The Humility of God’s Reign

The Humility of God’s Reign

Matthew 18:1-10

One day, Jesus did more than merely tell a parable.  He produced a parable. He portrayed a parable. He presented a little child in tableau vivant – a “living picture”. Then, as now, a picture can mean more than mere words.  But, still, just as ears must be willing to hear, eyes must be willing to see.

Again, the parable is from Matthew, the most quoted Gospel of the early Church.  Let’s hear God’s word.

“Jesus’ disciples came to him and asked: ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’  Calling to a little child, Jesus told the child to stand beside him.  Then Jesus said to the disciples: ‘Here’s the truth: Unless you turn around and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  But, whoever does humble himself as this little child is humble, that one is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven’.”

The Universal Society for Optimism has produced a portrayed parable.  It’s a video. It shows a kid walking onto a deserted baseball field.  He brings along a bat and balls and steps into the batter’s box.  Then, he yells to no one but himself: ‘I’m the greatest hitter in the world!” and he tosses a ball into the air.  He swings – and misses, “Strike one” he mumbles. Again, he yells, “I’m the greatest hitter in the world!”  Again, he tosses that ball into the air and swings – and misses, “Strike two”.  Again, he yells, “I’m the greatest hitter in the world!”  Again, he tosses that ball into the air and swings – and misses, “Strike three”.  Dejection!  Then suddenly, he brightens up and yells: “Wow!  I’m the greatest pitcher in the world!” 

That’s not optimism – that’s bat ‘n’ switch!  And this same website on alleged optimism displays a motto from Harvey Fierstein: “Accept no one’s definition of your life.  Define yourself!”  Yeah, that’ll work.  Not.

See, such “defining” of self is really redefining of self – just like that kid did.  In a pinch, spin!  Disappointed at who we experience ourselves to be, as over against who we think we should be, we concoct a cover-up to mislead others. We can spin it as “optimism” or “re-branding” or “becoming your dream” or anything else, but it’s still rationalizing, we’re dressing up our cover-up.  We’re chin-deep in the muddy Nile.

And, since it’s our own shame that we’re trying to hide with our own sham, we see right through our sham to our shame.  And, since we can’t buy into our sham, we naively assume nobody else can either.  So, we’re still uneasy.  So, we keep looking for affirmation from others to save us from ourselves.  We’re hoping to counter our own mistaken misuse of our own sense of self.  But, no matter how much others may impress themselves with their versions of us and no matter how much they may tell us that they think we do measure up, we can’t buy it (and we’d better not!).  To us, what we think of ourselves always trumps whatever nice things others may say about us.  That’s because we ignore the facts that our own distracting sense of self is always inside our brain alone while the sense that others have of us is inside theirs alone.  So, again, better not depend on simply what’s in theirs.

Nonetheless and naively, we’re sure that we do measure up at measuring ourselves as not measuring up!  How ironic! Still, our overblown confidence that we really can extrapolate from our sense of not measuring up leaves us stuck in self-centered insecurity.  And no shtick of ours can get us unstuck. So much for Harvey’s advice and that optimists’ parody of a parable!

   T. S. Eliot took note of the “endless struggle [humans have] to think well of themselves”.  And, it’s from inside that trouble of endless struggle to think well of themselves that people talk well of themselves.  But, that “talk”, of course, is BS, and since it is, we can smell it and so can others, for it reminds them of their own BS.

D. L. Moody’s homespun take on folks who try to manipulate their public image was that, they’re “full of themselves.”  That’s a more accurate diagnosis than he may have known.  Indeed, people are so full of their troubling sense of self that they can’t see around it or over it, and so they can’t sidestep it.  People are so full of their self-centered craving for self-importance that they’ve concocted cover-ups that, for them, are, of course, untenable. This adds to their anxiety that they’ll be found out. Seeing right through their own con-jobs they’re right back where they started – full of their troubling sense of self that they still detect crouching in fear behind their flimsy camouflage.  They’re so full of themselves that they won’t let go and “die to self” as Jesus, so graciously and repeatedly, said we must. (Mark 8:35; John 12:24)

Hiding in hubris, they take no note of a whole other world outside their own cramped concerns for themselves – God’s world, God’s version of them and of all else, God’s vision for them and for all others.  Moody, sadly observed: “God sends no one away empty except those who are full of themselves.”

Full of self, we’ve no room for anyone else – least of all, for God.  Then, we’ve no room for our real selves either.  C. S. Lewis knew that, “The more we get what we call ‘ourselves’ out of the way and let [God] take us over, the more truly ourselves we become.”

Charles Spurgeon observed so realistically that, “Every Christian has the choice between being humble or being humbled.”  In touch with ultimate reality, we’re humble in awe of God’s grace to us and to all.  But, out of touch with ultimate reality, we’re humbled by our skewed and self-reliant judgments here and now and by God’s sovereign and final judgment one day.

Well, Matthew had been a tax collector with a reputation worse than anyone in the IRS for he was a Jew who betrayed his fellow Jews for pagan Rome.  Tax collectors could keep for themselves whatever they could get above what Rome demanded. And Rome demanded a heavy tax.  No wonder pious Jews lumped tax collectors with “sinners”. Yet, Jesus called Matthew to be one of his disciples!

Matthew presents the disciples as full of themselves.  He should know; he was one of them. And, if we call ourselves his disciples, it’s useful to ask ourselves: Just how full of ourselves are we?  It’s not a matter of whether or not we’re full of ourselves; it’s a matter of how full of ourselves we are, and how humble we might become by God’s grace under God’s reign in Christ.

Matthew reports the disciples’ asking Jesus: “Who’s the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”  Given the culture’s stereotype of a militant Messianic kingdom, they assumed that Jesus was announcing a powerful, political empire that, any day now, would overthrow offensive Roman oppression.  So, they pressed Jesus for some inside dope on who’s who in this soon-to-be-set-up Messianic kingdom.  Drooling over fantasies of self-important political appointments to the kingdom’s highest ranks, they were, indeed, full of themselves.

Writing some years after his life-transforming experience of the risen Christ and now referring back to that day when Jesus taught with the example of a little child, Matthew applies that lesson to his readers in the first Christian assemblies.  The same milieu is reflected in Paul’s letters when he’s dealing with rivalries between Christians.  Such competitive rivalry is evidence of anything but the humility for which Jesus called in pointing to the humble demeanor of a defenseless and dependent little child.

Jesus said:

   “Here’s the solemn truth.  Unless you turn around and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

No doubt Jesus’ response stunned the disciples.  Even their self-centered query showed that they’d been paying poor attention.  So, adding power to his words, Jesus prefaced both rebuke and warning with a solemn “Amen” – a declaration of deepest truthfulness.  Jesus was telling them in no uncertain terms that they were headed in the wrong direction and that they’d better be quick to turn around.  He was perfectly clear: They must repent.

But, what could he have meant by their need to become like little children?  Who would consult a little child about anything – much less, the coming demise of Rome, not to mention the very secrets of Yahweh?  Maybe they puzzled, as Nicodemus did, at hearing that it was only by being reborn that one could enter the kingdom of heaven?  Did they, as did that dense expert on religion, muse over the absurdity of “entering again into a mother’s womb”?  (John 3)  That literalism would surely qualify nicely as – childish!

Or, might they have remembered the Psalmist’s words: “Out of the mouths of little children and infants, you have ordained praise.” (Ps 8:2)  On Palm Sunday, they’ll hear Jesus recite that very scripture to his pious persecutors.

So, seeing that he must make his parable’s point plainer, Jesus says:

  “Whoever humbles himself as this little child is humble, that one is who’s greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” 

Discipleship under Jesus is humility, the opposite of hubris. And, who but a little child so exemplifies humility?  But, someone may object, children are self-centered and have temper tantrums.  Yes, they are dominated by desires they want satisfied at once, just like that model widow in Jesus’ parable, the one who kept pestering a judge until he finally granted her wish. (Lk 18:1-8)  Besides, aren’t the temper tantrums, themselves, evidence of the child’s totally dependent position.  But, another objects, children merely live for the moment. Yes, they do have short attention spans, just like Jesus said we should: “Don’t worry about tomorrow. …Your Father knows your needs.” (Matt 6:34-36)

At any rate, please note, this little child standing at Jesus’ side was no longer crawling on all fours.  So, let’s not make Jesus’ useful metaphor crawl on all fours!

Yet, Jesus’ metaphor does work simply because children are humble, as he said, “this little child is humble.”  Of the child, that’s an indicative, not an imperative, a description, not a prescription.  The child is humble in that the child is utterly defenseless and utterly dependent on others for meeting all of his or her needs.  A little child cannot defend herself against danger. A little child cannot depend on himself for meeting his needs.

A little child may fear and be shy but is unselfconscious, not proud.  It’s simply a little child’s disposition to be humble. 

And, as a child’s prayer is but a desperate and inarticulate cry to his or her own abba, Jesus taught his disciples to pray to our heavenly Abba, the Aramaic equivalent of that little child’s desperate and inarticulate cry to his or her own earthly dada or mama.  And, when even adult disciples are speechless at prayer, Paul assures that, “God’s Spirit intercedes for us with groans too deep for words.” (Rom 8:26)  Surely God knows our needs better than even our earthly parents do, better than we ourselves do.  So, however much we grow old, we never outgrow being the children of our heavenly Abba!

And, even though the humility of a child is inescapably an indicative, i.e., what is, and the humility of a childlike disciple is an imperative, i.e., what’s called for, the truth is that, in terms of essential reality, they’re both descriptive.

So, neither a child nor a childlike disciple can take credit for humility. A child doesn’t even try to take credit for humility.  And neither does the childlike.  A child isn’t given credit for humility.  And neither is the childlike.  The child’s humility is not a virtue.  The child is humble by virtue of the child’s helplessness, utter dependence and total trust in someone on whom the child is focused for all the basics of life.  And so is the childlike.

An 18th-century Bible expositor said that a child is without “prejudice, pride, ambition and vanity.” (John Gill)  Yes. And so is the childlike disciple.  Disciples of Jesus, citizens of the kingdom he brings, are humble by virtue of their helplessness apart from him, devoted by virtue of their dependence on him and righteous in the Lord’s righteousness.  Thus, we are to be childlike.

But we are not to be childishBeing fully themselves, children display a childlike dependence.  Being full of themselves, fools display a childish pretense to independence.

And still, children are meant to grow up and mature.  Disciples of Jesus, too, are meant to grow up and mature.  It’s during the formative years of childhood that healthy growth is most obvious, right?  Just so, it’s in the formative experience of daily discipleship that we grow up and mature in Christ.  How much are we growing and maturing in Christ?

Yet, disciples are never to outgrow their childlike humility for to even try to do so would stunt our growth, deform us and bring an end to whatever maturity we’d gained.

Therefore, it’s very challenging, disorienting and even threatening for postmodernists who are so practiced in pretending to self-definition and self-referenced sophistication, to be told that, to be Jesus’ disciples, they can’t rely ultimately on themselves.  They’re ultimately totally dependent on another, and on a quite unpopular other at that, on even an unseen and quite Unpopular Other – One who’s readily ridiculed by this culture’s chattering classes and by popular secularists like Bill Maher who mocks belief in God by smirking about “our invisible friend”.  Who have “invisible friends”?  Little children have invisible friends, don’t they!  And so do those who rely on the invisible and impersonal vibes of the Zodiac and the Chakras and the “life force”.  And so, too, do all who are utterly dependent on invisible quantum effects.

To be a disciple of Jesus is to stop being a disciple of self.  It’s to turn from self to the Lord God.  That’s what repenting is, turning around, that’s the awe-inspired realization of what in the world it means that God’s great sovereign rule has arrived and is continuing to come to us in Christ Jesus.

This dependency is experienced by “the humble”, by those who no longer pretend to be proudly “in charge”, by those who need no longer be “full of themselves.”  And they’re assured of God’s grace. (Prov 3:34)  Isaiah called them, “the contrite”. (Isa 66:1-2)  Jesus called them “the poor in spirit”.  They are those for whom God’s kingdom comes (Matt 5:3) for they are those who know their need for the God who loves them unconditionally.

This humility is not this world’s notion of status.  The ancient pagans despised humility and so do pagans today – even though pagans today pretend to humility to fit into one of the leftovers in post-Christian Western society. Sadly, some early Christians balked at humility and so have the power-hungry ecclesiastical elite throughout Christendom, and so do the prosperity hustlers of so-called reality shows like “Preachers of L.A” today.  And so easily can we join them by our own arrogance and pride!

Here and now, today, this weekend – and in our personal plans for the coming weeks – we need to ask ourselves honestly: How is our everyday experience of Christian discipleship that of childlike humility, a contrite heart and the poor in spirit?  Is being a so-called “nobody” our goal for status in this world?

Many claim they’re standing up for what they call traditional values while they cherry-pick the traditions that suit them and blame the Democrats for those that don’t. Many wear iconic images of totalitarian dictators who enslaved and murdered millions while they denounce Republicans as bigots.  But the kingdom of heaven is not the agenda of Republicans or Democrats.  The kingdom of heaven is not from this world’s systems.

We’re swamped, actually almost suffocated, by self-centered prizes of superficiality that reigns supreme in this passing world that so preoccupies us in our society today.  It’s portrayed in the glossy postures of indifference and pouting poses of high-fashion models. Are these images our self-portraits as the poor in spirit and the contrite of heart who’re truly freed for life in the kingdom that Jesus brings?  For celebrity wannabes in this world, to have one’s video go viral is answered prayer.  Is that our answered prayer?  Do we who so easily assume we’re following Jesus, spend more time following competing idols on Twitter and tweeting our self-promoting “selfies”?  Are we more interested in the wedding plans of celebrities than in the Marriage Supper of the Lamb?  (Rev 19:7-10)  The what?  Point made!

The status of humble, childlike dependence on God is not optional.  It’s not something for an indifferent person’s to-do list if he or she ever gets around to taking a look at it.  Absolute dependency on God is a gifted fact of life. Whether we assent to it or not, whether we’re aware of it or not, we’re nonetheless more utterly dependent on the Creator and Redeemer and Sustainer of life than even a little child is dependent on parents.  Without God we’d not be. Yet some have the audacity to assume that they can live without God.  No wonder David called such people utter fools! (Ps 14:1)

We can’t expect credit for this humility, for the humility is its own reward.  The humility reminds us of who we are and who we aren’t.  The humility reminds us of a reassuring reality. Yet, we’re but beginning to see something of what that means. It’s in this humble awe before God that our gratitude grows ever greater when we remember that our Creator and our Redeemer humbled Himself on our behalf, even to death by crucifixion.  So, in this gratitude, we joy in humility that, in but a faint way, derives from our Lord’s humility, and in us, frames our appropriate place in His eternal reign.

Matthew recalls Jesus’ telling disciples, “Whoever wants to be the most important among you will be your slave – just as the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matt 20:27-28)  That is sober but encouraging guidance for true followers of Jesus.  Matthew also reminds us of Jesus’ kingdom’s assumption-shaking reversals of this world’s values: “Many who are first will be last, and the last first.” (Matt 19:30)

And Jesus made this promise:

“Whoever receives such a little one in my name receives me.” 

Here, too, Matthew has the early church in mind, for even in that original scene Jesus was not addressing the child.  He was addressing his disciples whose model of humble dependency the child was – and still is.  “The subtopics flow one into another almost imperceptibly.” (Robert Gundry)  So, we practice Christian humility by our warm welcome extended to others, however “insignificant” they may appear to be. Such “little people” may be the “immature”, the publicly unimportant, the marginalized and outcast, even the boring, the physically not so attractive, those who offer no readily apparent advantage to us.  Guess what: In so welcoming such a “little” person, we’re welcoming Jesus, himself.  Jesus’ reference here to himself, “receives me”, is emphatic in the text – Me, you receive!

Our open-handed hospitality isn’t rendered so that, finally, a reward can be dropped into our open hand.  Nonetheless, on Judgment Day, Christ the King will tell the righteous, the just, of their having served him when he was hungry, sick, lonely, imprisoned and in need of all kinds of other help.  But, the righteous, the just, will be shocked.  They never realized that Jesus’ presence was there in the person to whom they rendered their long-forgotten service. They’ll finally learn that Jesus received and deeply appreciated their service.

But Matthew next reports Jesus’ stern warning:

“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to stumble into trouble, it would be better for him that a large millstone were hung around his neck and he were drowned in the depths of the sea.  Woe to the world for the stumbling blocks it brings.  For though it is necessary for such causes of stumbling to come, woe to the one through whom the stumbling block comes.” 

What are these “stumbling blocks”?  They’re whatever causes a stumbling into sin.  Jesus denounces, as deserving of death, anyone who trips up a humble believer so that childlike faithfulness is hindered or destroyed.  Maybe Jesus had in mind that selfish scrambling to be “the greatest” with its predictable disdain of the allegedly “inferior” that such self-righteousness prompts.  Simple believers can be enticed to rely more on their know-it-all elders than on simple trust in their heavenly Father.  Demoralized by the disdain that, in effect, traps them into temptation, they’re led into sin. Jesus warns that a quick drowning in the Dead Sea would be merciful compared to what will be faced by the arrogant, who turn humble believers from faith in God.

In Jesus’ day, the scribes’ and Pharisees’ endless rules came to be as binding as the Torah, and their official interpretations virtually replaced Holy Scripture. Recall Jesus’ rebuke: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! You lock up the kingdom of heaven from people. You, yourselves, don’t go in, and you don’t allow those entering to go in.”  (Matt 23:13)  It’s not for nothing that Jesus “does not allow His disciples to act like those of [the reformer] John [the Baptist] and those of the Pharisees” with their alleged “high standards”. (Cf. William Barclay; Norval Geldenhuys; David Wenham)

For Matthew, those who cause others to stumble may be the false teachers that were leading some early Christians away from the faith, into apostasy. And Paul wrote: “We aim to live in a way that no one will be tripped up and hindered from finding the Lord due to our faults.” (II Cor 6:3)

Throughout church history, people have been tripped into stumbling into a resistance to faith and even into a loss of faith.  Luther denounced as “fools and jackasses – priests, bishops, sophists and monks – [who, Luther said] have treated Jews in such a way that if I were a Jew and saw what blockheads and windbags rule and guide Christendom, I’d rather become a pig than a Christian.  For they have treated Jews more like wild dogs than human beings.”

Frederick Douglass, once a slave and later an abolitionist leader testified: “Were I to be reduced again to the chains, I regard being the slave of a religious slaveholder the greatest calamity that could befall me … they are the worst, the basest, the meanest, the most cruel and cowardly of all.”  And note, his use of the term, “religious”, was a synonym for “Christian”.

In his Four Loves, C. S. Lewis observed: “Large areas of ‘the World’ will not hear us till we have publicly disowned much of our past. Why should they?  We have shouted the name of Christ and enacted the service of Moloch.”

Today, there’s probably no more tragically familiar scenario of wounded and lost faith – at least among so many we know or have known – than victimization from antigay rants of Fundamentalist parents and preachers under the spell of ignorance and hypocrisy.  It’s all done in God’s name taken for no truly good purpose. Whether in opposition to civil rights for folks who happen to be homosexual, the pushing of fraudulent “ex-gay” promises and impossibly mixed-orientation marriages, the disowning of children or in the very predictably resultant depression, despair, promiscuity, drugs and suicide, there are plenty of examples of the terrible consequences of the stumbling blocks that so-called Christians have thrown onto the paths of Christian children and – beyond them – onto the paths of non-Christians who watch in revulsion, and resolve to have nothing to do with Christians or their “gospel”.

Is it any wonder that younger gay men and lesbians (18 to 29) are twice as likely to be religiously unaffiliated as their non-gay peers. (Pew Research)  Justin Lee says these unaffiliated young adults experience “a lack of understanding and love from religious groups – Christians in particular – and, as a result, they often walk away from their childhood faith and may even become very hostile to religion”.  And, he adds: “Our fellow LGBTs reject us for our faith in Christ, even as our fellow Christians often condemn us for being LGBT”.

There are liberal Christians who have no problem with homosexuality. Of course, politically correct religionists have hardly a problem with anything but orthodoxy. So, for the sake of their “progressivism”, they’re often too quickly motivated to push folks into violating conscience. Even moderate or stronger evangelical Christians can cause weaker Christians to stumble by self-serving and insensitive insistence that, whether or not the person of tender-conscience thinks it’s sinful, he or she simply shouldn’t think that. There’s no question that stronger Christians can be stumbling blocks to weaker Christians. (Rom 14:13; I Cor 8:9)   Enticing anyone to violate conscience is pushing that person to do what, to him or her, is thought to be sin and that’s a grievous thing. (James 4:17)  Until weaker Christians really can change their minds about what they think is wrong about homosexuality, or anything else, they have no Christian reason to act on it.  They have Christian reason to refrain.

Weaker believers can be stumbling blocks to stronger believers through a poor grasp of Christian liberty.  A well meaning but ignorant Peter was a stumbling block to Jesus, himself.  As Jesus faced the terrible ordeal ahead of him, he had to rebuke Peter’s urging evasion of the cross.  And Paul called Peter out over his hypocrisy about what had, indeed, been binding under the Old Covenant but, in Christ, was binding no longer. (Matt 16:23; Gal 2)

Jesus said:

“If your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.  It is better to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire.  And if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away.  It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell.”

Flannery O’Connor said that, in order to get some folks’ attention, one must write with very large letters.  C. S. Lewis said that God is shouting at us in what pains us.  Well, these words of Jesus can be painful – but they do get our attention.

Now, of course, the language is “hyperbolic and not to be taken literally”. (Donald Hagner)   Hands, feet and eyes are not the problem.  As Jesus, taught: Whatever we think or do or say with any body part (brain, hands, feet, tongue) comes straight out of our center, the “heart” in Semitic vernacular.  “Out of the heart come evil thoughts – murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness bearing, slander” and so on.  (Matt 15:19)  This list is of examples; it’s certainly not exhaustive of all the many ways we can prompt ourselves to misbehave and mistreat others. The point is that we are not to permit anything to get in the way of our life with Christ.  It’s at the center, our purposeful self, that we must assess, as honestly as we can, what brings us closer to faithful discipleship and what takes us further away from that.  Nothing is worth the loss of life with Christ.

Furthermore, Jesus sternly warns:

“See to it that you do not look down on one of these little ones.  For I tell you that their angels in heaven always behold the face of my Father in heaven.” 

No disciple of Jesus dare disdain the least among our brothers and sisters, for all are precious to God.  And, Jesus underscores this crucial admonition by revealing that the angels closest to God, those who’re always beholding His face – doing what none other could do and life – are representing the interests of these “little ones”.  An evangelical scholar comments: “Oppressed and marginalized Christians should find great encouragement here.” (Craig Blomberg)  And, since such intercession is going on among the angels in the very presence of God’s glory, it surely behooves all disciples to join in that intercession for all the oppressed and marginalized believers.

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