One of these little ones

Mon, 10/10/2022 - 11:08 -- James Oakley
Little sheep

The parable of the lost sheep occurs in two of the gospels: It's in Matthew 18:10-14 and Luke 15:1-7.

This is a good example of the principle that we study each of the 4 gospels as a complete piece of writing. Each gospel writer selected exactly the stories from the life of Jesus that they wanted, told each one in the way they wanted, and put them together into the finished book in the order they wanted. Each story is included because the gospel writer needs it there to make their points and teach their lessons.

This is in contrast to the tendency many have which is to try to learn the lesson of the portion of Jesus' teaching, or the miracle he performed, irrespective of its context. A sermon on the resurrection should be very different depending on which gospel account is being preached. The feeding of the 5000 occurs in all 4 gospels, but we do not synthesis those accounts to learn the lessons from the miracle. Instead, we ask what Matthew is teaching as he records it, then separately what Mark is teaching, and so on.

So here. Luke 15 is the better known chapter because it contains 3 stories of lost things being found. (One sheep out of 100, one coin out of 10, one son out of two). The context there is Jesus facing criticism for eating with renowned sinners, and so Jesus teaches how God delights when those outside the kingdom are found.

It would be easy to read Matthew 18 and assume that the parable of the lost sheep is saying the same thing as that recorded in Luke 15. Let's look more closely.

Note the verses that frame the parable. Matthew 18:10: "See that you do not despise one of these little ones." Matthew 18:14: "In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish."

Note next the context, which will help to answer which little ones are signified by "these little ones". We find that out in Matthew 18:1-5, where Jesus takes a child as the model for true greatness in the kingdom. Those thought to be least in society, the "little ones", are in fact the greatest, and we should become like children. Accordingly, we should treat "little ones", as being of great value."Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me" (Matthew 18:5).

That paragraph is followed by Matthew 18:6-9, which starts: "If anyone causes one of these little ones – those who believe in me – to stumble …". Given "little ones" are very precious to God, to lead a little one into sin or another form of stumbling is a very serious thing indeed.

And then we have the parable, in which the delight in the shepherd over the one that wanders illustrates God's delight and value of the little one.

So if the message of Luke 15 is to look outward, at those who are not yet following Jesus, the message of Matthew 18 is different. It invites us to ask who within our church is a "little one". Who is in danger of being treated as though they were somehow less significant. Maybe it's those who are young, who have fewer gifts to serve the rest of us, who have some disability, who are of a different ethnic or class background, who have less money, who have less developed social graces, who … it will be different in every church. Work out who those people are, and make sure those are the ones you treat with special care, special value, special attention. Because they are very, very dear to our Father in heaven, and woe betide the church or the Christian who looks down on those God loves.

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