By Paul Koch –
We gather together on a day like this in a place like this in order to experience the Word of God. The divine revelation of the Creator of the universe is proclaimed in our fellowship, it is washed over our heads in baptism, placed into our mouths in the supper of our Lord, confessed upon our lips, and echoes in our ears. And within this moment that we share gathered around the Word of God, we find something surprising. As we come together in faith we find that the Word is a living thing. It hits us differently every time. There are some texts that we have heard over and again in our lives but for some reason this time we hear it: it digs a little deeper. It leaves its mark. It impacts us in our lives in a more profound way. Truly the Spirit is at work in the Word, opening hearts and minds, bringing both repentance and faith.
Matthew 18 has been a text that, for me, has managed to dig a little deeper over and again. It seems to get to the core of something within me, something that is at the heart of the church today, something that is challenging and comforting and entirely unsettling all at the same time. The text culminates with that famous line we all know about the church, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” But before we get there it takes us on a roller coaster ride that completely turns upside down what we know and think about this thing we call the church. It all begins with a question that the disciples bring to our Lord. A question that might seem innocent enough, but is filled with misunderstanding and sin. They ask, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
Now notice what our Lord does. He gets up takes a small child, who was apparently part of this gathering, and he puts the child in the middle of the group and says, “Unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” Now we have a tendency of thinking that Jesus is saying that anyone who has the sweet childlike faith is the greatest. The one who simply believes and trusts, that is what he is calling us to. But that might be jumping the gun a bit. That’s how people in the modern age view our children, but that is not how children have been viewed throughout most of history. In our Lord’s day, children were not to be prized for their faith or emulated in their simplicity. No, children were to be pitied. No one wanted their child to stay a child for too long. Childhood wasn’t a prized stage in life. It was something to get through, to get to a point that you were not so dependent, to where you could make your own stand. This sermon illustration of our Lord is shocking and even offensive to those gathered there. For what he is saying to them is that the one who is the greatest in the kingdom is like a child. That is, it is the one who is most in need, most dependent, most unable to do it on his own.
With that in mind, with the image of the greatest being the one most in need of compassion and love and forgiveness, pay close attention to the images that follow. Our Lord takes us on quite a ride from a millstone to cutting off hands to a shepherd searching for sheep to finally gaining a brother in the faith. And he begins by saying that if someone caused one of these little ones to sin, it would be better for them to have a millstone tied around their neck and be cast into the sea. The world is full of temptations to sin and one who is in need of care and compassion, one who is barely hanging on to the fringe of the fellowship is in more need of care and concern than anyone else. They are the greatest and ought to be treated like it. So, if you become the cause of their sin, if you push them out of the fellowship, it would be better if you were drowned in the sea – for you destroyed the greatest.
And if that wasn’t graphic enough, our Lord gets a little more serious. He says that if your hand causes you to sin cut it off and the same goes for your foot. For it would be better to enter life crippled than with two and hands or feet going to hell. And if your eye causes you to sin, why, tear it out and throw it away. After all, it is better to enter life with one eye than with two and be thrown into hell. You get the point here, don’t you? Do you get how much the eternal God hates sin? You must do what is necessary to rid yourself from those things that might pull you down into the fires of hell. Cut it off, throw it away, for there are so many that are right on the edge, brothers and sisters in Christ that are just barely hanging on, and one little push can be their downfall. It is serious business. There are eternal consequences – consider who is the greatest.
Jesus gives an example of the care he is talking about, an image of how we ought to treat the greatest. “What do you think?” He says, “If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray?” We might say, no, no he doesn’t. That doesn’t make any sense to leave the rest in the open to search for the one who is lost. But that is what God does. That is how he cares for the greatest. For the greatest are those most in need of his shepherding, those who are in danger of being lost to the wilds of this world. So, he says, “It is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.”
Then he gets to the nitty gritty, for next our Lord gets right to the center of the whole issue and he speaks about Christians living among one another. He addresses how you treat each other, how you interact with one another, how you treat the greatest in the kingdom. If a brother sins against you, you go and tell him his fault. It seems pretty straightforward, you speak the truth in love to him. And if he won’t listen to you, then you take one or two others along. If he still won’t listen you, bring along the whole assembly of believers, the whole church. If at any point he confesses and heeds the Word of God, why, you have won a brother. Here Jesus takes everything he has been saying about who is the greatest and puts it into practical application. The greatest in the church are those most in need, those who are teetering on the edge like an unrepentant sinner. The response of the church is not to say, well, to each their own. No, the church is to do everything they can to restore that one, to find that lost sheep, to remove the sin, to keep the little one from falling.
See this turns the entire church upside down. We are accustomed to seeing the greatest as the strongest, the most well educated, the more financially sound, the ones who seem to be winning every day of their lives. But here, here our Lord says no. You want to know who the greatest are? They are the hurting, the lost, the horrible sinners who just don’t care anymore. They are the ones that are but a breath from throwing away their faith altogether and saying, “Who cares? Let’s eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die.” Those hurting and desperate sinners are the greatest. They are the greatest, and it is about time that you began to treat them like they are.
For you see there was a time when you were weak, when you were small, when you were standing with one foot out the door. And the good Shepherd found you. Through the hands and feet of your brothers and sisters in Christ he found you and brought you back in. He restored you to his family and all heaven celebrated. Maybe that was at your baptism, maybe that was a year ago, perhaps it was just last week or even a few moments ago. But now, if you are strong, if you are confident in your faith, if you are emboldened by the gifts of Christ, it is time to seek out the greatest and do what it takes to not let them fall away.
Our Lord declares that what we do here, how we treat the greatest, has eternal consequences. What is bound here is bound in heaven. What is loosed here is loosed in heaven. And then he says, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” The image we usually conjure up when we hear this line is that of worship. People gathered together with the promise that their prayers and praise are heard because our Lord himself is there in their midst. And while that is true, it is not the best way to see this. Just think about this journey we’ve been on. The image is not of people standing side by side, but of people facing each other. It is the image of a brother or sisters speaking the truth in love to another. It is one who confesses and one who forgives. It is a life where we proclaim the love of Christ so that we might not lose the greatest.
Find the greatest and treat them like it. Let’s send the whole church if we must. Let’s do what we can while there is still time, for we have already lost so many.