Matthew 18: 1-10
At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 2 He called a child, whom he put among them, 3 and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5 Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.
6 “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. 7 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!
8 “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. 9 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. 10 “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.
The fourth block of teaching in Matthew continues to explore what embodying the way of Jesus in community will look like. I view the contours of this block of teaching different than many who comment on this section both in its length and in what is being communicated. Most scholars end this block of teaching with the seam at the beginning of Chapter 19, “When Jesus had finished these things, he left Galilee and went to the region of Judea beyond the Jordan.” The scholars who end the block of teaching at 19:1 are paying attention to a pattern in Matthew’s gospel (see 7:28, 11:1, and 13:53) where it is announced that Jesus has finished his teaching or parables, and while there is a distinct ending and transition in the previous cases, thematically and structurally I believe Matthew wants us to hear Matthew 18:1-20:28 as a unit: It begins and ends with a question of greatness, it allows the normal pattern of three in parables to be joined together, and it centers around questions of how the community of Christ is to live in relations to one another.
Just as the people of Israel were to be an alternative to the community which was built upon the practices of slavery and the acquisition of power by the great ones in Egypt, Babylon and Rome, so the community of Jesus’ followers is a countercultural community where the leaders are like humble children. The greatest in the kingdom of heaven will be like the least and the very question of greatness is a danger to the unity of the community. The disciples are still learning the ways of the kingdom of heaven and unlearning the ways that the kingdoms of the world have taught them. Jesus continues to teach them the type of life they are to embody for this new community of the kingdom of heaven.
The use of a child as a visual illustration in this teaching is instructive in several manners. First, it indicates that there were already children present in close proximity to Jesus and that they felt welcome being in close proximity to him. Children in both the ancient world and the modern world are often excluded from the working world of men for fear they will be underfoot. In the ancient world children began to have value when they could be ‘little adults’ adding value to the work of the family. Being a child becomes a metaphor for being a part of the kingdom of heaven, but also for being a disciple and I do think the thematic use of ‘little one’ and the frequent reference to the disciples as ‘little faith ones’ is intentional. The child is welcomed not for the value that they can bring to the kingdom of heaven, they are not like the rich young man we will meet in the next chapter who has resources to bring into the community, but the welcoming of the humble child is an act of grace. The disciples are to learn the humility of the child who is placed in their midst not for the benefit of the adults in the circle, but purely as a witness to the type of community of hospitality that the kingdom of heaven is.
In a previous block of teaching Jesus linked showing hospitality to little ones when he stated, “and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of the little ones in the name of a disciple—truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.” (10:42) The community of Jesus is to be a community of hospitality, and now the act of welcoming a little one is tied to welcoming Jesus. The same practice of welcoming a righteous person or a prophet is extended not only to disciples, but to the little ones who the disciples are to model themselves after. The opposite of the greatest (Greek meizon) is the little one (Greek micron) and the disciples instead of striving to be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven are to learn the logic of this kingdom where the first are last and the last are first. They are to be an alternative to the communities where power and authority is lorded over others, instead they are a community where humble little ones are valued and cherished and placed in the center of the community.
Being a disciple of Jesus is not merely about learning the right things. Throughout the gospel we have heard Jesus instruct those who listen that the practice of righteousness is critical. While I have argued against a type of moralistic perfectionism in reading Matthew, I do think we need to understand Jesus’ call for a community that authentically practices a merciful reading of the law. As we come to Jesus’ words about placing a ‘stumbling block’ it is important to address to two aspects of the Greek scandlise which stands behind this. This is the word that is at the root of the English word scandal, and there is a call for those within the community not to scandalize the ‘little ones.’ The type of community that Jesus teaching points towards is undercut by those who either use their authority for self-glorification, who misuse those who are vulnerable (women, children, those who are either politically or economically vulnerable), or whose actions do not embody the values of the kingdom of heaven. Many throughout history have been ‘scandalized’ by leaders or members of the church whose actions did not embody they vision of Christ. But the other aspect of scandalize is the placing of a barrier towards inclusion. There are many groups who have been excluded from participation in the church, and the history of the community of Christ is full of times where the boundaries of the community had to be removed to embody the vision Jesus handed on to the disciples who followed him.
Ironically, there may be times where a member’s actions towards others in the community necessitate their removal from the community. This will be a theme throughout chapter eighteen, but one’s actions in relation to the community do have implications both to one’s relationship to the community and to the kingdom of heaven. Jesus uses hyperbolic language here, and throughout the gospel, to underline the importance of practicing righteousness. When one’s actions scandalize or exclude a ‘little one’ it is a matter of life or death in the community and for one’s standing in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus does expect God to judge the world and those who exclude, the Jesus in Matthew’s gospel does take the side of the ‘little ones’ who are vulnerable to those who claim the status of greatness, who scandalize, exclude or practice hypocrisy. Even though the practice of hanging a millstone (literally the millstone of a donkey, a stone large enough that it needs a pack animal to turn) and casting a person into the sea to ‘sleep with the fishes’ would be understood in both ancient and modern contexts, I disagree with Warren Carter’s assertion that, “Again Jesus bullies disciples into obedience with a threat that imitates imperial practices.” (Carter, 2005, p. 364) Jesus does use graphic language to communicate with the disciples the importance of their embodiment of these teachings: a millstone around the neck, cutting off a hand or foot or tearing out an eye. As I stated when addressing this language in 5:29-30, this language is probably not intended individualistically or literally. Regardless the disciples are not the ones who will give the sentence of death by drowning or casting a person into Gehenna, but they will be the ones who have to teach and maintain the practices and, when necessary, the boundaries of the community. There may be times where the community, after attempting to correct a member, has to cast them away from the community but there is also the continual desire for reconciliation and forgiveness.
Anytime we talk about ‘eternal fire’ or the ‘Hell of fire’ we enter into a discussion that carries a lot of baggage for Christians. I engage this topic in a fuller way when I discussed Gehenna, Tartaros, Sheol, Hades and Hell and while it is impossible to completely free ourselves of the long history of thinking about the concepts of punishment beyond this life, I do think we need to be cautioned before we import these ideas into Matthew’s gospel. Jesus does believe that God does judge those who stand in opposition to the kingdom of heaven. Our conceptions about ‘eternal life’ and ‘eternal damnation’ while pulled from Jesus’ words about ‘the life of the new age’ or ‘entering into the age of fire’ or our conceptions of ‘hell’ based on Jesus’ use of the place ‘Gehenna’ have heaped upon the original concepts 2,000 years’ of poetic imagination, hellfire preaching, and fear. Jesus does present people with a choice, to choose the way of the kingdom of heaven which is life, or to choose the way opposed to the kingdom which means judgment, but the details of the judgment are only pointed to metaphorically. Yet, the way one treats the ‘little ones’ is critical for the community because the ‘little ones’ are critical to God. The plight of the ‘little ones’ is continually placed before God in heaven and the hope of the followers of Jesus, like the hope of the Jewish people, is that God would judge on behalf of the ‘little ones’ who are vulnerable with righteousness. Ultimately for the followers of Jesus the questions of God’s judgment are not in their control. They may have to bind or loose actions and individuals in the community, but any punishment beyond life is in God’s hands. In our individualistic way of reading scripture we have often reduced passages like this to compliance out of fear for the salvation of one’s soul, but my hope is that learning to read these passages in light of the community can open us for the joy of practicing the righteousness of God in a community which practices hospitality towards the ‘little ones,’ protects and honors them, has the courage to correct members who are not practicing righteousness and even to ‘cut them off’ when necessary for the life of the community. Yet, even when one is ‘cut off’ there is always the hope of repentance and reconciliation. The community of Jesus, the church, may find itself continually removing boundaries which keep the ‘little ones’ out of the community and struggling with scandals which endanger the ‘little ones’ as it awaits God’s judgment of the world in righteousness.
 Verse 11 is omitted in most modern translations and is probably a later insertion into the text. The text of verse 11 would be For the Son of Man came to save the lost.