JUNE 26, 2011 - YEAR A

Genesis 22:1-14
Psalm 13
Romans 6:12-23
Matthew 10:40-42
Homilist: John Jones

They were so elated upon their return:  “The very devils obey us!”  At last, this was more like it:  At last, the disciples had some hint that their hopes might bear some fruit.  Here—at last!—was a taste of the advantages that had motivated their gamble in following Jesus.  This pathway could lead to some authority, in their oppressed existence, after all.

Their stock in trade was simply a bit of relief to downtrodden villagers up and down the Jordan valley.  The peasants’ paltry material world was bedeviled by spiritual sufferings, as well.  Physical illness and possession by evil spirits were experienced as a single curse, as the demons added their torments to those inflicted by God’s human enemies, the Romans.

This, then, was the implicit bargain, already made clear by the wandering bands of Zealot guerrillas who worked the same villages.  Those insurrectionists demanded food and care on the claim that they were resisting—or maybe someday would yet resist—the occupying legions.  Jesus’ disciples, borrowing the same vagabond lifestyle, worked the spiritual side of the game.  Healings and exorcisms were assertions of spiritual authority over the legions of malevolent forces that were invisible, yet nonetheless real.  For this, the poor peasants would share what little they had in return.  Bread and water, at least, were sure.

 

All it took was the name of Jesus.  Jesus—whose name was gaining increasing recognition throughout the network of settlements, and also, evidently, throughout the demonic realm as well.  There was ‘street cred’ in that name, and the disciples were not slow to capitalize on it.  It worked!  And it sure beat fishing.  Small wonder that they were so enthusiastic, upon their return to Jesus.  Now they were getting their game on!

 

In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus’ response to their cordial treatment from the peasants was a simple endorsement:  “Truly I tell you, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to the Messiah will certainly not lose their reward.”  (Mark 9:41)  Their humble benefactors would reap their own blessing when God’s kingdom would prevail.

But as usual, Matthew complicates Mark’s simple picture.

Today we experience this celebratory moment between Jesus and his disciples simply as text.  It comes to us as words on the page—and words written down much later, in a different world.  Here we must remind ourselves that Mark’s gospel is almost certainly the earliest of the first three.  And his work appears to have fed into the writings of Matthew and Luke.  Matthew, as we can see in the little parallel columns we have before us this morning [see below for attached PDF handout], concludes his story of the disciples’ mission with the last verse of his tenth chapter:  verse 42.  There, he follows Mark almost word for word, with the saying about the reward for those who extend the cup of water.  But in following Mark, he deliberately picks up an expression that Mark uses not in this saying, but in the following verse, Mark 9:42.

The pronouncements of Mark 9:41 and 42 don’t appear to be connected at all; each stands alone and addresses quite different subjects.  Matthew, in his own gospel, deploys these two sayings at very different places:  the first one, as we have seen, in chapter 10, the second one in chapter 18 verse 6, as part of an extended discourse on the nature of God’s kingdom and our conduct as its citizens.

But in chapter 10, Matthew reaches down to Mark’s second saying, the one about causing others to stumble, and pinches one little expression that appears only here in Mark (and in Luke, only here in his parallel to Mark): the phrase “one of these little ones.”  And Matthew puts it on Jesus’ lips back up in chapter 10, at the end of the disciples’ mission story.

And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.  10:42

Eis onoma mathētou – “on account of being a disciple [of mine].”  It is not the giver of the drink who is a disciple here, but the receiver.  This is a picture of the outside world caring for those who are inside the fold of Jesus.  The disciples receive on account of bearing Jesus’ name, the name that commands such respect even among those who are not disciples—those who are on the outside.

Note the position that this puts Jesus’ followers in:  This is no lordly position, in which they are the dispensers of material goods.  They are the dependent ones—the “little ones” in their society.  They have some spiritual goods to offer, but the ancient Roman world wasn’t very different from our own:  It was those with worldly power, influence and wealth who dominated and were respected.  The wretched Palestinian villagers had little of such resources.  And yet Matthew’s gospel places Jesus’ followers beneath even these poor peasants, totally dependent on them.  “Little ones,” indeed!
In such a world, spiritual authority may claim some attention when it can deliver pragmatic benefits—release from fevers, liberation from demons.  But the label of “the little ones” is a clever reminder to the disciples that, even when the devils obey, Jesus’ emissaries aren’t to gloat.  God’s kingdom may indeed be an upside-down one, where worldly values are inverted, the greatest are least and the least greatest.  But that is no warrant for lording it over those on whom they were dependent for their very sustenance.

Here is where Jesus’ disciples parted ways with their revolutionary counterparts.  There was always the implied potential for coercion, when the raggle-taggle bands of armed “freedom fighters” strode into town.  As a villager you could give, or they could take.  They came with their claim.  The Jesus movement, by contrast, was an evolutionary force, and it built on a very real theology of grace.  The disciples came on a mission of proffering: “How can we help?”  “Bring out your sick!”  The God in whose name they came, came explicitly to act on his children’s behalf, rather than as a demanding military despot.  “Where are your blind?”  “Any problems with demon-possession here lately?”  “Leprosy?”  Individual healings became object lessons of God’s agenda for everyone.  Good theology gave rise to good deeds and it was only natural for the villagers to respond in goodwill.  In Matthew’s telling, as long as Jesus’ followers benefitted the people and remained humble the kingdom would spread.  No swords, just faith and servanthood.


With that in place, Matthew has one more major move he wants to make, with this motif of the “little ones.”  Among other purposes, he writes his gospel as a kind of church manual for the early believers in the first century.  This intention is especially clear here in his 18th chapter, which has so much to say about how we within the church should get along with one another:   The first paragraph presents the humility of a little child as the ideal for true greatness, followed by injunctions against causing such a little one to stumble.  The parable of the shepherd who searches diligently to rescue a lost sheep sets the stage for a discussion of discipline of members and of authority that is to be exercised under heaven’s mandate.  Above all, the principle of open-hearted forgiveness is to govern churchly decisions, exercised in mutual accountability.
It is in the heart of this collection of related themes that we find Matthew’s version of the Lost Sheep parable, in verses 10-14.  The only other place we find this story in the Bible is in Luke’s 15th chapter, where it appears with the stories of the Lost Coin and of the Waiting Father.  There, Luke keeps stressing the joy of the Kingdom over recovery of the lost.  Matthew, by contrast, picks up on a different aspect; he brackets the story of the Lost Sheep with two pronouncements containing that same expression:  “one of these little ones.”  Both sayings stress the value of the little ones:   We should treasure each of them (v.10), for God is not willing for any one of them to perish (v. 14).  Clearly, Matthew wants us to envision a little sheep!

Who, then, are these “little ones” for whom Matthew is so concerned?  We can surmise several possible answers: literal children in the congregation, new converts, those of vulnerable conscience (perhaps comparable to Paul’s “weaker believers,” I Cor 8:11), or simply those who may have a tendency to stumble or to wander.  We can pick up a hint, however, in another early Christian source:  While the story of the Lost Sheep is only here and in Luke, in the Bible, it does crop up again in a collection of sayings attributed to Jesus, the so-called “Gospel of Thomas.”  This work, certainly not from Thomas’ pen as we have it, dates in its written form from about a hundred years after Jesus’ earthly life.  And it turns out to be not a proper gospel at all, but simply 114 pronouncements—some quite familiar, some strange and puzzling—placed on Jesus’ lips.  Number 107 is quite recognizable as the same parable, with one significant difference:  Here, we are told that “one of the sheep, the largest one, went astray.”

Now we see why Matthew is concerned.  And we can see how he recycles this imagery of the little ones, which first applied to relations between believers and those outside the church, and corrals it within the early Christian circles to communicate a new message:  Previously, it was used to make a positive example of those outside of the church who nonetheless cared about Jesus’ emissaries.  Now it is relationships inside the congregation that come into view.  And the problem is that the old worldly values are now again surfacing among God’s own people.  Could it be that economic considerations are so soon influencing the shepherds?  Could they be concentrating on the “fat cats” who are rich and respectable in human eyes, at the expense of those who occupy the lesser socio-economic rungs?

In Thomas, after the shepherd recovers the lost sheep “through great effort,” he says to it “I love you more than all the other ninety-nine!”  Such a picture of pastoral bias, in a version of the story that in its oral form may date back to within three or four decades of Matthew’s gospel, helps us understand why he may have been so concerned to do justice, in his church manual, to the needs of those who were especially needy, and especially easy to neglect.  The disciples, themselves “little ones,” had once received support and care from others—even nonbelievers.  But now those who ministered in Christ’s name needed to remember what it was to be so vulnerable and to take care of those who were the greatest, not in the world’s eyes, but in the Kingdom’s.  They who lived in Jesus’ name could only retain the respect that name had earned by living out the Kingdom’s true values.

Here then is an instance of a theme going through stages in the life of the earliest believers.  In Mark, the disciples’ right to receive the support and nurture of others is simply affirmed:  Heaven will reward such succor.  In Matthew, the expression “one of these little ones” is introduced, borrowed from a separate saying in Mark, to anchor what Matthew wants to say about ministry and authority inside the church in his own time.  A summons to remember, when the tables are turned.  And in the Gospel of Thomas, we see the loss of the expression and its replacement with a cynical reference to its opposite—a prostitution of the Name and the Kingdom.

So it was, and so it is for us today.  For this little trajectory readily extends itself out of the pages and into our lives.  It applies to those of us who are called to be pastors today, and to those of us who occupy positions of leadership within ecclesiastical circles.  And it applies perhaps most pointedly to those of us who have the most daily contact with “the little ones” in the form of our students.  A couple of years ago I had a student explain to me in a conversation in my office that the reason he and his classmates prefer younger faculty is not that they are closer in age and mannerisms to their students.  “We want all of our professors to be our teachers, not our buddies.”  Rather, he went on, it is simply that they haven’t yet migrated so far beyond their own student days that they have forgotten what it is to be a college kid—with all of the struggles, self-doubts, victories and defeats, drama and decisions that characterize that period of life.  “If I’m ever a teacher,” he concluded, “I’m determined to never forget.”
He left me remembering a similar vow I had taken on another campus, now half a century ago.  It was a call to recall—in a way, the same call Matthew voiced two millennia ago, on behalf of the little ones.

O make your church, dear Savior,
a lamp of purest gold,
to bear before all people
your true light, new and old.

Teach us, your faithful pilgrims,
by this our path to trace,
till doubt and striving ended,
we meet you face to face.
Amen.