Matthew 18:1-20

Gospel Readings:

Matthew 18:1-10
Matthew 18:12-14
Matthew 18:15-20

Devotion 1

Wait: Take time to sit in silence together, allowing space for God’s voice to be heard.

Read: Matthew 18:1-10

With the disciples’ question, “Who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Jesus begins a series of teachings which make up the fourth such discourse in Matthew’s Gospel. The question concerns “greatness” and reflects the disciples’ anxiety over how power and honour will be arranged in God’s “empire”.1 Jesus’ answer abruptly confronts the disciples’ assumptions—and ours:

We aspire upward in a hundred ways, large and small: better degrees, bigger pulpits, more influence, higher pay, etc. But the flip side of this upward social fixation is our tendency to scapegoat downwards. We believe that those above us somehow deserve their privilege, because they are supposedly brighter, harder working, more entrepreneurial. Conversely, those below us are equally deserving of their social disadvantages, because they are allegedly lazy, dependent, incapable. Such social conditioning lies at the heart of the culture of domination, undergirding the political and economic architecture of stratification.2

Having called his disciples to abandon their ambition for such hierarchical greatness by becoming “humble like this child”, Jesus continues with a stern warning for those who would use their so-called power to “scandalise”3 such “little ones”. The contrast which Jesus makes is poignant. On one hand, disciples are to let go of pretensions of power in the community and be transformed through the act of welcoming children. On the other, refusing to give up their pretensions of power will lead to scandalising the community’s most vulnerable members.

We may well squirm at the judgment imagery which comes in this passage. Matthew’s Gospel does not shy away from such imagery. Rather than being warnings from those with power given in order to cower people into submission, however, judgment in Matthew functions the other way around. It is precisely God’s heart for the most vulnerable that brings judgment on those who are leaders in the community, who should be refusing to imagine that they are greater than its most vulnerable members. For those who are leaders in the community, imagining that they are more powerful, more important, than the children playing around their feet and interrupting their “grown up” concerns may lead to a dark place.

Reflect:

  • In what ways are you tempted to seek “greatness”?
  • Can you think of experiences where you have been transformed by children or others more vulnerable than yourself?
  • Who are the children in your life? How do Jesus words challenge you in regard to them?

Pray

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Close with the Lord’s Prayer

1. Ched Myers and Elaine Enns, Ambassadors of Reconciliation Vol 1: New Testament Reflections on Restorative Justice and Peacemaking (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2009), 58.

2. Myers and Enns, Ambassadors of Reconciliation, 58.

3. While the NRSV uses “put a stumbling block before” for the Greek word “skandalisē”, a more literal meaning would be “scandalise”.

Devotion 2

Wait: Take time to sit in silence together, aware of God’s presence in a broken world.

Read: Matthew 18:12-14

In our reading today, Jesus tells a parable which continues to reflect on those vulnerable members of the community who have been “scandalised” by those with power.

Elsewhere in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus has described his mission as “to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Mt 10:6; 15:24), probably referring to the despised and exploited peasant population of Galilee.4 Here, the lost sheep seem to be those who have been abused by those with power over them, and have been caused “to stumble” or to go “astray”. The shepherd, however, rather than giving up on the scandalised perpetrator, goes after them, seeking to restore them to the community. Of this parable, Ched Myers says,

The idea that in a very real sense we are all both victims and perpetrators is especially true for those of us who are citizens of social systems that routinely do violence to individuals and communities. And because we are complicit and wounded, we all have a stake in a justice process that will demand both accountability and mercy. This is the meaning of the central parable of Matthew 18.5

The parable is a vision of restorative justice where all, especially those who have “gone astray”, are valued and seen as worth pursuing.

Reflect:

  • Reflect on your own life. Are their times when you have identified with the lost sheep?
  • Who are the lost sheep in your community? How might you seek to bring restoration to them?

Pray for one another.

Share Communion

Close with the Lord’s Prayer

4. Ben Witherington, Matthew (Macon: Smyth & Helwys, 2006), 219-220. Additionally, in describing the people as “like sheep without a shepherd” (Mt 9:36), Matthew evokes the prophetic critique found in Ezekiel 34 of Israel’s leaders for their economic exploitation of the people.

5. Myers and Enns, Ambassadors of Reconciliation, 64-65. Emphasis in original.

Devotion 3

Wait: Take time to sit in the silence of repentance together, aware of our inadequacy and God’s grace.

Read: Matthew 18:15-20

Today’s reading describes a process of dealing with conflict within the Matthew’s community. Just as in the immediately preceding teachings of Jesus, here we need to be attentive to the power dynamics at play. It seems, given the disciples’ question about greatness and Jesus’ words about abusing vulnerable members of the community, that Matthew is here concerned with violations of those with more power against those with less. The process that Matthew describes, then, is a way of empowering the vulnerable to stand up to those with power over them. It is important to note that the process which Jesus describes is initiated by the victim. Does this mean, then, that the victim must be bound to confront the perpetrator? Myers is helpful:

The victim is being invited to make the first step; this is not, however, a demand. Too often in church circles, for example, abused wives have been exhorted to “just forgive” their husbands, which only functions to perpetrate the cycle of violation. Victims should bot be encouraged to take the initiative if they are not ready, or it it is not safe to approach the offender, or if the process will likely entail revictimization.6

It is a process which, if worked through by both parties in the context of their community, may invite the perpetrator to “convert” from the way of domination to the way of just community. If it fails, however, the process allows for the offender to be placed outside of group boundaries. This doesn’t mean the offender is an object of antagonism, however. The reference to “Gentile” and “tax collector” recall the same categories in Matthew 5:43:48, where the exhortation to disciples is to “love your enemies”.

Reflect:

  • What are your thoughts and feelings as you read through today’s reading?
  • In what ways have you experienced situations described here in the past?
  • In what ways are you challenged or encouraged by Jesus’ words?

Pray. for one another

Share Communion

Close with the Lord’s Prayer

6. Myers and Enns, Ambassadors of Reconciliation, 66. Emphasis in original

Devotion 4

Wait: Take time to sit in the silence of gratitude together, giving thanks for the ways you’ve experienced God’s loving kindness.

This week’s Common Value: Covenanted Community

Read: Galatians 5:16-26

Ask: In what ways are you encouraged and challenged in living in covenanted community this week?

Pray

Share Communion

Close with the Lord’s Prayer