Matthew 18:15-20, On Not Stumbling the Little Ones

[September 7, 2014] We can know God abstractly, which has a limited usefulness, or we can know God in the mystery of the divine being, which humbles and opens our mind. In contemplating God as the Father, Jesus becomes the light of the Father, revealing the divine in a way that our own intellectual work cannot. By our contemplating Jesus as light, we too begin to shine with this light, and he whom we behold becomes a mirror, exposing us, letting us see our true selves, our true being, our true souls. Shining on others, without even knowing it, we too become a mirror whereby they can begin to know themselves too.

When Francis of Assisi was in Siena, a Dominican master wanted him to explain the passage from Ezekiel that says, “If you do not warn the wicked man about his wickedness, I will hold you responsible for his soul.” Francis replied that he was unlettered and that it was be better for him to be taught than to teach the other. The man insisted, so Francis replied: “If the passage is supposed to be understood in a universal sense, then I understand it to mean that a servant of God should be burning with life and holiness so brightly, that by the light of example and the tongue of his conduct, he will rebuke all the wicked. In that way, I say, the brightness of his life and the fragrance of his reputation will ‘proclaim their wickedness’ to all of them.” (Francis of Assisi: Early Documents, volume 2, page 141.)

I quote this, not because I intend to evade the words of Jesus in Matthew 18:15 but, because I want to consider its limits by setting it in its context. Like every other passage in the Bible, it is usually wrenched from its context and made to stand on its own for some purpose of our own. In the New Jerusalem Bible it says, “If your brother does something wrong, go and have it out with him alone, between your two selves.” Speaking of myself, I am never free of fault. How does it affect me when someone feels it is their responsibility to point out to me everything I do wrong? Does it help me? Far from it. First of all, there is the place they put themselves in with respect to me that affects me. Second, if I accept that, and I take them seriously, I am crushed under the weight of my faults, for their correction does not give me the power to change. The result is entirely oppressive. Is this what Jesus intended?

There are two different versions of the Greek text here. The Byzantine text has: “If your brother sins against you …” and the United Bible Societies’ eclectic (primarily Alexandrian) text has “against you,” but in brackets because they are uncertain about it, it being missing from many manuscripts. Bruce Metzger explains that it could have been added by copyists later on, perhaps under the influence of verse 21 (“How often must I forgive my brother if he wrongs me?”), or it could have been omitted, either deliberately (in order to give it a more general application) or by accident.

Perhaps it does not make a difference. If it is not there, it may be implied by the context. Probably, for us, its meaning—and therefore what is or is not implied—has to be determined by our understanding of the context.

What then is the context? For this verse is not the main point. Jesus’ teaching leads up to verse 20, “For where there are two or three gathered into my Name, there am I in their midst,” which follows from verse 19 where he spoke of when “two or three of you are in harmony on earth.” The word for harmony is symphōneō, which literally means to agree in sound (in Homer, it even has the sense of an “echo”). It was used in the general sense of agreement. “Gathered” (syna), a perfect passive participle, comes from a word that means to bring together (hence, “where two or three have been brought together”). “Into my Name” is literal. Our harmony is not any sort of harmony but a coming together into his Name. “Into my Name” is merely formal. The Name refers to who Jesus is, the reality of his Person, the revelation of himself.

So let us go back. In 17:1-8, after Jesus tells his disciples about the way of the cross that they must also go (16:24-27), he reveals the glory that follows from this. By following Jesus on his way, we are glorified, meaning we take part in the divine glory, we are divinized like him. Who we are—by participation in the life of the Triune God—is hidden in this life, as it was for Jesus, and so what follows in the text is a reminder that here, with the source of our new life hidden under the shroud of humility, we are still on the way of the cross (17:9-13). Jesus and his three disciples return to the plain where the disciples struggle with a man whose son is in a wretched state, their faith too weak to help him or his boy. This is where the life of the disciples takes place, on the plain. This is where the church is and where it must struggle.

Then Jesus tells his disciples again about his coming passion (17:22-23), introducing a new section of teaching. The story that follows in 17:24-27 is the prelude to the teaching. It is about the freedom of the sons, who Jesus’ disciples are assumed by implication to be. What obligations they are free from—that is, what the story alludes to—is for us for another time. In any case, what the story says is that our freedom must not cause other people to stumble, that is, to not fulfill their obligations. We should not enjoy the convenience of our freedom at the expense of others. (This thought has to be qualified, but I do not want to linger unnecessarily on this passage.)

What follows in chapter 18 is a teaching session of Jesus with his disciples. Jesus begins the session by saying that the disciples, if they would be great in the kingdom of the heavens, must become as little children relative to others. Each disciple must regard herself as a child in the midst of adults. Thus Francis of Assisi insisted that his brothers not just be brothers but minor or lesser brothers in relation to everyone else. To be a child abstractly is one thing; to be a child in the midst of adults points to the child’s humility and openness. In his usual hyperbolic way, Jesus says that if we do not change and become as little children, we cannot enter the kingdom of the heavens at all; but if we do make ourselves as little children, we will be the greatest in the kingdom of the heavens.

In what follows, then, the little child that Jesus speaks of is the disciple, not literally little children (Matthew speaks literally of children in 19:13-15). Verses 5-6 sets up the rest of the chapter. However a person treats a disciple (one of these “little children”) he is treating Jesus the same way (e.g., Acts 9:4-5). This repeats the teaching in 10:40-42 and Jesus will repeat it again in 25:31-46. This has to do with the kingdom, which is broader than the church. The church consists of Jesus’ disciples; the kingdom rules, or has jurisdiction, over all people. If they welcome the little child in Jesus’ Name, they are welcoming Jesus. If they—anyone—causes the little child who has faith in Jesus to trip up and fall, well, they just offended Jesus, big time: they “would be better drowned in the depths of the sea with a great millstone round [their] neck. Alas for the world that there should be such causes of falling! Causes of falling indeed there must be, but alas for anyone who provides them!”

While this principle applies to everyone, Jesus directs his attention to his disciples. The principle applies to them first of all! They must not be the cause of one of these little ones falling. “See that you never despise any of these little ones, for I tell you that their angels in heaven are continually in the presence of my Father in heaven” (verse 10), watching you. Traditionally we think of little cherubs watching over babies. The implication here, however, is that these angels—which in reality are awesome beings—will avenge the wrong you have done! For it is one of the roles of angels (13:41, 49) to cast people into the fire of God’s judgment (18:8-9). Does Jesus’ hyperbolic language in verses 8-9 refer to making sure that we ourselves are not guilty of harming one of Jesus’ little ones—my own hand or foot or eye which offends—or does it refer to others in the community of disciples who harm the little ones—that they must be excised? His meaning might include both ideas. At first it seems to be obviously reflexive, that I am the offender. But in light of 18:15-18 it might include the later.

At first Jesus speaks of “anyone who is the downfall of one of these little ones who have faith in me”; he refers to them as “causes of falling”: whoever stumbles a little one, who becomes a stumbling stone. The word derives from the bait stick or trigger of a trap. One trips over the trigger and falls into the trap. This is what disciples are capable of being to one another.

Jesus goes further than this and says, “See that you never despise any of these little ones.” We might not cause them to fall but we might despise them in our hearts. Do we despise those whom Jesus has called? Are there any little ones who have faith in Jesus whom we despise? Are there any whose faith in Jesus has faltered because we despise them?! Think of all those whom “Christians” have despised: people of other races and ethnicities, people whose culture we do not appreciate, people with doubts, people who are gay or lesbian or bisexual, people who are transgender. Many once believed or struggled hard to believe but have been so offended by those who claim to be Christians, who claim to be “teaching” (but really badgering people with quotations from) the Bible, that they have turned away in discouragement or bitterness or anger or despair.

Who, after all, are the little ones to whom Jesus is referring? Who are the “little ones” whom Matthew has presented us with so far? Are they not the sick, handicapped, deranged, and demon-harassed? Are they not the lepers and “unclean”? Are they not the non-observant, the sinful, the tax collectors and sex workers? Are they not the gentiles of every race and ethnicity and culture? Are they not women and children? Are they not the poor? Would they not include all the marginalized of our own society? Did Jesus lay all kinds of conditions on people before he would let them come to him? Never. “Follow me,” he would say. “Your sins are forgiven.” He seems to have let them figure out what could stay and what had to go. The commands he does give are all forward looking, not judgmental (unless, of course, when he is speaking to other teachers, like the Pharisees).

Jesus does not say it is enough to not despise these little ones. If one of them has fallen, if one of them has been tripped up or offended, a true disciple must leave the ninety-nine “righteous” and go in search of the one who has gone astray (18:12-14). They must be rescued, even if it harms our own reputation. “It is never the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.”

This is the context of verses 15-20. Here I am, a weak little child who believes in Jesus. My brother (or sister) sins against me. What Jesus is referring to is not any sin but rather what he has been talking about since verse 6. My fellow disciple’s behavior towards me, whether by word or deed, causes me to stumble, or is about to do so. Perhaps my fellow disciple, my sibling, despises me and demonstrates this by bad mouthing me. This is one situation.

I should then make the situation known to my sibling. “Call him out” on it, as we say. Label it so he cannot go glibly on, causing me (and others like me) harm. That may be enough. I bring it to his awareness and he apologizes and sincerely tries to do better.

But my brother may not care. He may attempt to justify himself or excuse his behavior, say that it is my own fault that I am offended, get over it. People can joke and say disparaging words and that is supposed to be okay. I am supposed to have a thick skin, or take it all with a sense of humor. No! Christians may not do this to other people, ever. Jokes that put down an individual or a class of people are never okay! Often it is bullying. In no context is it acceptable, neither privately nor publicly.

If the brother refuses to respect me, then I can bring it to the attention of others in the community. Eventually the entire community has to deal with it. In any case, it is always the responsibility of the community.

If the person refuses to change, the words of verses 8-9 (about our hand or foot or eye) might apply. But in the case of another person, how should we apply them? We do not just amputate a person the way Jesus hyperbolically recommends that we do to our hands and feet and eyes. No, Jesus says, “treat him like a gentile or a tax collector.”

Jesus does NOT mean to treat this person the way other people treat gentiles and tax collectors! This is how Christians often interpret Jesus. But how can we seriously do so? It would be ridiculous. No, we are to treat the person the way Jesus treated gentiles and tax collectors (before they gave him their allegiance or faith). He treated them with openness and compassion and respect. He did not, however, treat them as if they were already his disciples—not until they were.

In other words, we are to treat this offensive disciple/Christian as if they were an unbeliever. Maybe this is temporary or maybe the individual has revealed their true colors. We do not exclude the person, but we can no longer recognize them as a believer even if the individual insists that they are. We proclaim the Gospel to them as if they have not heard it.

The second situation is not when a brother or sister sins against me but when I see that the brother or sister has sinned against one of the little ones, the little “children” who have faith (or is trying to have faith) in Jesus, one of our more vulnerable fellow believer. On behalf of this one Jesus requires that I go to the offending brother or sister and speak to her or her about what they have done or are doing. What they have done is racist, or homophobic, or derogatory or bullying (for example). If they will not listen to me, I need to take one or two others with me and give it some weight (show that it is not just my imagination, but their behavior really is a problem). If they will not listen to the two or three, then the community has to deal with it. In other words, this kind of behavior must not ever be tolerated by any congregation or fellowship of believers.

This second sense, leaving out the “against me” in the Byzantine text, actually makes better sense within the context of this chapter.

Jesus says we are not to judge one another. We are not to judge this brother or sister either. We just no longer recognize their claim to righteousness. This can be an awfully slippery slope. Nevertheless, the harm that we can do to one another is so serious that we cannot wiggle out of our responsibility here. The vulnerable must be protected more than our pious self-righteousness and more than the ninety-nine “righteous.” Nevertheless, we still treat the offending individual as someone in need of God’s saving grace. We are not to be their enemy.

The meaning of verse 18 is the same as the meaning of 16:19. It is we who open the kingdom of the heavens to others. If we despise people we close the doors of the kingdom. If we act like Jesus, we open the doors. In this sense, it is wrong to “bind [the Gospel] on earth” and thus bind the kingdom of the heavens from them. However, it is also our responsibility to “loose on earth” the Gospel so that the kingdom of the heavens is loosened (opened up) for others. When Jesus left us on earth to represent him to others, he gave us this responsibility. Does this mean that God cannot work around us? No, in fact God often works among people rejected by the “church” and often they turn to Jesus in spite of us. This is the operation of the kingdom of the heavens (the kingdom is not confined to the church). However, it is our responsibility to not force this to happen but to indeed “loose on earth” the Gospel that all may come to Jesus.

“In truth I tell you once again, if two of you on earth are in harmony concerning anything for which they ask, it will be granted to you by my Father in the heavens.” Here Jesus is referring to the power of prayer that we are given if we receive one another completely in his Name. The harmony that he is referring to is our love for one another. If we do not love one another, if instead we despise a little one who believes in Jesus and do not include her, then we have not been brought together into his Name.

Verse 19 definitely seems to shift to the issue of prayer, though that was not the topic before. Jesus assumes, however, that prayer is at the center of our lives as his disciples (remember the chiastic structure of the Sermon on the Mount). We can only be disciples—that is, Christians at all—if we live before God. If we want our lives as disciples to work, we can only do so if the One to whom we are discipled, our Master, is with us. Otherwise we have no basis to live before the Father—in a life of continuous prayer and God-consciousness. In order for Christ to be with us, we must be brought together in the harmony of love with the other disciples. And this is not happening if we despise “any of these little ones” and do not care for them. The more, in fact, we go after the one who has gone astray on account of “Christians” or the “church” tripping them up, the better off we will be as disciples.

In what follows, Jesus teaches us how we cannot accept the Father’s forgiveness if we cannot forgive those who offend us. This is the other side of the coin. Not only must we not despise the little ones and go after the ones whom we have offended, but we must also forgive those who have offended us or the vulnerable among us, when they make any sincere effort to repent. In other words, while verses 8-9 prepare us for verse 17 (when we treat the offender like a gentile or a tax collector), verses 21-25 follows their repentance. Verses 21-35 tells us how to receive that person—the offender—back.

For long chapters Matthew has been showing us how Jesus’ teaching wages war against our prejudices and intolerance and the ways we discriminate against others. In his own context, Matthew is trying to convince his fellow Jews who believe in Jesus to welcome gentile believers into their fellowship, in other words, to accept the “experiment” of Antioch and the work of such apostles as Paul and Barnabas and now Silas. For us this teaching applies to our white racially and ethnically segregated congregations—they are disgraceful—and also the widespread discrimination practiced by Christians against women and against gay and lesbian and bisexual people and gender-nonconforming people, including those little ones who believe in Jesus. They are not the only ones against whom we discriminate. We also discriminate against autistic individuals and those who suffer from mental illnesses. Let us not ignore our own behavior anymore, or the behavior of others in our fellowships! Let us no longer be a stumbling block to the little ones!

“Anyone who is the downfall of one of these little ones who have faith in me would be better drowned in the depths of the sea with a great millstone round his neck.”

1 comment to Matthew 18:15-20, On Not Stumbling the Little Ones

  • Peter

    The subject here has to do with Christians who mistreat others, who despise others, or who cause others who believe or who are struggling to believe to stumble. While many people misread the first half of Matthew chapter 18 and imagine that when Jesus is talking about actual children when he talks about the “little children who have faith in me,” more careful readers realize that the little children about whom Jesus is speaking are his disciples, who are supposed to have the openness of little children and the humility and vulnerability that they have in the presence of adults, people whom Jesus called and continues to call from the margins and outcasts of society, people who are particularly vulnerable to being despised looked down upon. Woe to us who despise them, he warns.

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