The right way may mean costly sacrifice
8-9 “If your hand or your foot is a hindrance to your faith, cut it off and throw it away. It is a good thing to go into life maimed or crippled—rather than to have both hands and feet and be thrown on to the everlasting fire. Yes, and if your eye leads you astray, tear it out and throw it away. It is a good thing to go one-eyed into life—rather than to have both your eyes and be thrown on the fire of the rubbish heap.
10-11 “Be careful that you never despise a single one of these little ones—for I tell you that they have angels who see my Father’s face continually in Heaven.”
12-14 “What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep and one wanders away from the rest, won’t he leave the ninety-nine on the hill-side and set out to look for the one who has wandered away? Yes, and if he should chance to find it I assure you he is more delighted over that one than he is over the ninety-nine who never wandered away. You can understand then that it is never the will of your Father in Heaven that a single one of these little ones should be lost.
J.B Phillips is a very distinguished translator, but we can see here the danger of a particular interpretation narrowing the meaning of the bible passage. Matthew uses the Greek verb TAPEINOO which means to humble oneself, to accept a lower place, to bring down one’s pride. But Phillips understands the humility as belonging to the child and translates accordingly, while guiding the reader towards this interpretation by referring in his headline to the “simplicity of children.” In the Greek there is nothing about the simplicity or the humility of children. The child is small, and is in the process of growing and has no rights. To become like a child is to accept a place of no importance, setting aside the worldly desire for recognition and honour. Jesus was not sentimental about children. Doubtless he knew they could be as devious as any adult; but they were nevertheless small and without rights. Jesus was telling his disciples to rid themselves of competitive vanity. In God’s community, the most honoured are content with the lowest place.
As if that wasn’t enough, Jesus went on to suggest that cutting oneself down to kingdom size might be painful. Cherished aspects of our character might have to be surrendered if we are to “become like children”. Why can’t I keep pride of place as the best tenor voice in the choir? Because it leads me to show off and take credit for something that’s a natural gift. Why can’t I insist that my interpretation of scripture is right and any who disagrees is a heretic? Because it allows me to throw my spiritual weight around and bully others. For the sake of the kingdom we have to become a little careless about our so-called strengths.
God, says Jesus, is also a bit careless about the steady members of the flock but mightily concerned about those who wander. He may seem to neglect the majority for the sake of one that’s got lost. Here the “little one,” the child, is described as a bit apt to wander but infinitely important to God. So we come full circle: the child is not a model of simplicity but a typical follower of Jesus who goes easily astray but in so doing calls out the rescuing love of God. Just become this little one, Jesus says, rather than the honoured disciples you want to be, and you’ll find yourselves the centre of God’s attention!