Matthew 18:1-14

Life in the Christian Community

The first two teachings were drawn directly from Mark’s Gospel.

Matthew 18:1-5     Abandoning Honour

(Mk 9:33-37; Lk 9:46-48)
1 At that time, the disciples gathered around Jesus and said,
“Who is the greatest in the heavenly kingdom?”  
2 He called a child and stood it in the middle of the group,
3 and said, “I tell you quite clearly, unless you change and become like children,
there is no way that you will enter the heavenly kingdom.  
4 Those who humble themselves like this child are the greatest in the heavenly kingdom.  
5 And those who welcome such a child in my name welcome me.

Matthew recast the context and storyline marginally to omit Mark’s criticism of the disciples.  He was interested simply in its main point.

There are many admirable characteristics of children that adults could well adopt.  However, in the context of the time, children were not admired but ignored.  Jesus’ point dealt with positions of honour in the Christian community.  Honour considerations were of great concern in the culture.  Jesus cut straight through them.  Honour was not to be an issue among disciples.  The task was to relate to fellow Christians, purely on the basis of shared dignity as children of God, and as brothers/sisters and fellow-disciples of Jesus.  Letting go of all pursuit of honour was a call to humility, the real experience of being ignored and taken for granted.

It would seem that Matthew was reporting teachings of Jesus for a community that had not yet developed clear authority roles or structures.  The issue may have been pointedly relevant, if, in fact, certain members were beginning to believe some charisms or roles more important than others.  As communities grew in size, structures and clear authority roles became more necessary.  Authority and leadership (or greatness) in the Christian community involved, not honour, but service.  Life in the Kingdom of God was diametrically different from life in the Empire of Rome.  It was an experience into which disciples would enter gradually, only as they changed and learnt to die to self-interest.

Authority and Precedence

It seems instinctive in human nature that, when people gather into communities, they tend to arrange themselves vertically or hierarchically.  Hierarchical arrangements enable control – and ensure order.  The more complex communities become, the more necessary it is that there be clear authority structures.  However, the exercise of authority need not necessarily mean control – the power to rule.

People can relate in community in non-vertical, non-hierarchical ways.  Order can be secured by other than control and rule.  Authority structures are still necessary.  But it is exercised as an expression of love, from a sense of profound equality –  not superiority.

Jesus’ undoubted authority was given him by his Father [28:17]; but the only power that he chose to use was the power of love and respect.   In applying the word King to Jesus, it is important that the title be understood analogically.  Jesus does not so much rule as empower.

Jesus wished the members of his community to relate on the basis of mutual respect and mature love.  He accepted the need for certain members to have clear responsibilities and the necessary authority to exercise those responsibilities.  However, he did not countenance attitudes of superiority.  Hierarchy was not a word that Jesus used.  Misunderstood, it can distort Jesus’ vision for his community of disciples.


Matthew 18:6-9      Countering Destructive Pressures

(Mk 9:42-48; Lk 17:1-2)
6 Should anyone cause one of such little ones
who entrust themselves to me to stumble,
it would be better for them that if a millstone were hung around their neck
and they were drowned in the depths of the sea.

The word translated as causing to stumble before is literally “scandalise”.  In the context, to scandalise was to influence another to lose faith.  Maintaining faith in Jesus in the oppressive world of Roman imperialism was difficult, particularly faith that sought to shape life according to the values of God’s Kingdom.

7 It is inevitable that there be such causes of stumbling,
but grief awaits those persons who cause them.

Given the constant stress and vulnerability of the Christian community, Matthew was highly sensitive to the danger of Christians influencing each other negatively.  Since entry into the Kingdom is a matter of constant growth, no one member is fully converted, so can always be a potential danger to others.

8 “IIf your hand or your foot cause you to stumble,
cut it off and throw it away from you.  
It is better to enter into life maimed or limping,
than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire.  
9 And if your eye causes you to stumble,
tear it out and throw it away from you.  
It is better to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of Gehenna.

The text drew on an illustration for social communities, common in Greek culture: the image of the human body.  Jesus was not referring to issues of personal morality (unlike his use of the phrase in 5.29-30).  He was talking to the community as such and warning it of the potentially destructive power of individuals on the morale of the body as a whole.  Those undermining the faith of the community were to be quarantined, no matter how important their charisms or significant their roles. The vigour of Matthew’s language was not to be understood literally, but as an indication of the crucial priority of preserving the community’s faith and hope, and of the otherwise inevitable consequences of destructive mutual influence.

Matthew 18:10-14     Bringing Back Those Who Stray

(Lk 15:1-7)

Matthew abandoned the order of Mark’s Gospel to add other considerations relevant to life in community.  The following teaching he drew from the source he shared with Luke.

10Be on your guard not to despise one of these little ones,
for I assure you that their angels constantly see the face of my heavenly Father.

The little ones referred to were not children, but disciples who were struggling, and perhaps succeeding best, to let go of human honour.  Several groups of Jews believed in angels, particularly the Pharisees, and supposed that they exercised a benevolent role towards people.

12 What do you think? If a man had one hundred sheep, and one of them got lost,
would he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountainside
and go and look for the lost one?  
13 And if he should find it,
he would rejoice over it more than over the ninety-nine that were not lost.  
14 Similarly, it is not the will of your heavenly Father that one of these little ones be lost.

Matthew assumed that any proper shepherd would leave the ninety-nine to go searching for the stray.  He did not see the story referring, in a restricted way, solely to the leaders of the community, but to all members indiscriminately.  All had the responsibility to take care of the stragglers (and strugglers).  Given that shepherds in Jesus’ time (and Matthew’s) were generally despised, the work of going in search of the stray was not seen as deserving praise.  It was to be done because it was appropriate.  For Matthew, the strays were important.  Indeed, their angels looked after these little ones.  All members of the community shared equal dignity because all were loved by their heavenly Father.  The rescue of the stray would always be occasion for rejoicing.

Next >> Matthew 18:15-20