Fifteenth Sunday After Pentecost
S. Pentecost 15.23 Matt. 18:1-20
“Truly I say to you, unless you’re turned and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Even when he’s not telling cryptic little stories about kings, wedding feasts, lost lambs (or sons), when he’s speaking directly about greatness for instance (as today) there’s also something indirect and puzzling about the things Jesus says to us…
I’ve been scratching my head all week about our Gospel today which ranges from what greatness is to being childlike (childish?), to fitting offenders with concrete loafers, to cutting off offending body parts, to Jesus’ passion for chasing lost lambs in high mountains, to pretty direct instructions about cutting off offending sinners from the body of Christ.
How does all this fit together? What’s our takeaway? Two things seem at the heart of the matter: 1) the business of being turned, becoming like children and 2) the concept of scandal, or offense.
Have you ever heard the saying—really quite lovely—that has been said to me by many people over many years (I’m not quite sure why?) that: “You’re only young once, but you can be immature forever.”? I always smile when friends or family share this gnomic wisdom with me, and go: “Yes! Isn’t that great?!” and the response is usually a frowny face and “No, it’s not that great”.
I reply, quoting our Lord: “Unless you’re turned and become childish, you’ll never enter the kingdom of heaven” and, at that point, some of my interlocutors roll their eyes, shake their heads, and walk away. But some will get into an interesting discussion of what they see as a great difference between immaturity and child-likeness. To cut to the chase: we usually agree that being immature and being child-ish are synonyms, the same thing. But, my discussion partners usually want to see a massive difference between being child-ish and child-like, whereas I see no difference at all between any of the three terms.
And I don’t think Jesus does, either. I’m actually serious about this. Words and their meaning have obsessed me since my (ongoing?) childhood. Teachers like Paul Holmer helped me a lot. Immaturity isn’t necessarily pejorative. It just means not grown-up—which isn’t necessarily a bad thing! I think our problem with what Jesus says about being immature or childish forever is that we think all the things he says must be safe, sober, and respectable. And since immaturity or childishness is none of those three things in our culture, we reject Jesus’ whole scheme.
Certainly there are charming traits about children—their trusting nature, their honesty and directness, their love of adventure, their imagination and interest in the high and holy things. But there’re less charming traits, too. Their neediness, their trusting nature that leads them astray when they latch onto bad role models or friends, their selfishness, their directness, their annoying habit of always asking “why?” when we tell them to make beds, tie shoes, do homework, and mind their manners.
You’re tracking with me on this, yes?
Well, notice here: that the charming things and the un-charming things all stem from the same character traits of being trusting, direct, loving adventure, and having great imagination and interest in the high, holy things (which are usually rather dangerous and daunting things!) and a tendency to be quite willful and headstrong in pursuing those things.
Yet… notice that Jesus doesn’t qualify it and say “The following good traits of children I’d like you to emulate”. No. He just says “be turned, become like children”. Because the charming traits and the troubling traits come from the same qualities! Being immature, childish, childlike are all the same thing.
I was re-reading C.S. Lewis’ first book Pilgrim’s Regress (written 20 years before Narnia) a retelling of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress allegory. John the traveler is trying to get to the Island he glimpsed as a small child. On the way, he’s in a mountain cave with History trying to navigate a treacherous, narrow mountain path. He asks History why the Landlord made the journey to his kingdom so dangerous? History says “All the Landlord’s ways are dangerous”. As we’ll discover in Narnia, Aslan’s not a tame lion… 😉
And that, I think, is key, here. By making childishness the key quality for greatness, for entering heaven, Jesus puts us on a dangerous path. Because the first and great thing in Christianity is faith, being completely trusting. But to be childish in our faith means we can be easily led astray when we trust bad people (i.e. Satan or other false friends who lie to us, deceive and steal from us while claiming to be “helping” us). Children can be fooled by clever scoundrels, again and again.
Which is why we struggle with Jesus’ words. It’s dangerous to be immature, (child-like?) forever (fun, but dangerous?). Why doesn’t Jesus make the path to heaven safe? Because then children wouldn’t find it interesting or compelling, would we?
Which is where the concept of “offense” comes in. After saying we must turn and become childish (childlike?) Jesus immediately says: “whoever” (in Greek σκανδαλιση, “scandalizes”) one of the little ones who believe in me would be better wearing concrete loafers and finding the deep end of the pool”.
BTW the Greek is poorly handled by the ESV; all modern translations English it “cause to sin”. That’s not really what σκανδαλιση means. “Scandalize” is literalistic, but the King James (still the King!) is right, I think, translating σκανδαλιση as “offends”. And offends in the sense of “tripping up” or “leading astray” seems the closest to the original Greek concept.
So, by making childishness the key to passing heaven’s gate, Jesus has put us on an offensive path. Children are easily led astray! And instead of making them trip-proof, Jesus promises to seriously mess up the offenders (tripper-uppers?) of his childish Xns.
He says if a hand or foot offends, cut it off! Better to hobble into heaven than not make it at all. Then he says that we shouldn’t despise the little ones. And I think that means don’t despise the child-ish traits, but embrace the beauty and the trouble, equally! Because Jesus will leave the 99 grown-ups and chase one lost kid through the highest and most dangerous mountains, because his flock, quite naturally, seek the highest, holiest heights. Joyful, when we meet Jesus on the mountaintops where the air is thin and the view amazing. (!)
Now, the business about giving sinners, [offenders] 3 chances and then cutting them out of the Body of Christ (like we cut out gangrene or cancer) makes sense. St. Paul talks about the church as the Body of Christ in which his members are hands, feet, eyes ears. I think that’s how we should read the part about cutting off offending body parts. I don’t think Jesus’s talking about our own literal hands, feet, but about the metaphorical members of his body.
We should make all efforts to keep sinners from straying away from Christ’s kingdom. If they offend us, we should try to woo them back. But, 3 strikes and they’re out. Then, they’re not straying lambs, but ravenous wolves. It can be tough to tell the difference! The straying lamb and the ravenous wolf present the same, initially. Sometimes, it might take a decade or more to realize the one you thought was a brother, sister sheep was really a ravenous wolf stealing your lunch money.
It’s really hard, actually—telling wolves from sheep! Who can get it right? Well, Jesus can, and Jesus has. And he uses our childish traits—the charming and the troubling—as the tell. We get it wrong, over and over. We wander onto dangerous mountain ledges, again and again. But Jesus makes it all come good, in the End.
By word and sacrament, Jesus is with us, here, now, always, working all—the good and the bad, the charming and troubling—to lead us through heaven’s high (and wide-open gate) where Peace, surpassing understanding, guards our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.