“At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. “If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of stumbling blocks! Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the stumbling block comes! “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 lame than to have two hands or two feet and to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into the hell of fire. “Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven.” – Matthew 18:1–10 NRSV
“At that time.” Not as catchy as “once upon a time” but just as loaded. “At that time” implies something – something important – or the author wouldn’t have bothered writing it. In this case it means the disciples know that something is about to happen. A few passages earlier (17:22-23) Jesus told his disciples (again) that he was going to die. After that he performs an edgy tax evasion maneuver; he sends Peter to the lake to catch and fish and tells him, “you’ll find a coin in its mouth; use it to pay our taxes.” Something is about to happen and the disciples know it, so they ask a question.
“Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” This is actually a really strange question. Ask any child who the greatest person in a kingdom is and they will tell you, “the King.” But then again, the disciples aren’t children now are they. Perhaps that is why Jesus calls a child to himself and places this child before the disciples, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
This is our call – become like children. That doesn’t sound too bad, does it? Children get to play. They get to take naps. They seem to find joy in the most insignificant things. Children are creative and resourceful. Children are completely dependent upon someone to care for them. Children are vulnerable. Children are murdered in our world. Being a child is dangerous business.
“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of stumbling blocks! Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the stumbling block comes!”
So, we are called to be full of joy and creativity and at the same time to be completely dependent and absolutely vulnerable. This is why Jesus warns us about stumbling blocks and millstones. Stumbling blocks (in Greek, scandalon, from which we get our word scandal) are inevitable; they will come. But woe to the one by whom they come. To scandalize someone is to cause them to fall, to fail, to return to the acts of the flesh, to cause one to sin. The one who sins is in danger of the fires of hell, but the one who causes someone to sin is in far greater danger. To scandalize someone, to be a stumbling block, is to oppose the work of Christ.
So how do we “scandalize” people? Consider some of these …
- when we speak and act out of selfish ambition (Philippians 2:3)
- when we cause division in the church (2 Corinthians 12:20)
- when we exercise our freedom in Christ without compassion (1 Corinthians 8:1ff)
- when we gossip and spread rumors (Romans 1:28-32)
I’m sure there are as many ways to scandalize someone as there are people to scandalize. What we must remember is that when we scandalize “one of these little ones” – whether Jesus meant a child or a child-like follower (most likely both) – we scandalize Jesus! “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” I imagine this works both ways.
So what is the solution? Cut it out … literally! Paul describes the body of Christ as one body made up of different members (1 Corinthians 12:14ff). Jesus says, “If a hand goes awry, cut it off. If an eye looks lustfully, pluck it out.” Those body parts – those members – that fail to function as they ought need to be cast out. In order for the body of Christ to function there may need to be pruning of those who would cause a “little one” to stumble.
The good news is that there is forgiveness in the name of Jesus. Those of us who have been scandalized can be forgiven. Those of us who wear millstones can be forgiven. “If we confess our sins, God who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9) So, how’s about we lay down those stones?