Text: Matt. 18:1-20
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
An interesting phenomenon that shows up time and again among humans of all times, places, cultures, and languages is the practice of collecting. Whether it’s a child collecting stuffed animals, or a speculator collecting baseball cards; a museum collecting works of art, or a celebrity collecting followers and fans, people of every stripe collect. You can probably think of a collection that you, or someone in your household, once had—or maybe still has. The only trouble we hit is when we have to start deciding what’s going to go in the collection and what isn’t. None of us has infinite space, and so there has to be some level of sifting, some discernment of what’s more valuable and what’s less valuable, what means more to you want what you can part with. It’s a shortcoming of our human nature, being limited and finite as we are. We all have to choose what to collect and what to let go.
This brings us to our Gospel reading today. On the surface, it can feel like we’re listening to a loosely related set of ideas or teachings from Jesus. That is, is may seem this way at first, until we see what’s really happening at the foundation of all these passages. As it turns out, Jesus Himself is something of a collector. But He’s not interested in lining the walls of heaven with porcelain figurines or filling the book of life with antique stamps or coins. No, what Jesus is interested in acquiring is humanity. And He won’t stop until He’s gathered every last one of them.
That’s what’s at the bottom of all these passages today. Stop and take a look at how they’re all drawn from this desire of Jesus to not lose a single one of the people He’s willing to die to save. First we have the disciples, arguing who is the greatest among them. But rather than letting them think that there’s some kind of ranking system in His gathering of mortals, lest any of us think that some are of greater value and some could easily by tossed out by Him, He instead takes a child and puts him in the middle of them, “Whoever humbles Himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven”
Now for us to fully understand what Jesus is getting at, we have to understand how children were viewed in the ancient near eastern world. Children were not the adored tiny humans that we recognize them to be—a view that was fostered and strengthened by 2000 years of Christianity. No, back then, children were a mouth to feed, and that mouth was often full of distractions, disease, noise, and neediness. They were married off as soon as possible so that they, and the rest of their families, wouldn’t starve. But now Jesus takes one of these little urchins and says that whoever lowers himself to the status of this child is greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And then, to really hammer home that He’s not willing to lose a single one of them, He says, “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” Jesus wants them all—every last wretched one of them, even those too small and insignificant for the world to say matters—and no one better come between Him and those He’s come for.
Then Jesus speaks about temptation. But rather than seeing this as an instruction guide for how to avoid temptation by cutting off offending body parts, let’s see this from the angle of Jesus wanting to save every last son and daughter of Adam and Eve. “If you hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away, for it is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire.” What Jesus is not doing is giving instructions for us to mutilate ourselves. What He is doing is showing us that there no price that’s too steep for us to be part of His redeemed set of souls. Rather than letting ourselves, or others, fall out of that holy collection, we should recognize that there’s no cost that’s too high. After all, Jesus give His entire life—hands and feet nailed to a cross, eyes spit upon and burned with blood from His brow—in order to make us part of His gathered Church. And even if we are called to sacrifice even our bodies, we know that He will restore it all and make us whole at His resurrection.
Next is the parable of the lost sheep, where a shepherd makes the incomprehensibly bad financial decision to leave behind 99 sheep in order go chase down one that gets lost and in danger. And when He finds it, He comes back with it, rejoicing more over the one than over the 99 that never went astray. Jesus is not willing to accept any losses, not even marginal ones. He came to save every single last man, woman, and child, no matter how far they’ve wandered, no matter how much of a lost cause they may seem, no matter how impractical or even impossible it seems. He wants them all, so He’ll chase them all.
And that extends even to the ones that we think aren’t worth chasing. This is what we learn in the last part of our reading. There are many who try to turn these verses in Matthew 18 about going to your brother who’s sinned against you first alone, then with one or two witnesses, then with the whole church, then letting them be as a tax collector or Gentile (what we call excommunication)—there are many who treat this as a formal process, a step-by-step guide of how to deal with grievances, so that when we do it all in the right order, our hands are clean and we can be rid of those who have wronged us, or those we perceive have wronged us.
But this is not just a process for filing grievances. This is not a protocol or steps of bylaws for us to feel better about how we handle a situation. Rather, look at what the whole point is. Jesus says, “If he listens to you, you have gained your brother.” You’ve restored Him to the collected saints. You’ve taken away that thing that separated him from you and God. You have gained your brother.
This is where we see the amazing way that our Lord works through means. That is to say, He works through specific people at specific times. He works through me when I pronounce forgiveness week to week. He works through you when you take that overflowing forgiveness from the absolution, from the Lord’s Supper, from your baptismal font, and you extend that forgiveness to those who sin against you in your own households, neighborhoods, places of working and living; in your lives. So you become part of the beautiful network that God has established to care for His creation, to keep the collection intact, no matter what the world or our fallen natures would say about it.
You have been sought by Jesus, like a lost sheep chased down by shepherd. You are the one who is like a child before your heavenly Father. So are all your brothers and sisters in the faith. Or, as St. Paul has told us today: “Owe no one anything, except to love one another.” For our love is simply Jesus’ love, working on us to change us, working through us to reach all of God’s beloved flock. In the name of Jesus, who died for all. Amen.