Proper 18 • Matthew 18:1–20 • September 4, 2011
By James L. Brauer
Caring for the Kingdom’s Greatest
Is this reading to be handled as a single insight into the kingdom or is one section of it going to be the subject of a sermon? Each section can be seen as a distinct topic: the greatest in the kingdom, when temptations come, the lost sheep, what is bound on earth is bound in heaven. Each would be worthy of homiletical exploration. But considering the flow of Matthew’s chapters (chapter 14 asks who Jesus is and describes how Peter, after seeing him walk on the water, admits that he is the Son of God, chapter 15 tells of the great faith of the Canaanite woman, chapter 16 has Peter’s confession, “You are the Christ,” and chapter 17 tells of Jesus’s transfiguration), the preacher can see that in chapter 18, Jesus’s teaching is overturning misunderstandings about the kingdom. The whole chapter will be read over two Sundays.
Here let us explore how a central insight might hold the reading together under one topic. It begins with a key question, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” It is the one who “humbles himself like this child,” a needy and dependent individual. Note the accent on faith in verse 6, “little ones who believe in me.” How important could such a person be? A “little one” should be received in Jesus’s name, as if Jesus were that person. What behavior should one exhibit in this receiving? No one should cause such a child to sin, but the world will provide temptations, and woe to the one by whom they come. To wound the one for whom Christ died is to sin against Christ (1 Cor 8:12). How precious is this “little one”? No “little one” is to be despised or looked down upon. Any shepherd rejoices over one stray sheep who wanders from the flock and is brought back, and so the Father rejoices over this one “more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray.” Not one should be allowed to perish. How do you deal with a brother who sins against you—who strays? You tell him his fault, and if he listens, he is gained—even if this process of confronting the sin and listening to two or three witnesses or to the church is needed to gain him back. In the event that he won’t listen, let him be considered as one who is outside the kingdom (as a Gentile and a tax collector); he can no longer be treated as a “little one.”
This sequence of thought has a unity. The “child” who believes is the most precious (greatest) in the kingdom of heaven, should not be led into sin, should be found when he strays, and should be led back “by listening.” That listening, a preacher will point out, is to hear again that Jesus is the Savior and has rescued all from the power of sin. Our Father rejoices over a sinner who repents and returns to the fold. What holds these paragraphs together can be seen in verse 5 (“whoever receives one such child in my name receives me”) and verse 20 (“where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them”). Jesus is one with the believer and is among believers who gather “in [his] name.” He continually cares for—protects, returns and restores—each one. Indeed, next Sunday’s Gospel will explore forgiving from the heart, how a believer treats a brother.
What is revealed in chapter 18, is how to take care of the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, namely, the dependent and needy “child” of the heavenly Father. Dependence on the Lord is accented in an Old Testament name for the “sons of Jacob” (Gn 49:2) who became “the twelve tribes of Israel” (49:28). In their dependency on Yahweh, they were regularly called the “children” (or people) of Israel (Ex 1:9). Jeffrey Gibbs’ recent commentary suggests that the “child” is the unifying theme for chapter 18.1 Truly, we are all dependents of our heavenly Father.
1 Jeffrey A. Gibbs, Matthew 11:2–20:34, Concordia Commentary (Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2010), 887ff.