Sunday, June 14, 2009

Their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven

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. What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.

- Matthew 18:1-14

In this section, I read a great teaching on power and influence, and the use of power. Jesus is talking about the power in the church: this is a prescription for the relationship of hierarchy and influence to those "little ones," more humble in stature. It is a definition of the way in which we are to relate to one another. In this kingdom, and in this church, there is to be a sense of service and love; we are not to "Lord it over" one another.

First of all those who ask for a high stature in the church are told that they must become like children in order to serve God. Humility is the key to this kingdom: we are all to be humble before God, to thirst for teaching and wisdom and spiritual reality, to open ourselves to it and to embrace it. This is the estate of being humble or practicing humility. And further, Jesus elaborates, to welcome the humble ones in his name, is to welcome him. Those more powerful in the church are to see the "little ones" as if they behold and welcome Christ himself into the church.

To mistreat the little ones in any way, or to put a stumbling block before their faith in any way, is a great sin. We can think of many ways in which this happens in any church - and Jesus says that such events will come. But his greatest condemnation is for such acts. Do we alienate those who thirst for this kingdom? Do we mete out harsh or careless treatment, or worse? It is essential, in this kingdom and in this church, that if such behavior is part of the way in which we practice our faith then we must cut it out. We must be vigilant over ourselves and over our churches. Whatever stands in the way in keeping this relationship a loving one between all members of the churches, great and small, it must be stopped, it must be discarded. We must be vigilant over ourselves and our behavior - we must also, I believe, be aware of the general nature of conduct in the church as a whole among all her members. Correction is essential.

Jesus' prayer for the "little ones" - the ones who come to God with humility - is so deep that he uses the example of a shepherd who would desert his entire flock to find one lost sheep. These "inconsequential" members, those of little power or influence, are so important that Jesus reminds his apostles that "their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven." To alienate such little ones, then, is to commit a grave sin in the eyes of God, for whom even one lost sheep is of paramount importance. None of the sheep in this flock are expendable, we can afford to lose none of them. No one who comes to this kingdom in humility should be treated in such a way as to isolate them or send them away. If even the lost sheep or strays are important to the shepherd, then those who cause any to be lost or to stray are responsible for a grave error.

I think perhaps our greatest stumblings in life - in the church or out of it - is the sense of importance or arrogance that may accompany power and influence, and how we may dismissively think of those who come seeking, who are needy of the community and love of God in this kingdom. We can't ever forget this teaching; it is as important now as it ever was. Could we really be this loving community? This is not coercive love, to draw in followers for exploitation - that is abuse. This is a kind of gentle love, that is there in the way we treat the humblest among us as one of our own. It is the balm of mercy that should make the church a haven of peace in the world. Can we think of that vision and make it possible wherever we are? I must say that I have had my worst experiences in a church setting due to the failure to adhere to such teachings - where lording it over others and considerations of hierarchy create contempt even for those who wish to help or to learn or just to become a part of the community.

No comments:

Post a Comment