Jesus was never violent. So why would he talk about drowning, amputating limbs, and burning people alive?
Matthew 18:6 (original translation, compare NIV)
But anyone who trips up one of these little ones — those who place their trust in me — would be better off with a donkey’s millstone around their neck, drowned at the bottom of the sea.
Yes, it’s about justice. But we need to be very clear about what question Jesus is responding to, the nature of the injustice, and how justice is restored.
Jesus is responding to the question, So, who is the greater in the kingdom of heaven? (18:1)
This question arose after Peter recognized Jesus as anointed king (16:16), and God confirmed it (17:5). But his world is so dominated by injustice that Jesus expects the current rulers to kill him (16:21; 17:23). And some of his followers (16:24-25). The crucified king receives his kingship only by being raised out of death (16:21-28; 17:9, 23).
The disciples cannot believe it. They start with denial: No Lord! This will never happen to you! (16:22). They progress to a question about who’s in charge if the king is at the bottom of the heap (18:1). He even pays tribute to those “above” him, so as not to trip them up (17:25-27).
So, who’s at the top? Jesus’ answer is to lift up a child (18:2). He expects a society where people change and become like children. There is no other way the earth can enter life as a kingdom of heaven (18:3).
The king calls each citizen to take the lowly position of this child as he does. The person who does this is the answer to the disciples’ question — the greatest, the one who is providing justice for the kingdom (18:4 answers 18:1).
This society can and will work when people accept the person at the bottom of the pecking order, because that’s where the king is (18:5). That, my friends, is precisely what Jesus expects of his church. The church must model life as his kingdom, so the world can discover how society works under God’s anointed.
There’s an obvious problem with the king’s plan for global restoration. It will be a truly amazing world when everyone gives the royal treatment to the least and the lowest, but we’re not there yet.
Does he seriously expect us to do that now, while people want to rip us off and take advantage of us? What are we supposed to do when people treat us as trash and spread lies about us, when they threaten to take our property, or our partner, or even our life?
Here’s the all-too-real problem for anyone who wants to follow Jesus: How do I respond to others who are not following his leading? If I react to evil with evil, the kingdom is not present anywhere — in their actions or mine. If I don’t react to evil with evil, the kingdom is partly present — in my actions even if not theirs. So, here’s my big problem: Will I be trapped into doing evil back?
Two key words need clarifying:
- Little ones: Did you notice Jesus changed words? Previously he spoke of children (paidion, x 4 in 18:2-5). Now he switches to little ones (mikros, x 3 in 18:6-14). He highlights this change by defining the new term: little ones = those who trust him in his way of running the world.
It’s no longer children; he’s including all who change to become like children (18:2) and take the lowly position of a child (18:4). Jesus’ little ones are living as vulnerable people, regardless of biological age.
- Trips up: Skandalizō literally means to place a block in someone’s path to cause them harm. There was a law against doing this to a blind person (Leviticus 19:14). It became a metaphor for tripping or trapping people.
Cause to sin (ESV, NLT) is a poor translation: it trades the metaphor for a phrase that imputes blame to the victim.
Offend (KJV) no longer conveys committing an offence.
Cause to stumble (NIV, NASB) is better, but loses the force of the metaphor. If a tree root is pushing up a section of my path, my negligence could cause someone to stumble, but skandalizō is much more intentional — like setting a trap for an enemy (Judith 5:1; 1 Maccabees 5:4). The parallel word is often to trap or ensnare (Joshua 23:13; Judges 2:3; Job 18:9; Psalm 69:22; 140:5; 141:9). Skandalizō means setting a roadblock or trap — tripping the unwary, or trapping the enemy.
Tripping/trapping happens every day in the world of business and politics. People design schemes to take advantage of clients, to gain an advantage over opponents, to benefit themselves at the other person’s expense. Jesus’ little ones cannot do this. We’re vulnerable because our king will not allow us to do evil back.
Does that leave you feeling like you’re easy prey for those who take advantage of you? Don’t fall for doing evil back! That’s the stumbling block they’ve put in your path.
So how on earth do we get justice? People will take advantage of us if we live like Jesus, as little ones who must not be tripped into repaying evil with evil. Do we never get justice?
Kings like David and Solomon set up court to ensure people got justice, especially the vulnerable ones (widows, orphans, foreigners). But our king is not like that. He dies at the hands of those who do evil. And he expects us to do the same (16:21-25).
Jesus never promised to protect you from the bullies who set traps and put roadblocks in your way. What he does promise is that they will get their justice in the end. And when they do, they’ll wish someone had tipped them overboard out in the deep waters of the Sea of Galilee with their head stuck through a heavy wheel so they never surface again.
It’s a gross image, like what the mafia do to say, “Don’t mess with us!” A donkey’s millstone was a stone wheel for milling grain, the big one that needed a donkey to turn it. Regardless of how high up the social ladder someone is, they’re going to the bottom if their head is through the axle hole and they’re in deep water.
You were asking the king about justice against those who mistreat you? Would you be satisfied with this as the execution? It’s not something you want to describe to your children. Perhaps it’s meant to shock Jesus’ little ones.
Justice will come, but don’t fall for taking matters into your own hands and repaying evil with evil now. Wait for divine justice. They’ll wish they hadn’t hurt you.
Calling on the name of the Lord is the only way divine justice is restored. His kingship spreads when we live as his little ones, refusing to be tripped up by those who do evil.