“Take heed that you do not despise one of these little ones” Wednesday of Trinity 14

13. September 2023

Pentecost 15 (18A)

Matthew 18:1-20

“Take heed that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that in heaven their angels always see the face of My Father who is in heaven. For the Son of Man has come to save that which was lost.” 

In the holy Name of + Jesus. Amen.

Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? In the disciples’ conscience, they are doubting their status before God. And that is because they are projecting their experience in this world into the world to come. Who is the greatest is a classic question of the Law, ranking, order, better, and worse. From birth, this is what everyone does, distinguishing between this and that and usually by merit. And the greatest implies that some reach the top, but most sit at the bottom. The dream of the Law is to improve your status and get closer to the top of heaven. That’s how the world works, so the disciples think Christ’s kingdom works that way, too.

Jesus’ correction comes through the example of children. We might think that Jesus wants us to put the children in charge since the adults in the room are doing a terrible job. They tried that in “The Lord of the Flies,” and it didn’t go well. That gives the same meritorious and vicious hierarchy. What is crucial about children? What does it mean to “humble himself like a child?” 

One key to understanding is that children don’t take the kingdom for themselves. They are not innocents who deserve Jesus and his kingdom, any more than the disciples could somehow merit a higher status in the kingdom through their righteous doing. They receive Jesus as a gift by faith, which is also a gift. Children, especially infants, can do little for themselves but depend on their loving parents for everything. There’s no hierarchy of merit but reception by identity as children of God. Of course, this is why Holy Baptism is given to all as the gift that gives adoption as sons regardless of any distinguishing mark. And with the adoption comes forgiveness, faith, life, and Spirit. 

The thing about children is that they believe what you tell them, especially if you’re an adult. As parents and teachers, this is an awful burden because it can be abused. Parents have a sacred responsibility to teach children what they need to know, especially the Gospel of Jesus Christ. To neglect this responsibility or to abuse it with false doctrine contrary to the revelation of God’s Word has horrible consequences. The children may be led into error, misbelief, and eternal death. And you, as their teacher, get something worse than a millstone around your neck or concrete shoes on your feet and tossed into the lake. 

What we say to children is utterly essential. Righteousness, according to the Law, is good for the neighbor but never gives us the kingdom of God. It is entirely appropriate to reward success in academics, sports, business, and the like. But that’s not how God’s kingdom works. We cannot lie to them about what God has said. We must never tell them that if they only behave, even according to the Ten Commandments, then God will love them and give them a higher place in the kingdom of heaven. That’s spiritual grooming and hellish.

The beautiful thing about children, too, is that when we preach the Gospel to them, they live by faith in a promise. Faith is not an inner power but a gift given by the Spirit working through that Word. So, too, we can never “leave it up to the children to believe.” They won’t. 

Without God’s Word preached and taught, especially by those whom God has entrusted with this vocation, they will never believe the truth. And because they’ll believe what other authorities tell them, even the damning satanic lies of our godless state church and its schools. We lament and mourn over the immoral and corrupt words spoken by the demon messengers of our culture. We can preach God’s holy Law against their lies, true.

But there is a greater Word that has been lost as the sheep are led astray. The little lambs never hear the forgiveness of sins in Jesus’ name! You are their angel/messengers to speak the truth of Jesus in love to them. And this is no trifling matter, to put off today because there’s a tomorrow. Every shepherd knows what his sheep often do not. Tomorrow you will die. But what if you could be resurrected in Jesus? What greater gift could anyone receive than Christ crucified and resurrected?

But I suppose you might think yourself ill-equipped for the task. But good for you, our tradition has just the things you need to be prepared to give Jesus to the children. Dr. Luther says in his preface to the Large Catechism, “As for myself, let me say that I, too, am a doctor and a preacher—yes, and as learned and experienced as any of those who act so high and mighty. Yet I do as a child who is being taught the Catechism. Every morning, and whenever else I have time, I read and recite word for word the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, the Creed, the Psalms, etc.

I must still read and study the Catechism daily, yet I cannot master it as I wish, but must remain a child and pupil of the Catechism, and I do it gladly. These dainty, fastidious fellows would like quickly, with one reading, to become doctors above all doctors, to know all there is to be known. Well, this, too, is a sure sign that they despise both their office and the people’s souls, yes, even God and his Word. They need not fear a fall, for they have already fallen all too horribly. What they need is to become children and begin learning their ABC’s, which they think they have outgrown long ago.” (Large Cat., Preface: par. 7-8)

So, there you go! The tools are before you. Live in your baptism, hear God’s Word, learn and relearn its exposition in the Catechism, confess your sins, gather with your fellow saints around the Altar for the Sacrament, and forgive your neighbor within your vocation. And what you receive, give to the children—baptize, preach, teach, learn, confess, receive, forgive. 

But what’s even more amazing is that anyone can be a child again, even the lamb that goes astray. The very same gifts that make you Christ’s sheep can restore you to Him again. That’s true for you, and it’s true for all those children (young or old) entrusted to your care. You have the Word of Jesus’s Law to preserve their life, but even more so, the Gospel of Jesus sets them free from sin, death, and the devil. And with Jesus’s Word, you also have the promise that the Holy Spirit will do all the work, and this Word will not return to Him void. 

Therefore, “Take heed that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that in heaven their angels always see the face of My Father who is in heaven. For the Son of Man has come to save that which was lost.”

The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guards your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. Amen.

Rev. Christopher R. Gillespie
St. John Ev. Lutheran Church & School – Sherman Center
Random Lake, Wisconsin