Not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should perish

The Bible readings for today are Isaiah 40.1-11; Psalm 96.1, 10-13; Matthew 18.12-14.

I cannot say that I had ever really noticed the differences between Matthew’s and Luke’s use of this parable of Jesus. Perhaps Luke’s version (15.3-7) is the more popular, beginning as it does that wonderful string of parables that culminates in that of the Prodigal Son. Anyway, Matthew tells and uses the parable differently than does Luke; and Matthew’s perspective deserves more attention than it seems to get.

In Luke, the parable concerns itself with lost sinners who repent; in Matthew, straying disciples are in view. At least that is what I think Matthew’s Jesus means when he speaks of ‘these little ones’. Of course, the expression might be applied to any who are vulnerable but Jesus has already narrowed his reference to ‘these little ones who believe in me(18.6). In fact, most of Matthew 18 deals with the way that the way that disciples of Jesus are supposed to treat each other. The parable (along with the sayings that introduce and conclude it) provides a theological rationale for mutual kindness and respect among Christ’s followers. It is a pity that the lection begins with verse 12 and not, as it should, with verse 10. (Perhaps the editors worried about what we would make of the angels of these little ones beholding the face of God in heaven.)

Verse 10 sets the scene with the words, ‘Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones’, or as Donald A. Hagner translates it, ‘See that you do not treat one of these little ones with contempt’ (Hagner, Matthew 14-28 [Word Biblical Commentary 33b], 524). The rest of the chapter deals with relationships among the followers of Jesus, what to do when a fellow disciples sins against you, and how many times you should you forgive your ‘brother’ or ‘sister’. Relationships are to be characterized by understanding, forbearance and forgiveness. For if Jesus is the one of whom the prophets foretold, he brings with him peace and reconciliation for all peoples. His followers are therefore called to embody peace; they are to forgive each other from the heart. There is something here about the inestimable worth of humans beings in the sight of God. Even those who stray away from Jesus and his teaching, those who struggle to keep the faith, remain the objects of God’s love and concern. God seeks them out and restores them lovingly to the fold.

The way Matthew uses this parable suggests to me that the church to which he was writing was struggling with what attitude to adopt to those who, perhaps under the threat of persecution, seemed to fall away. Matthew, employing the words of Jesus, enjoins the church to welcome back all who stray.

Jesus calls us to each other:
found in him are no divides.
Race and class and sex and language:
such are barriers he derides.
Jon the hands of friend and stranger;
join the hands of age and youth;
join the faithful and the doubter
in their common search for truth.
(Iona Community – ‘Jesus calls us here to meet him’,
Baptist Praise and Worship, 12)

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