Little Ones to Him Belong
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The text for today is our Gospel lesson, Matthew 18:1-20.
The text for today is our Gospel lesson, Matthew 18:1-20.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
“Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” We might think of Abraham or Moses or the apostle Paul. When the disciples asked Jesus that question, however, they wanted to know which one of them would be the greatest. They all expected to have positions of importance in Jesus’ kingdom, and each of them would have liked to be Jesus’ right-hand man.
It’s natural in any social group to establish some sort of pecking order. You see it out on the playground, in the classroom, in office politics, and unfortunately, even in the church. We all measure ourselves in comparison with others. We jockey for position and hope to come out near the top. So we can understand why the disciples wondered about their positions in the kingdom Jesus was going to establish. But Jesus’ kingdom is not like any earthly kingdom. His is a kingdom where the first are last and the last are first. The disciples’ problem was that they failed to understand that. So Jesus gave them a lesson about greatness and humility, and He did it in a way that they would never forget. We do well to remember it always too.
Jesus called a little child into their midst and pointed to that child as an example of greatness in His kingdom. He warned the disciples that no one can even enter into His kingdom without becoming like such a little one. The main point of comparison was the child’s humility. Humility—that is the basic Christian virtue. As a matter of fact, there can be no virtue in God’s sight without humility. And there’s the rub. As that great philosopher, Mac Davis, once sang: “It’s hard to be humble.” In fact, true godly humility is impossible for sinful man.
To the average person, to be humble means to not think of oneself too highly. But the moment you start trying to be humble, whom are you focusing on? Yourself! Certainly, a truly humble person would never brag about how humble he is. But even the moment you start thinking about how humble you are, you’ve failed to achieve humility. So obviously humility, from a biblical perspective, means something different than the definition our culture provides.
Humility means, first of all, recognizing personal sinfulness and one’s inability to do anything at all to become worthy before God and earn salvation. I am a poor, miserable sinner who has offended God with my sins and sinfulness and justly deserve His temporal and eternal punishment. I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him. Humility depends entirely on God’s mercy for forgiveness and salvation.
Jesus provides us with the perfect example of God-pleasing humility. Though very God of very God, He came down from heavenly glory and became one of us. He was born of a poor virgin in a lowly stable. He willingly submitted to all the laws God had given to His people. He never used His divine powers for His own convenience or comfort, but depended entirely upon His heavenly Father. He allowed sinful people to mistreat Him, condemn Him, and crucify Him. He allowed His heavenly Father to pour out all His wrath for the world’s sin on Him. And He endured all these things for us. That is why He came into the world.
Genuine Christian humility will show itself in our attitude toward children. Jesus speaks of welcoming a little child in His name as a service done to Him personally. We welcome a little child in Jesus’ name, first of all, by recognizing that children are gifts of God, not grievous burdens. We serve Jesus by providing for the needs of our children. That means not only food and shelter and clothing and loving care, but above all, bringing them to Jesus in Holy Baptism and training them to know and love and obey their Savior.
If we are lacking in Christian humility, we may be guilty of causing little ones to sin instead of serving them in Jesus’ name. We are personally responsible for children’s sin if we neglect to bring them to their Savior in Holy Baptism, if we fail to give our children Christian training, if we set a poor example in our homes. That’s why it’s important for children to see their parents, particularly their fathers, attending worship and coming to Bible study. If we rely on others to teach our children the Word of God and then contradict God’s Word by the way we speak and act, we endanger our children’s faith.
Little children can believe in Jesus even before they are able to express their faith verbally, and Christian parents and other adults have a solemn obligation to nurture little children’s faith with the Word of God. That’s why we place a high priority on Christian instruction with things like Sunday School and Vacation Bible School, These are opportunities for our little ones to grow in the faith.
But please note: When Jesus is speaking about “little ones,” He is not simply talking about children. It is about people of all ages who have a childlike faith. Elderly, adolescent, new Christians, doctors of theology—whatever the outward condition—Christ’s sincere followers have a childlike faith. They are all little ones who can be tripped up and tempted to sin—by us!
Sin leads away from Christ and away from saving faith. So, woe to me and woe to you when our conduct or conversation causes a fellow Christian to fall into sin. Jesus says that it would be better to have a millstone hung around our neck and be drowned in the depths of the sea. Those are strong words!
Why does Jesus use such a powerful an image? Because the immortal soul is so precious! It is one thing to imagine being in someone else’s shoes, to do to others as you would have them do to you. It’s far different to jeopardize someone’s eternal welfare, your own included! It would be better to be destroyed bodily than to be guilty of destroying a little one spiritually.
There will be many things in this sinful world that will cause people to sin. That is inevitable. But that does not excuse the guilty. The sinner is guilty, and so is the person who causes another to sin. Jesus emphasizes that personal responsibility by advising us to cut off a hand or a foot or to gouge out an eye that causes a person to sin. And He means that literally! After all, we would be much better off giving up a part of our bodies than allowing it to drag our body and soul along with it into hell. Before you cripple or blind yourself, however, realize that no member of your body can be responsible for causing you to sin. The problem is how you use your body. Eyes, hands, feet—your whole being—should aid discipleship. However, if what you choose to see with your eyes and do with your limbs weakens faith, you’d be better off without them.
Jesus emphasizes the value of His little ones by telling us the parable of the lost sheep. This little parable requires no explanation. It simply expresses the concern a shepherd feels for all of his one hundred sheep. When one of them wanders away, that one becomes the main concern. How much more should we be concerned about a little one that is lost to his Lord and Savior? The Lord does not want any of these little ones to perish. An immortal soul is a precious thing.
So far today we’ve talked about our actions that tempt another to sin—a little one in the faith. Now Jesus shifts our attention to a fellow Christian, the “brother,” who has given into flagrant, open sin and will wander away from saving faith unless gently restored by confession and forgiveness.
In spite of our best intentions, we all sin every day, but we humbly confess our sins and receive God’s forgiveness for Jesus’ sake. With the help of the Holy Spirit, we sincerely try to amend our sinful lives. And we regularly encourage one another when we worship together and in our daily contacts with one another. But once in a while a fellow Christian is guilty of a deliberate sin and shows no desire to forsake that sin and make amends for it.
When that happens, we need to make a special effort to bring that fellow Christian to repentance. Even if that person’s sin does not harm you directly, it still concerns you. It is still a sin against you in the sense that it disrupts your relationship with him or her, for you simply cannot ignore another’s deliberate sin.
Jesus says, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
In these familiar words of Matthew 18:15-17, the theme remains the same: That little one’s soul is precious and needs to be kept in the fellowship—even if he has sinned against you. Here Jesus gives a practical example of how to restore an erring brother back to the fold through the limiting of gossip.
Let’s focus on four main points: First, if your fellow Christian has sinned against you, keep the matter as quiet as possible. Jesus says, “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone.” If that fails, Jesus says, bring one or two witnesses. Don’t bring in the whole militia. Don’t announce your intentions over coffee. Keep the matter as quiet as possible.
Why? It is of utmost importance that the sinner be restored and be able to continue in the fellowship. If the sin is broadcast throughout the congregation, the sinner may repent but still be too embarassed to maintain active fellowship with the congregation. Imagine how you would feel if everybody knew about the skeletons in your closet—skeletons confessed and skeletons forgiven, but skeletons nonetheless. You would probably be too ashamed to continue your discipleship with that group of Christians. Because the soul of this sinning Christian is so precious, Jesus advises you to keep the sin as quiet as possible.
Second, Jesus is talking about flagrant, open sin—sin that has without question occurred and has been committed by a “brother,” another believer. This is proven by verse 16, where Jesus quotes from Deuteronomy when He says, “If he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses” (19:15).
Now we don’t need imagination; we just need plain old common sense. If you are going to take one or two people to help you talk to your Christian brother, you’d better be sure the act you believe he has committed is sinful and hurtful to that person or to your relationship with him. And you better be able to prove it!
For example: If a fellow Christian lacks tact, does Matthew 18 authorize you to reform him? Obviously not. This passage doesn’t deal with social graces or lack of such. But suppose the brother has said something that hurt your feelings. Should you tell him, according to Matthew 18? Maybe. We are all sinners. Foibles and failings will mark our lives until we enter glory. The fact is, that many of these offenses do not come under the auspices of Matthew 18, but instead under 1 Peter 4:8: “Love covers over a multitude of sins.” Where it’s possible to overlook a fault, where the offense won’t build a wall of suspicion and hurt between you and your brother, overlook it. Remember, you are a sinner too. Wouldn’t you like your brother or sister to give you some leniency when you slip up?
On the other hand, Jesus wants us to be at peace with one another. He wants us to enjoy loving one another. And sometimes that requires holding one another accountable. That’s where Matthew 18 comes in. But this truth appears throughout the New Testament. James 5:16 says, “Confess your sins to each other.” In Galatians 6:1-2, St. Paul gives us a good summary: “Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”
Third, when all fails and the matter is referred to the church, the church’s concern is always the restoration of the sinner. That means that even if the repeated pleas of the church go unheeded and the sinner is removed from the fellowship, our goal always remains restoration.
Jesus says: “If he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.” What kind of treatment is that to be? The unrepentant sinner is outside the fellowship, just as Gentiles and tax collectors were outside of Israel’s fellowship. Yet this unrepentant sinner still remains an object of the church’s great concern. Like the Good Shepherd, the church should always have a heart willing to leave the 99 to go seek the one that is lost. As Jesus says: “Your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost.”
Finally, in all efforts to restore the brother, you can rest assured that Jesus, the Son of the heavenly Father, will be present. “Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by My Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in My name, there am I among them” (Matthew 18:18-20).
In these words Jesus gives us much more than a general blessing upon any gathering of Christians. Specifically, He promises to be present in our efforts to restore an unrepentant sinner. This is not just an assurance that He will be present at a Bible study or church picnic. Those are not crises. Rather, taken in context, these verses provide comfort and strength for those tough times when you have to talk with someone about what they have done wrong.
Be honest. Doesn’t the thought of confronting someone about sin make you nervous? Confrontation is never easy. But we must speak the truth in love. As you do, Jesus promises to be there with you, a full partner in the effort to restore the fallen sinner and regain that precious soul.
And through His Word and Sacraments, Jesus is here each week bringing us the love and strength and forgiveness we need. In Holy Baptism, He makes each of us His “little ones.” We have been reborn as the children of God. We are all baptized into the resurrection of Christ! Along with all our brothers and sisters in Christ, we are clothed with Christ’s righteousness.
In the Lord’s Supper, we join not only with our fellow believers in this sanctuary, but also with the church of all ages and places, with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven. We all receive the body and blood of Christ. The one perfect sacrifice offered to God once and for all on the cross is distributed to each of us for the forgiveness of our sins and the strengthening of our faith. Together we proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes
Together we join to humbly confess our sins and receive this sweet absolution from our gracious and merciful Savior Jesus Christ: You are forgiven of all of your sins in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.