This blog offers a meditation on the Common Lectionary daily readings along with a headline from world news:
CHILDREN ENCOURAGED TO FIGHT IN IRAQ
MATTHEW 18: 1-10
On the same occasion the disciples came to Jesus, and asked him: “Who is really the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 2 Jesus called a little child to him, and placed him in the middle of them, and then said: 3 “I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven at all. 4 Therefore, anyone who will humble themselves like this child — that person will be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5 And anyone who, for the sake of my name, welcomes even one little child like this, is welcoming me. 6 But, if anyone puts temptation in the way of one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be best for them to be sunk in the depths of the sea with a great millstone hung around their neck. 7 Alas for the world because of such temptations! There cannot but be temptations but sorrow awaits the person who does the tempting!
8 If your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off, and throw it away. It would be better for you to enter the life maimed or lame, than to have both hands, or both feet, and be thrown into the fire that never goes out. 9 If your eye causes you to sin, take it out, and throw it away. It would be better for you to enter the life with only one eye, than to have both eyes and be thrown into the fires of Gehenna. 10 Beware of despising one of these little ones, for in heaven, I tell you, their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven.
There’s an ambiguity in this passage: is Jesus talking about actual children or disciples who are called “little children”? Matthew wants the reader to think of both, but I think it’s possible that Jesus was serious about real children, both as believers and as models for adult believers. One of the problems is the usual translation of the Greek “pistuein” as “believe. In the Greek it means to put one’s trust in someone, which seems more likely as an act of children than “belief” in someone. Matthew also records Jesus blessing children whom his disciples had turned away. It may be that the Victorian hymnwriter was correct in describing Jesus as a “friend of little children”. The fact that many modern societies find such friendship disturbing should not persuade us to ignore this characteristic of Jesus nor his dire warning to those who put “temptations” in the way of little ones. By using the word temptation this translation shows that it thinks the words apply to adult disciples. But it’s a poor translation of the Greek “skandalizein” which means to “offend, to cause to stumble”, and signifies any hurt which might destroy the faith of a little one. If churches should take very seriously the destruction caused by clerical child abuse; the citizens of secular societies should note how well churches throughout the 20th century have welcomed children and young people into their organisations and even now provide a large proportion of all facilities for children in the UK. In a society where childcare has become a commodity, the commitment of church volunteers to welcoming children is ever more impressive.
Jesus however was using a child as an example to his power-seeking disciples. He tells them to forget about being great and to be small as children are. The “humility” of a child is not a moral virtue but its low place in the pecking order of society. Trust in Jesus requires disciples to reject the struggle for status and its interiorised desires, and to “humble themselves as children”. John’s gospel calls this “being born from above”, that is, living as a child of God.
The theme of “causing people to stumble” leads Matthew to add Jesus’ teachings about the necessary ruthlessness with which disciples should treat their besetting sins. Traits of personality or personal habit which inhibit true discipleship are to be given no quarter but excised. This goes against much modern psychotherapy, but if Jesus was thinking of conditions analogous to addiction, he would have the support of many thoughtful counsellors. For example, the addiction of many people to the trappings of affluence, our unquestioning assertion of our right to enjoy “our wealth”. may require as rigorous a 12- step programme as is used with alcoholics or drug-addicts. The ruthlessness Jesus advocates is for the sake of freedom, so that people may be able to “enter the kingdom”, that is, the new world of God’s goodness.
The whole passage shows how extraordinary Jesus’ taaching was, and is: he attacks the social pyramid at its weakest point, its failiure to value children, but he doesn’t advocate its violent destruction. Rather, he suggests that only those at its foot will find the door to true greatness; and only those who are ruthless with their self-centred addictions will enjoy the goodness offered by God.