Texts: Ezekiel 33:7-11; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20
It’s Labor Day Weekend and there are lots of visitors in our island towns. Each ferry brings a fresh surge of people. If you’ve ventured out you’ve seen the tide of people on the streets shopping, eating, and walking, sometimes hazardously. Soon it will be quiet, but for now it’s noisy and active. Especially the children. I mean, who doesn’t know the siren sound of an exhausted and over-stimulated little one, right?
The subject of the gospel today is the little ones. To know this, you have to read from the beginning of the chapter. It says that to enter the Kingdom of God one must become like “one of these little ones”. Jesus was alluding to the very low status of children in the culture of the time. He meant that true humility is the means by which God’s Kingdom is entered.
A few verses later the subject shifts and is no longer about becoming a little one. It is about what posture the disciples should take toward little ones. Jesus said that they should receive them in his name, and they should be careful not to cause them to stumble.
The first people to follow Jesus were those who heard his gracious welcome. They were a diverse group, including many who had led lives of notoriety, and not in a good way. Jesus offered them with a new start. A way to live with honor again. But there was a learning curve. They came humble as children, in need of care, instruction, and guidance.
In the verse that leads up to the gospel today Jesus spoke about lost sheep – little ones who are to be welcomed but who may also stumble and stray. This turned into a teaching on how the disciples should handle people within the community who did not honor the commandments, bringing dishonor upon themselves and upon the community which bears the name of Jesus.
In the time of Jesus the community was known as the “called out ones” because they answered the call of Jesus. So when Jesus spoke, it was to his called out ones, from the unnamed little ones, to the leaders - the disciples. By Matthew’s time the same word, ekklesia which is translated “church” referred to the post-resurrection Christian community.
But back to children for a minute. Most new parents have a steep learning curve. Children, especially the very young are adorable. They can also be outrageously funny as they grow.
But if parents fail to draw a line between outrageous and funny things can get out of control, and even endanger the little ones. One expert on early childhood behavior says, “You have to be tough. No isn’t torture. When you say no, you’ve GOT to mean it.” If you cut through the nonsense and keep things simple, you will always get results.
In a sense, this is the charge in both Ezekiel and Matthew today. These bible texts address the leaders of God’s community of faith – so, Ezekiel who prophesied to the house of Israel (aka children of Israel), Jesus teaching the “little ones”, and Matthew in his community of the called out ones. Just as parents are accountable for their children’s behavior, so are the ones who lead God’s people, from the youngest in faith to the most experienced. Much is at stake because keeping the commandments gives greater life, while life is diminished by breaking the commandments.
This is why God said to Ezekiel, “…if you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but their blood I will require at your hand.” God is very serious about accountability in turning people from destructive ways. Wickedness, iniquity, transgressions, sin…is there anything God leaves out here? Not really. These aren’t higher order misbehaviors. They describe our failure to act in accord with the commandments - the ways that we all, small to great, depart from the will of God to have abundant life.
This is instruction on how leaders are to handle community members who break the commandments (and we all should know well enough what they are). Speak to a person individually. If the person won’t listen, get several more people in the community to help them listen. If that fails, the whole community be asked to help the person listen. The final action a community should take is to, “…let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”
The practice of excommunication comes from this teaching. Another is shunning where churches instruct their members to refuse even to speak to a disgraced person when passing them on the street. The gospel text is about a discipline within the faith community, overseen by dedicated leaders. Sadly, it happens beyond faith communities, without oversight. For example, unfriending or perhaps ghosting another person – when you just disappear from someone’s life.
Jesus does not give us permission to abandon one another. After all, Jesus helped a Gentile woman’s daughter. Jesus invited Matthew the tax collector to follow him.
Jesus said that the point was to regain the member, by getting them to listen. The whole community of faith supports this process. Paul told the Romans that the only thing Christians owe one another is love. Wow! Given all that divides people these days, this is a powerful lesson on how to be God’s people. And when others benefit from such love, all the better!
I recall a bishop who was traveling through an airport and came across a family huddled around a young child who was flat on the floor in a fit of screaming rage. The bishop walked quickly by. But his wife, a speech therapist experienced with children, stopped and said to the little one, “It looks like you’re having a very bad day. And sometimes you just have to let it out, don’t you?” The child was so surprised that her tantrum stopped. The energy of the moment shifted. The child was able to listen, to the relief of her family. The bishop paused, and then concluded with real humility that his wife better exemplified Christian love than his pretense of not seeing.
So how do we act in ways consistent with the instruction of Jesus? Remember binding and loosing? Jesus said that what is done on earth is to be consistent with what has been done in heaven. So. We believe in resurrection despite the power of death; we pursue restoration over rejection. After all, God’s will on earth is that we may be one, being accountable to the unity that is in heaven. Binding and loosing so that our community on earth reflects the ways of heaven.
We live on earth each day as people who call heaven home. And as we go in and out, we leave the front door open so that any who desire heaven may see in. Amen.
The Rev. Beth Purdum Eden is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church. She has served in more than 6 parishes in the Western United States for 30 years.