Seek the Least and the Lost (Matthew 18:1-14)

Child of God by Suzi Olson

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”

He called a little child to him and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.

“If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble! Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come! 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 crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell.

“See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.

“What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish. (New International Version)

“A person’s a person no matter how small.”

Horton Hears a Who! By Dr. Seuss

Jesus sees, honors, and protects little people. 

Horton the elephant spoke to people completely unconcerned for all the residents of Who Ville that lived on a clover. Dr. Seuss chose to make Horton an elephant, a large creature able to hear with big ears and be attentive to the small. Bigness can only come from becoming small.

Little people, the ones others fail to notice, matter to Jesus. And so, they ought to matter to us, too. Since Jesus sees and hears them, we should, too. 

Jesus often mingled with little people – children, women who had no rights, social misfits like lepers, the chronically ill, religious outsiders, tax collectors, and prostitutes. 

Our world is filled with similar people – angry adolescents, unwanted babies, forgotten old people, the mentally ill, moral failures, immigrants and refugees. If we have eyes to see and big ears to hear, we will notice the poor whom no one else hears. They are around us, even if they are invisible to us.

We’re all just little people before God. So, let’s be humble enough to see the little people around us. 

Who’s the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?

That question drips with a desire to position and posture oneself in a place of prominence and power. In other words, the questions really is, “How do I climb the ladder in God’s kingdom to be the most important person?”

In response, Jesus graciously and calmly called a child to him and answered that unless we become like a little child, we have no future with God. There’s only one way to have what you want, and it’s through humility.

Children had no status or rights in the ancient world. Ancient culture was not remotely youth or kid oriented. Kids were generally viewed as just potential adults. They were seen as weak, small, and unable to contribute much of anything until they grew up. 

Disciples of Jesus are to become like children, that is, lowly. Followers of Christ must give up their status and desire to be important. They can only be big if they become small.

Only by getting on the same level as little people can we ever welcome Jesus.

Why become like a little child?

Because a person who is attentive to the lowly is actually attentive to Jesus himself. 

We are not to welcome people because they are great, wise, rich, powerful, good-looking, and just like you and me – but because they are noticed by Jesus.

The proud person who seeks prominence is always looking for greener pastures and things to do that will impress people who will help advance them up the ladder of success. They do not care who gets stepped on along the way. 

The Christian, however, is to give all people, including the little ones and the marginal ones, the time of day and treat them as important.

How does one become humble and avoid sin?

Those who receive these little ones receive Jesus; those who reject these little ones reject Jesus, and by their lack of loving them cause them to sin. This, according to Jesus, is damnable behavior, and, so, must be dealt with in a radical manner because hell is worth avoiding at any cost. 

So then, the proud person must hack off part of themselves because it is better to be maimed for the rest of your life than enter hell. This is just one reason why a lot of folks stopped following Jesus.

Yet, Jesus insists that if, for example, your pursuit of money consumes you and you hold onto it and avoid the poor, give it away! If you hold onto your time like a clock miser and let it become your “precious” then you must get rid of it, you must give it away! It is better for you to have nothing than to have plenty of time and money and be thrown into hell fire!

In short, we should seek the lost.  

Instead of waiting for them to show up, or to seek us out, we must go get them.

The lost matter to God.

Those who are on the fence and are half-hearted in their devotion to Jesus and the mission of the church, matter to God. So are the spiritually indifferent and the not very committed. 

Coptic Church icon of Jesus the Good Shepherd

The temptation for spiritually serious persons is to look down on these lukewarm people. Jesus knew how easy it is to berate and despise such persons in our hearts:

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14, NIV)

If we are willing to humble ourselves, we can learn the hard practice of not hating others for what we hate in ourselves. 

We hate it when we are lax in our devotion to Christ; fail to accomplish what we want; miss opportunities to do good; and neglect to pray, give, or serve. So, when we see this as a pattern in someone else’s life, we may easily despise them in our hearts.

Turns out that many serious Christians must be converted as well – to seeing God’s heart for these despised little people.

What should be done about lost people?

Human reasoning might say, “Ah, let that one go; we have 99.” But God’s reasoning is, “I really care for that one.” Jesus wants to convert us to the statistically unimportant. 

If a person does not contribute to the life of the flock, do we care?

The parable contained within today’s Gospel lesson has become so familiar that it no longer shocks us. What kind of shepherd would be so stupid to abandon the entire flock and expose them to the dangers of wild animals and the harsh environment in order to search, maybe even unsuccessfully for one stinky, messed up, knurly, ugly, eats-too-much, sheep? 

And then, what’s more, when finding such a sheep, that shepherd rejoices more about this one sheep found than over the more dependable and attractive members of the flock? 

Only such a “foolish” shepherd can represent God’s concern for each one straying child.

Our Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little people should be lost. Therefore, we are to seek the lost.

Conclusion

Antonio Stradivarius (1644-1737) was an Italian violin maker. His violins are now the most prized violins ever made because of the rich and resonating sound they produce. The unique sound of a Stradivarius violin cannot be duplicated.

Surprisingly, these prized violins were not made from treasured pieces of wood, but instead were carved from discarded lumber. Stradivarius, who was very poor and could not afford fine materials like his contemporaries, got much of his wood from the dirty harbors where he lived. He would take those waterlogged pieces of wood to his shop, clean them up, and from those pieces of trashed lumber, he created instruments of rare beauty.

It has since been discovered that while the wood floated in those dirty harbors, microbes went into the wood and ate out the center of those cells. This left just the fibrous infrastructure of the wood that created resonating chambers for the music. From wood that nobody wanted, Stradivarius produced violins that everybody wants.

God has a plan. It is a plan to build a benevolent realm using not just the big and important, but the lowly and despised. 

May we all participate with the Lord and humble ourselves for kingdom purposes.

Your People Will Be My People (Ruth 1:6-18)

Naomi and Ruth by Chana Helen Rosenberg, 2017

When Naomi heard in Moab that the Lord had come to the aid of his people by providing food for them, she and her daughters-in-law prepared to return home from there. With her two daughters-in-law she left the place where she had been living and set out on the road that would take them back to the land of Judah.

Then Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go back, each of you, to your mother’s home. May the Lord show you kindness, as you have shown kindness to your dead husbands and to me. May the Lord grant that each of you will find rest in the home of another husband.”

Then she kissed them goodbye, and they wept aloud and said to her, “We will go back with you to your people.”

But Naomi said, “Return home, my daughters. Why would you come with me? Am I going to have any more sons, who could become your husbands? Return home, my daughters; I am too old to have another husband. Even if I thought there was still hope for me—even if I had a husband tonight and then gave birth to sons—would you wait until they grew up? Would you remain unmarried for them? No, my daughters. It is more bitter for me than for you, because the Lord’s hand has turned against me!”

At this they wept aloud again. Then Orpah kissed her mother-in-law goodbye, but Ruth clung to her.

“Look,” said Naomi, “your sister-in-law is going back to her people and her gods. Go back with her.”

But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.” When Naomi realized that Ruth was determined to go with her, she stopped urging her. (New International Version)

Every time I read this account of Naomi and her daughters-in-law I’m reminded of my Dad because this was his favorite Old Testament story.

Dad was a lifelong farmer, and so, always related to the agrarian society of ancient Israel. But what really resonated for him in Scripture was Ruth’s response to her mother-in-law: “Your people are my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried.”

My father did not want to be a farmer. He wanted to go to college and become an engineer. In fact, without my grandfather’s knowledge, he was accepted to a university and secured an on-campus job. Yet, when Grandpa found out, he was less than pleased because Dad was needed on the farm during the depression era.

So, Dad, although he could have went to college, decided to stay on the farm. And the reason he decided to do so was not because he got his arm twisted, but because of the story of Ruth. He made the decision to stick with farming and never looked back. My Dad died ten years ago and is buried in the same cemetery as his father.

Ruth and Naomi by He Qi, 2001

The biblical character of Ruth is a solid example of one who was cognizant that she was part of a larger whole – that, although she was indeed an individual with personal choices, the decisions she made impact a much wider community. I believe Ruth discerned that the Israelite community understood this truth, and she wanted to be a part of it.

It is rare, in this age of extreme individualism, that people willingly give themselves to do what is best for the group, the family, the neighborhood, the faith community, the nation, and the world. There is a tendency to view things very narrowly in terms of what’s in it for me and ignore the rest.

So, I invite you to consider becoming ever more aware and connected to the communities around you. Discover the issues, problems, joys, sorrows, celebrations, and challenges they hold. And give yourself to the great struggles of that place. Jesus said:

If any of you want to be my followers, you must forget about yourself. You must take up your cross and follow me. If you want to save your life, you will destroy it. But if you give up your life for me, you will find it. (Matthew 16:24-25, CEV)

The One who is concerned to save the entire world only tolerates disciples who share his care for the entire human family.

Therefore, we ought neither to participate in nor support causes, activities, or speech that is harmful to others. Instead, we should find ways of using our particular gifts and abilities to serve the common good of all persons. We need more commitment and love, and a lot less anger, divisiveness, and hatred.

Grace and humility will always serve us, and others, very well. Judgment and pride, not so much.

Tell them to do good, to be rich in the good things they do, to be generous, and to share with others. (1 Timothy 6:18, CEB)

How, then, shall we live?

Your people will be my people.

Can you imagine a world in which all persons ascribe to this?

May it be so, to the glory of God.

We pray to you, Lord God, for all people everywhere:

For all people in their daily life and work;
For our families, friends, and neighbors, and for those who are alone.

For our community, the nation, and the world;
For all who work for justice, freedom, and peace.

For the just and proper use of your creation;
For the victims of hunger, fear, injustice, and oppression.

For all who are in danger, sorrow, or any kind of trouble;
For those who minister to the sick, the friendless, and the needy.

For the peace and unity of the Church;
For all who proclaim and seek the Truth.

Hear us, Lord; For your mercy is great. Amen.

Let the Little Children Come (Luke 18:15-17)

People were also bringing babies to Jesus for him to place his hands on them. When the disciples saw this, they rebuked them. But Jesus called the children to him and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” (New International Version)

I happen to believe that kids are closer to the kingdom of God than most adults.

Us big people have developed a lot of baggage over the years. And all that stuff tends to obscure God’s kingdom and the light of Christ within us.

Kids, however, especially small children, still haven’t discerned any veil between the seen and unseen worlds. They freely move between them both without any problem.

So, of course, Jesus wanted to be around children. If he had any homesickness at all, I’m sure the presence of kids made him feel at home more than anywhere else on this earth.

Jesus is our Immanuel, God with us.

The kingdom of God is here within us.

The disciples of Jesus had some difficulty with Christ’s branding of the message because it was not exclusive enough for them. They wanted limits on the us part.

Kids are part of that mass of people that God is with. Children deserve as much or more attention than adults. More than simply saying that we care about kids, we need to be like Jesus. He let the children come to him and was intolerant of anyone preventing kids from doing so.

Since the disciples were, ironically, still living in a small world, they rebuked those who brought little children to Jesus.

We aren’t specifically told why the disciples rebuked the adults bringing children to Jesus. Maybe the children were making a lot of noise and were being a nuisance in the middle of Jesus’ teaching. Perhaps the disciples had Jesus on a tight time schedule and this bringing kids to Christ thing was causing a delay. It could be that the disciples simply saw children as an interruption to the “important” work of ministry. 

I tend to think that the disciples simply failed to appreciate the children. The dominate view of kids in the ancient world was to see them as potential adults. Kids were pretty low on the ladder of society. The disciples likely saw no reason for children to be involved in what was happening.

The babies and toddlers and small children were brought so that Jesus might place his hands on them and pray for them. That still seems to me to be the best reason to bring kids to Jesus. 

“This story teaches us that Christ does not receive only those who voluntarily come to Him of a holy desire and moved by faith, but also those who might not yet be old enough to realize how much they need His grace….  From this we gather that His grace reaches to this age of life also….  It would be cruel to exclude that age from the grace of redemption.”

John Calvin

“Jesus does not only save repentant adults; he also saves dependent children and all those whom we think are incompetent to respond to Jesus.”

Frederick Dale Bruner

Jesus flat out rebuked his disciples for hindering the little children from coming to him. He wanted just the opposite of what was taking place. Why? Because the kingdom of heaven belongs to such little people as these. 

As mentioned, children were at the bottom of the societal pecking order in the ancient world. Their place in that society was to be respectful and quiet, to speak only when spoken to, and to never interrupt an adult.

Yet, Jesus took the time to touch them and pray for them. He invited this interruption to his schedule. Christ bluntly told his disciples that they were the ones being the hindrance, not the kids.

I baptize all sorts of people, including kids and babies. Why? Because in baptism, I recognize that the smallest ones among us can come to this holy sacrament. I understand that in baptism the Holy Spirit begins and initiates the process of salvation that will take that little one from infancy to adulthood and eventual death. I discern that, ideally, the child grows to live into their baptism by recognizing by faith that Jesus died and rose from the dead and grants grace and forgiveness to all who come to him. 

In that process of salvation, of coming to know Jesus, we have the sacrament of the Lord’s Table to strengthen our faith and demonstrate to us that the saving work of Jesus that has been accomplished. It is a Table of grace for all the members of Christ’s Church. 

In my Reformed Christian tradition, we believe that Jesus is not physically, but spiritually present at the Table.  Because Jesus is present, we are able to receive the grace available to us as Christ’s members. So why, in light of this reality, and the words and practice of Jesus toward children, would we ever hinder and prevent the smallest members among us from participating at the Table?

Here’s a thought: If Jesus himself were serving communion in a church, and a group of 2-year-old children came toddling up to the Table to see Jesus, would you stop them from doing so? Or much like the disciples, would you rebuke those bringing children to Jesus?

As for me, I’d rather not be rebuked by my Lord.

Jesus gave children the three gifts they most need: time, touch, and prayer. Parenting and teaching are holy vocations, and we have the wonderful privilege of bestowing these same gifts on our children, grandchildren, and students.

Time, touch, and prayer are ways we bless children. And, what’s more, as God’s children, we are all to approach Jesus and spend time with him, allow him to touch us, and interact with him through prayer. 

May we all have the humility to bend down at eye level to the littlest among us so that we and others will know that the kingdom of God is among us.

The Longing of Christ’s Heart (Matthew 23:37-24:14)

“If Thou Had’st Known” by William Brassey Hole (1846-1917)

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. Look, your house is left to you desolate. For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

Jesus left the temple and was walking away when his disciples came up to him to call his attention to its buildings. “Do you see all these things?” he asked. “Truly I tell you, not one stone here will be left on another; everyone will be thrown down.”

As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. “Tell us,” they said, “when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”

Jesus answered: “Watch out that no one deceives you. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and will deceive many. You will hear of wars and rumors of wars but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. All these are the beginning of birth pains.

“Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come. (New International Version)

Christ’s cry of love for the city of Jerusalem– the longing to bring the people together and shepherd them with care and compassion – came after a very pointed pronouncement of woes against a distorted religion that was in vogue at the time. Jesus saw the current state of worship, found it to be terribly wanting, gave a scathing rebuke, and saw ahead to its ultimate demise.

Jesus did not just blast the establishment, then humph and walk away disgusted. Instead, he looked with sadness over the city and broke into a tear-filled, heart-wrenching love song for his wayward people. Jesus was both angry and sad because of his deep concern for all people to know the true worship of God and to find their ultimate purpose and meaning in him.

“And Jesus Wept” statue in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

Any religious fool can rant about the ills of the world, ungodly persons, and defective institutions. However, it takes a person with the heart of Jesus to weep over it all and follow him into suffering on behalf of others so that they might come to the peaceable kingdom of righteousness. 

If our hearts are not unraveled over the sin and injustice of the world, we are in no position to rant about anything. That’s because grace and mercy is the currency of God’s economy. 

Thus, we need to repent like we mean it, pray as if our lives depended on it, and proclaim the good news of Christ as if there is not a tomorrow.

In a results-driven culture, congregations want clear strategy plans for ministry. Yet, a group of people can implement the best of ministries and still not realize their well-laid plans. If Jesus didn’t see what he wanted to happen come to fruition in Jerusalem, then I’m not sure how any of us can always expect success in ministry. We may fail in many ways; but let us not fail to weep over our communities and neighborhoods and long for them to know Christ.

It’s okay that neither every ministry goes as planned nor every person is blessed by what we do. If we find it hard to accept this, and feel out of control, then we want to know the future – how everything is going to shake-out. This is precisely what the disciples wanted to know, since their expectations weren’t realized.

Jesus essentially told them that things were going to get even tougher. Therefore, they need to be ready and persevere through the adversity. And some of that trouble will be downright cataclysmic. Jesus did not give his disciples a seminar on having a successful ministry; he simply told them to endure suffering and focus on proclaiming the gospel.

But for that to happen, we need to accept that we cannot control every variable of ministry and plan for every contingency. The only guarantees we have is that God is with us, and Christ is coming again. That’s it, my friends.

So, instead of control, we must accept our limitations and practice self-control. We can continually monitor our own internal motivations and desires so that they are in constant alignment with the words and ways of Jesus – including a heart of love that weeps over the brokenness and stubbornness of the world. 

Followers of Jesus walk the only true road of Christian discipleship: the path of humility. Out of all the characteristics that Jesus could have described himself, the only two words he ever used were “gentle and humble.” (Matthew 11:29)

Jesus Weeping Over Jerusalem, by Enrique Simonet Lombardo (1866-1927)

Jesus is the perfect example of a leader who always ministered with a complete sense of his divine power, human limitations, and concern for others. Christ never believed he was the reason for his own success, nor thought he was the reason for another’s failure of faith. Instead, Jesus always connected what he was doing to the will of his Father in heaven.

You can only avoid the seduction of arrogant pride when you recognize that you are not God and need the help of others. Truly humble folk dig a hole, throw their ego into it, and pour concrete on top of it. This allows them to listen deeply, give generously, and encourage others liberally.

Standing firm to the end doesn’t come through crafting complicated charts of the end times; it comes through being humble, being grounded in the here-and-now, being attentive to the people around us, and being a guide for the lost. More importantly, it’s what Christ wants us to be.

Loving Lord Jesus, let me have your zeal for God’s house and your heart for lost people! Change my heart, O God, and let it reflect your grace and truth in everything I say and do; through Christ my Savior, who with you and the Holy Spirit, reign now and forever. Amen.