Summary: Proper 18 (a) By nature we focus on ourselves, trying to be the greatest, to be Number One. But that leads to separation and loneliness. Christ has redeemed us, that we may be united with the Father and with each other. Therefore we live in love.
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts, be acceptable in Thy sight,
O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
“One is the loveliest number”
Our gospel reading today is in three parts. It opens with the disciples asking Jesus, yet again, who will be greatest. After explaining to them the need to be like a little child, the reading continues with a warning about sin, and the perplexing words of Our Lord, to “cut off” the offending member of our bodies. This selection then closes with a brief parable about a shepherd, who searches for a lost sheep.
Now, on the initial reading, this strikes one as an usual collection. The three sections don’t seem to go together. Yet, as we will see, they have one thing in common.
As our reading opens, the disciples come asking about being the greatest. Nothing new really. And we are still doing that today. The greatest ball player. The greatest country singer. Mohammed Ali called himself “The Greatest.” So the disciples are wanting to be the greatest disciple, the greatest in Christ’s kingdom. How does Jesus answer them. He calls over a child, and says be like him. More precisely He says turn and become like a little child. Turning precedes the becoming. What kind of turning?
Literally, “about face.” You disciples are heading in the wrong direction. Stop going that way. Stop thinking that way. In fact, unless you humble yourselves, you won’t just not be the greatest in the kingdom, you won’t even BE in the kingdom. Humble oneself? How?
The disciples, like the Pharisees, were seeking a position of importance. But being in the kingdom means seeking a low estate. In that low estate, when we are not trying to build ourselves up, God picks us up, and uses us for His purpose and His glory. As Mary said when she heard from the angel Gabriel that she would be the mother of the Savior, “He has regarded the low estate of His maiden, and done great things to me.” (Luke 1)
The picture humility is a little clearer when we consider the last part of this section. It’s actually down in verse 10. We can miss it because of the intervening discussion about the woes of sin. But after that, and just before the parable of the shepherd and the lost sheep, Jesus returns briefly to this illustration of the little child. We can see that this sentence is a follow-up to our opening section, because Jesus again mentions, “these little ones.” So what does He say? “Be careful not to despise them.” Now, despise here does not mean hate or dislike. It means to disdain, to actively look down on, to disregard. To consider unimportant or unworthy.
Who are these little ones? They are not just children, but the “little ones of faith.” That is what it says in verse 6, the little ones who believe in Me: Those new to the faith, those weak in faith, those who are still learning the faith. Don’t despise, look down on them.
Instead of trying to be number one and being the greatest, seek rather to be one. To be one with them, one with each other. Don’t disconnect but connect. The little ones are connected to God. For their angels are always beholding the face of God. And if they are important to God, who are we to regard them as unimportant.
In the second section, Jesus talks of the woes of sin. He tells us, “If your hand sins against you, cut it off.” For it is better to go into life with one hand, then go to hell with two. What is this? Jesus is not telling us to cut off our hands or put out our eyes. Don’t leave here with than mistaken notion, or listen to anyone who tells you that. Well, then what is He saying? It looks like those are the words.
Look closely and carefully, Jesus said to do that, “if your hand sins against you.” But your hand does not sin against you. We may use our hands to sin, but it is us, we, who are doing the sinning, not our hands. So cutting off our hands won’t cure the problem. You and I will still be there, and our sin will still be with us. If amputation were the solution, Christ would not have been crucified. God the Father did not send His only Son, Whom He loves, to execution and death for nothing. We cannot separate ourselves from our own sin. Christ took our sin, the sin which separates us from God, and separated us from it. That we might be one with Him and the Father. Not number one. But one. United. Together.