In Matthew 18, Jesus’ disciples asked him this question: “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
The disciples expected Jesus to establish an order. Lay out who was the best, most devoted among them. With whom was Jesus most pleased? Who was Jesus going to appoint assistant manager? Chief of his cabinet?
Jesus answered with a paradox. Through his answer we get a glimpse at the nature of God. A critical glimpse. Jesus called a child forth. The least was greatest.
It was a remarkable answer for a few reasons. In that era, a child had few rights. Women and children were little more than slaves. They were property in their masters’ households. Fathers had absolute power. They had power to sell their children in slavery or even order death. Can one imagine how the disciples’ must’ve been surprised with this answer? Culture shock.
Here are Jesus’ words:
And Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them.
And said, “Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoso shall receive one such little child in my name receiveth me.
But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!
Wherefore if thy hand or thy foot offend thee, cut them off, and cast them from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life halt or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet to be cast into everlasting fire. And if thine eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: it is better for thee to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire.
Take heed that ye despise not one of these little ones; for I say unto you, That in heaven their angels do always behold the face of my Father which is in heaven.”
What makes a child the greatest? Not his physical strength. Not his knowledge or wisdom. Not cunning. Not leadership. Not his vast alliances. Definitely not his “likes” or “followers” on social media.
The nature of a child speaks of pure-heartedness. A child is vulnerable. A child is not a “threat,” for the child is not intimidating, physically or otherwise. A child has no rank or station. A child is lowly, reliant on others. As such, a child is an easy target–easy to tease, to tantalize, to bully. A child can easily be beaten in a sport or a game. A child can easily be rejected, despised.
Yet a child is the greatest.
Greatness in the kingdom of heaven, then, is an acceptance of this humble, lowly social station. Jesus warns any antagonist to these “great” child-like souls. He warns any who would harm or lead these souls away from God it was better to be tied to a giant monolith of stone and drowned in the dark, cold abyss of the ocean.
Why a millstone? In the Old Testament, the millstone, a giant stone that grounded corn and flour, was vital for survival. None could require someone’s millstone as collateral in a sale. Such would have been akin to taking life as collateral. Being drowned with a millstone implied callous disregard for others lives.’
Jesus doesn’t minimize or patronize the marginalized. He lets us know he is a protector of the vulnerable and a defender of the defenseless.
Jesus is plain. Obedience is costly, not convenient. Why would Jesus say to “cut off” an offending hand or foot? It seems radical. Hands and feet are important appendages. Yet, put it in context. Jesus is saying abuse of power that results in harming “child-like,” reliant, obedient souls is a grave thing. It’s serious. Jesus instructs his disciples to radically transform whatever causes such offense. Do what you must to prevent more offense, he says.
Child-like souls are like sheep. They place special trust in their shepherds. Thus, as Uncle Ben (Spider Man’s uncle in the Marvel Universe) says, “With great power comes great responsibility.” Many positions come with shepherd-like authority. All in such positions–teachers, government leaders, ministers and church leaders, law enforcement, parents, etc.–should learn the power dynamics that lend to abuse. Good shepherds are able to recognize “hands” and “feet” of offense. Shepherds love and protect their flocks. They remove members of offense and prevent harm.
Abusers exploit power imbalances and wield their power to harm the vulnerable, the lowly, the reliant. This is true with all forms of abuse–physical abuse, emotional abuse, verbal abuse, and even spiritual abuse. But this is especially true with sexual abuse. Sexual abuse is not about sex, hormones, attraction, or misread cues.
Sexual abuse is about power. It is about the abuse of power. It is about “imbalance” of power. It is about “exploitation” of power. It is about one person’s desire to overpower and control another.
Boz Tchividjian, founder and director of GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment) speaks about the power dynamics at play in the following convocation address, “The Imbalance & Exploitation of Power: A Recipe for Abuse”:
Tchividjian explains how power imbalances create atmospheres ripe for abuse.
Tchividjian discusses the different types of power–power of the individual, power inherent in positions of authority, power inherent in institutions, and the “power of the bystander.” He highlights the imperative for vigilance, awareness, prevention, and strong community support of abuse survivors.
Particularly striking to us is what Tchividjian says about the power of charm. As he says, charisma is a tool of trust:
“Niceness is not a character trait. Niceness is a choice. If you’re attempting to isolate somebody and gain their trust, more often than not, one of the ways you’re going to do this is through your charm, by being nice.”
If someone abused by a charismatic, popular person does step forward, as Tchividjian says, people look for any narrative to buy into rather than face the truth that such a charismatic, nice guy could be abusive:
“We will buy the narrative that he’s a nice, charming, wonderful person and…you’re the one who must have problems, not this person. Folks, that’s intentional on his part. That charm is a power that person yields in order to accomplish not only what he chooses to accomplish, but when and if it ever surfaces, to spin a narrative where ultimately he can show himself as a victim and the victim, the genuine victim, can be seen as a perpetrator. ‘Look what you’re doing to this person.'”
Even if we’re not powerful leaders, we all participate in the power dynamics of abuse. Silent bystanders have power. Too many of us could do something, should do something, but won’t. We don’t want to “get involved.” We’ll help cut desserts in the kitchen, we’ll volunteer to run the children’s program, we’ll run a service or help with facilities, but we won’t speak out for those Jesus called the “greatest”? How does this make any sense? We all have the ability to get down in the pit with the powerless, practice empathy, lift up the powerless, bring them back to light, give them hope.
As Tchividjian points out, the gospel is about losing one’s life to gain it. Jesus’ example above gives us explicit instruction for the sacrifice expected of us, our leaders, our institutions. Victim-shaming and victim-blaming are antithetical to Christ’s words. We encourage you to watch the entire 30 minutes. Then, check out the GRACE website.
One final thought…
Whenever we question our power as bystanders, remember Jesus’ example: Jesus wept.
The shortest verse in the Bible is one of the most revealing about God.
Jesus got word his friend, Lazarus, had died. Lazarus had been dead four days. His body was beginning to stink. Jesus arrived to many mourners on scene, including Lazarus’ sisters Mary and Martha.
Jesus had no reason to be mournful, though. He knew he was about to perform a great miracle. He was going to raise Lazarus from the dead. In fact, this is what Jesus tells Martha, the sister who goes out to meet him. He calls on Martha to exercise faith.
Then there was Mary.
Jesus’ response to Mary was entirely different. Consider why.
This was the same Mary who, in another part of the gospel, sat at Jesus’ feet, as a pupil before her teacher–something uncustomary for Jewish women of the time. In Jesus’ day, Jewish women weren’t educated, weren’t allowed to study the Torah, and were explicitly forbidden from liturgical services in the synagogue. I imagine Mary, wholly engrossed in Jesus’ lessons, wholly oblivious to the fact she’s breaking custom or code. I see her with wide-eyed sincerity, imagination, and a child-like spirit, like Anne Shirley of Green Gables.
I imagine others perceived Mary as absent-minded, given to daydreams during her daily chores. I see her lost in thought, letting the bread get a little too brown. I hear her frustrated sister Martha, “Mary, stop dilly-dallying. There’s too much to do…Lord, remind Mary she needs to help me.”
Did Jesus say, “Mary, you silly girl, go help your sister.”? No. Did he scold Mary, tell her to get back to the kitchen? Call her lazy? No and no. Jesus calmed Martha and then–this is huge–he affirmed Mary was where Mary needed to be. When Martha’s perception of Mary was skewed by Martha’s own circumstance, Jesus saw straight through to Mary’s heart. Mary was like a lowly child, genuine and authentic, just happy to sit, listen, and anoint Jesus’ feet.
When Lazarus died, Mary did not come until Jesus called her. But when she did go to Jesus, she didn’t hold back. She fell at Jesus’ feet and poured out her grief before him. Her spirit communicated by her tears. Jesus could have uttered some platitude. He could have told her, “Chin up, Buttercup, and watch this miracle!” But he didn’t. Mary was pure in heart.
Jesus saw “her weeping” along with the other mourners. And Jesus was overcome.
Then, Jesus wept.
Jesus did not feel for Mary. He felt with Mary. He “groaned in the spirit.” Jesus did not condescend. He connected with what Mary felt, got down in the pit of grief with Mary, and lifted Mary up to light and hope. Jesus taught of the Good Samaritan, but He didn’t just teach it. Jesus lived it. Jesus WAS the Good Samaritan. Jesus shows us how to be a good bystander. He reminds us again it’s the least, the lowly Marys among us, who are greatest with God.