Tag Archives: hospitality

Matthew 18: 1-10 A Community of Little Ones

By Carl Bloch – The Athenaeum: Home – info – pic, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25991809

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.[1]

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.

 

 

[1] 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.

Matthew 10: 34-42 Conflict, Wages and Hospitality for the Followers of Jesus

James Tissot, The Exhortation to the Apostles (between 1886 and 1894)

Matthew 10: 34-42

Parallels Luke 22: 36; Luke 14: 25-27; 17:33; Luke 10: 16; Mark 9: 41

34 “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.

35 For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;

36 and one’s foes will be members of one’s own household. 37 Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; 38 and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me. 39 Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.

40 “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. 41 Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; 42 and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple — truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”

As the followers of Jesus are sent out as herald of the approaching kingdom of heaven, they will meet resistance from those who have aligned themselves with the kingdom of the world. Although Jesus will practice non-violence his reception by others will not always be peaceful and for the disciples who will follow him they also must be prepared for the reality that their vocation could cost them their families, their security, their reputation and even their lives. For a community that is experiencing persecution for their faithfulness to Jesus’ call this, like the rest of this chapter, could be heard as a gracious affirmation of their faithfulness amid their struggle. It may help them link their suffering with the suffering of Jesus and may encourage them to hope, in Paul’s language, that if they have suffered the loss of all things, they may regard the things lost as rubbish so that they may gain Christ and be found in him. (Philippians 3: 8-9)

Although Matthew 21: 34 (and the similar command in Luke 22: 36) have sometimes been taken out of context for Christians who wanted an authorization for owning weapons or using violence to read the text in this way is to misunderstand who Jesus is and what Jesus represents. In the Lukan passage, which is set immediately before Jesus’ betrayal, Jesus’ response when the disciples take his words literally and point to the two swords that they have is probably ironic when he says, “It is enough.” I read this passage as one of the times where Jesus does become perplexed by his followers inability to understand he is not talking about using swords to impose one’s will (this is heightened in Luke 22: 49-51 when Jesus responds to the disciple’s use of a sword by rebuking him and saying “No more of this” and then healing the injured slave). Violence is not Jesus’ way, but neither will his message literally throw peace upon the earth. The sword here refers to the conflict which will occur between the disciples and those who they interact with. Even the foundational relationships of family are not exempt from rupture and betrayal over differing receptions of Jesus’ proclamation.

Family may be important for many modern people, but familial relationships were central to one’s identity in the ancient world. Throughout most of history one’s identity was handed on from one’s family, and this is one of the reasons Matthew spends the first seventeen verses of the gospel narrating Jesus’ family tree.  Yet, in this new community where one’s relationship comes from Christ and brothers and sisters and mothers are those who are in the presence of Jesus this displaces the central position of family in one’s identity. Relationships between parents and children and daughters and mothers-in-law may be places where disciples experience the heartbreak of betrayal and brokenness. Jesus is demanding the central place in his followers’ lives. The familial love (this is the Greek phileo type of love, where Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love gets its name) between parents, children and siblings is to come second to the commitment to Jesus.

Those who follow Jesus may have to suffer for that willingness to follow. Just as Jesus may be slandered by being associated with Beelzebul and those associated with him will also be slandered, so those who follow the one who goes to the cross may find their own crosses waiting for them. Most of the twelve disciples named at the beginning of this chapter are crucified in some manner. The famous paradox of those who find their life will lose it and those who lose their life for Christ’s sake will find it is a little more direct in the Greek. The word translated ‘life’ is the Greek psuche which is normally translated ‘soul.’ In Hebrew thought the ‘soul’ was not detachable from one’s life but was the center of who one is (it would not have the body/soul dichotomy of later Greek and even Christian thought). If one attempts to find one’s soul, one’s raison d’etre (reason for existing) one ironically destroys it (Greek apollumi-to destroy, ruin, kill) but if one’s original reason for existing is destroyed because of Christ they find their reason for life.  In Martin Luther King Jr.’s memorable quote from a speech in Detroit on June 23, 1963, “There are some things so dear, some things so precious, some things so eternally true, that they are worth dying for. And I submit to you that if a man has not discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live”

These sayings are placed in a narrative context where the disciples are being sent forth to be received into peoples’ homes, and in a culture where hospitality has a high value, what Jesus states that receiving an emissary of the kingdom of heaven is equivalent to receiving God. Whoever welcomes a disciple of Jesus welcomes Jesus, and whoever welcomes Jesus welcomes the God who sends Jesus. This is a theme that will come back in Matthew 25:31-46 where receiving one of the ‘least of these’ is equivalent to receiving Jesus. Jesus is found among the little ones who need to receive care and hospitality from the households and communities they encounter. In addition to the high honor of receiving God there is also a sharing in the wages (Greek misthos is better translated wages than reward here) of the prophet or righteous person. The wages of a prophet or righteous person may not be pleasant in terms of what they receive when they are acting as a prophet or acting righteously in a world that doesn’t practice Jesus’ understanding of righteousness. Those who shelter a prophet or a righteous person may also receive the ‘wages’ delivered by the society towards the prophet. But wages here has a primarily positive sense in the light of the approaching kingdom of God where God will ultimately be the one who rewards both those sending and those receiving the messengers.

Even though there is not the verbal linkage in the Greek between little one (Greek mikros) and the ‘little faith ones’ (Greek oligopistos) there is still a thematic parallel, especially when linking little ones and disciples.  Little ones here probably goes beyond just the scope of welcoming the messengers of Jesus and probably extends to the broader ideas of hospitality grounded in the vision of what Israel and now the community of the faithful is to be towards the rest of the world. The community of little faith ones gathered around Jesus are to be those who offer water as a sign of compassion to those who need water. Welcoming a disciple in hospitality means welcoming Jesus but as we will be reminded in Matthew 25: 31-46 the followers of Jesus will be those who welcome those who are hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick or in prison. Sometimes the ones in need will be disciples needing hospitality extended to them because they are strangers coming into towns they do not know. Other times the ones in need will be the poor in spirit, the mourning, the meek, those hungering and thirsting for righteousness, and those who are persecuted. The community which Jesus is sending the disciples out to find is the community that the people of Israel were set apart to embody. The disciples are to go looking among the lost sheep of Israel for the remnant still practicing the hospitality that the law expected them to practice.

Exodus 1: Setting the Stage

Roman collared slaves-Marble relief from Smyrna (Izmir, Turkey), 200 CE

Roman collared slaves-Marble relief from Smyrna (Izmir, Turkey), 200 CE

 Exodus 1: 1-7 Setting the Stage

These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each with his household: 2 Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah, 3 Issachar, Zebulun, and Benjamin, 4 Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher. 5 The total number of people born to Jacob was seventy. Joseph was already in Egypt. 6 Then Joseph died, and all his brothers, and that whole generation. 7 But the Israelites were fruitful and prolific; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them.

The book of Genesis, the preceding book in the Bible, spends the bulk of the book with God working through a specific family, the family of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, to be God’s covenant partners and to be a blessing to all the nations. As Exodus begins we are joined to the ending of the book of Genesis where the sons of Jacob (Israel) have come down to Egypt and settled in the land of Goshen. Joseph was already in Egypt after being sold into slavery and rising to being second in command of all Egypt and Jacob and his remaining sons come to Egypt seeking relief from a severe famine throughout the land. Throughout the stories of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph God has continued to provide for them in unexpected ways. Yet, now we have left the time of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and the original sons of Israel behind as that generation passes away.

One of the struggles of many of the stories of Genesis was the struggle against barrenness. Sarah, Rebekah and Rachel all struggle with infertility and these families of the promise struggle with the command in the first creation narrative to ‘be fruitful and multiply’ (Genesis 1. 28). At the end of Genesis and here at the beginning of Exodus there has been a slow increase from the original two of Sarah and Abraham to now a household of seventy born to Jacob. Yet now the increase becomes exceedingly fruitful, they begin to become numerous and this combined with a historical amnesia in the land of Egypt sets the stage for the initial crisis of Exodus and the transition from the people’s lives in Egypt to their journey to the promised land.

Exodus 1: 8-14 Historical Amnesia and the Politics of Fear and Oppression

 8 Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. 9 He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. 10 Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” 11 Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. 12 But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. 13 The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, 14 and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.

The initial reception in Egypt for the family of Israel was positive and as the book of Deuteronomy can remind the people: “You shall not abhor any of the Egyptians, because you were an alien residing in their land.” (Deuteronomy 23: 7) Yet, as time passes a sense of historical amnesia sets in. A new king, an unnamed king, arises in the land of Egypt. He may rule the superpower of the day but within this book that will become the ‘West’s meta-narrative of hope’ (Sacks, 2010, p. 1) his name remains unspoken and forgotten. He will not be linked to any of the massive construction projects of one of the Egyptian dynasties or to the culture of the land. This nameless ruler will be only remembered for the way in which the ruler of the most powerful empire of that age feared a subset of those in his land.

Until this point the Israelites were a family, they may have grown larger, but here it is the unnamed ruler who for the first time designates them as a unique people. Somehow the Israelites are distinct, they are unlike the people of the rest of the nation and that distinction gives rise to a politics of oppression. Ultimately, as Rabbi Sacks can remind us, “Pharaoh is driven by political motives, not hate.” (Sacks, 2010, p. 4) Throughout the book of Exodus the people of Egypt will be presented as one option, even a shrewd option for a type of society that can capitalize on the fear and distinction of a people to transform them from neighbors into forced laborers. Fear provides the opportunity to not only discriminate against a people but to build a civilization on their broken backs. The people of Israel will be challenged to learn a different way of organizing their lives rather than the manner of the Pharaohs of Egypt or the kings of the nations that surround them. Yet, the politics of fear and oppression continue to be used in our time to set one group of people against another and to transform neighbors into the ones to be feared.

The initial strategy to remove the threat of the Israelites through oppression fails because the more they were oppressed the more they multiplied. While the policy may have the desired effect in the near term by allowing the Egyptians to have a forced labor pool to build the monuments and houses of the empire it continues to create a fear and a dependence upon the very people they wish to eliminate. The oppression and violence has not yet reached its peak and yet it has already begun to change the oppressor. To maintain this separation between Egyptian and Israelite they become ruthless. Fear and oppression has changed them. Their placing of the projects of the empire above the needs of their neighbor changes their culture. Hospitality is replaced with brutality and yet the Israelites endure and continue to multiply even under the heavy burden of the empire’s imposed service.

Exodus 1: 15-22 The Disobedience of Women

15 The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, 16 “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.” 17 But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. 18 So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?” 19 The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” 20 So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. 21 And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. 22 Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.”

This is the first of six stories in the book of Exodus of outstanding moral courage and they are all about women, two (Pharaoh’s daughter and Zipporah) are not Israelites and here with Shiphrah and Puah they may not be Israelites as well. (Sacks, 2010, p. 9) We don’t know whether these two women are simply midwives that are working with the Hebrew women or whether they are themselves Hebrews but they are named while the king of Egypt remains anonymous. They become examples of how women, who would not have a place within the power structures of men, are able to subvert the command of the king.

The king of Egypt asks these women to commit a crime against humanity. Perhaps the Hebrews are no longer valued as humans any longer by Pharaoh and they become a subhuman beast of burden where the master can decide upon their life and death. Yet, for these women it is not only a crime against humanity but also a crime against the LORD of the Hebrew women who keeps granting them the fertility to bring forth children. The Pharaoh has overstepped the line with these two servants and they work in their own way to find a way to allow life to occur when death has been ordered. Shiphrah and Puah have a calling, whether through morality or through faith, to not carry out this order to kill infants. When they are summoned they respond with a lie and it is a lie which also taunts the strength of the Egyptians. Hebrew women are able to deliver without a midwife present, they are much more robust than the more fragile Egyptian women who need to wait upon the ministering of the midwives. This is one of those times where God seems to delight in the craftiness of the servant. The midwives, who may have been in their role because they have no families of their own, are seen and they too are granted fertility and families. They also now have a place with the Hebrews and they become the first to resist the murderous impulses of the empire. Pharaoh, deciding that these women will not do his work for him now extends the murderous command to all his people. Now the murder of Israelites infant boys becomes the work of the nation and doubtless there will be those who are willing to embrace the politics of fear and division and be a part of the ordered purge. Yet, it is from within the oppression of the empire that something new will happen, that the people who were slaves to Pharaoh will be claimed as the first-born children by the God who is not bound to any place or nation but is instead the creator of the heaven and the earth.