I got distracted for a while, particularly with computer issues. I’m back in the saddle now and today I began working again on my revision of my Gospels commentary. Here’s a section from Matthew 18.
There had already arisen sensitivity over their relative status as leaders in Jesus’ ministry, and He had already been teaching them that it was near the time when things should come to a head. Since they didn’t know quite how to handle the idea that the crown lay through the Cross, we find them considering instead the details of how the Messianic Kingdom would play out, specifically regarding who among them was designated for which position in the Messianic Court. They were still suffering from worldly ambitions, envy, and confusion about Messianic expectations.
hildren were given scant attention in the Ancient Near East, except within the privacy of the family. Even though highly valued and prized as a proof of God’s favor, their social status was quite a bit lower than we in the West would find comfortable. While Hebrew tradition was a little better in such things than just about every other culture at that time, we note that men didn’t give them a lot of time until they were old enough to commence education and training, sometime around age nine. Indeed, we learn from the laws of the time the death from abuse of one younger than nine provoked no curiosity from officials, because their loss was simply a loss to the family. Only after their Bar Mitzvah ceremony, meaning literally "a son of the Law," did they have any status in the community, so that they could ask questions in the synagogue, for example. We know from several Gospel passages that Jesus broke this mold. While He didn’t go the extremes found in Western society where youth and childhood are idolized, it was surely different from Hebrew traditions. When the Disciples asked Him about their assignments, He called a nearby child, who was surely younger than nine. The boy took his place in the center of the group.
This rather unimportant figure became an object lesson. Jesus referred to a need to be changed, to experience a complete shift in understanding how the world works. Rather than the child needing to be trained to the ways of life, it is the world which needed the understanding of a child to enter life in the Kingdom. Not everything thing that happens to children in the socialization process is what God intended. Some of what children lose should have been kept, and Jesus implies His society made huge mistakes in what they take away, with adults making a virtue of the wrong things. It’s a subtle parable about going back to the ancient ways when the Hebrew culture was new and vigorous, before it was filled with clutter from other nations and cultures. But the remedy is individual conversion, since you cannot roll back the tide of human cultural drift without making things even worse. The effort would be perverted by long-standing vested interests that couldn’t exist in a newly formed society.
Once people as individuals are "converted" to become like children in their unspoiled openness, they are fit for citizenship in a new society, the Kingdom of Heaven. This presents a bewildering paradox to the Twelve, who by now had begun to think of themselves as a class apart within the aging Judean kingdom. It’s not their leadership they needed to work on, but their very inclusion in the Kingdom. Children lack ambition, and are all too happy just to be included, to be taken seriously in any degree. They are quite indiscriminate in following the leadership of any adult who seems to care about them; that’s their nature. Becoming childlike is the sort of thing which fits men for leadership in the Kingdom.
Once having adopted this childlike faith and trust, any leader in the Kingdom takes up the responsibility of welcoming other children. It is a solemn duty, and taking it lightly by casually misleading them is no joke. Taking advantage of their dependency by leading them astray for any reason is a sin so great that they deserve one of the most hideous forms of Eastern punishment known: tossed in the sea weighted down by a millstone large enough it requires a donkey to push it. It’s bad enough the world is loaded with people who lead others astray, but those who abuse spiritual seekers deserve the greater punishment from God. It would be worth any price to avoid seducing the vulnerable. It’s not hard to imagine Jesus that draws a picture of the repulsive creatures who debauch children while pretending to love them. If you can’t keep your hands to yourself, or even your eyes, remove them. It’s better to live life with maimed flesh than to stand before God having seduced any spiritual child to sin.
Further, the dismissive attitude many leaders of that day showed to their subordinates was completely unacceptable in the Kingdom. We all stand before God as children before their Father; relative differences in roles are not really significant. Becoming impatient and dismissing someone who doesn’t rise to your personal demands is approaching blasphemy. You are not God. Furthermore, God keeps the angelic representatives of His children close at hand. Jesus uses the image here of a tiny elite group within the court of an Eastern potentate. Most people with business at the court never actually see the ruler, but deal with his servants. The word of his servants are taken as the words of the lord himself. A choice few are permitted to actually see him face to face on a regular basis. In God’s courts, each soul is precious! A better translation of verse 12 has the shepherd leaving his flock in a safe place in the wilderness, while he goes off and seeks the one which got lost. It’s not a matter of the others having no value, but that all are invaluable individually. Their individual needs may warrant varying levels of attention. This is frankly a revolutionary concept in that context. While some shepherds would give names to their sheep, it was extremely rare he would do so for a large flock, yet Jehovah calls each of us by name.
Thus, when dealing with a straying brother, leaders must assume his soul is so precious that they would be loath to cast him aside. Give him every chance to repent. In the ancient Hebrew society, your neighbor’s moral wandering was a direct threat to everyone around him. Rule by your own kind promotes this kind of familial concern. In Jesus’ day, rabbis had long since gotten used to Israel being under a foreign ruler in part because no one bothered to concern himself with his neighbor’s sins (Leviticus 19:17); the hassles of foreign rule became the bigger threat. Jesus emphasizes the biblical communitarian instinct built into the Kingdom. Go to the brother privately, where it’s most likely he’ll climb down from presumptuous sin. If that fails, bring a few witnesses to establish whether he is indeed hardened in this sin (Deuteronomy 19:15). If all else fails, let the whole congregation know why they must ostracize this brother. The obvious assumption is the fault in view is dangerous to the community of faith, something which would cause a child to stumble in thinking it must be normal. Such irresponsible behavior is symbolically associated with heathens (goyyim or Gentiles) and those Jews (collecting taxes for Rome) who served them.