Are we worse off if we live unselfishly? (Matthew 18:7-10)

Enacting legislation doesn’t stop evil; enacting love does.

If you enjoy renovation projects, you’ll love the big one our king is working on. A complete global make-over, restoring the world to the glory of what it was designed to be: a kingdom of heaven. What will be different when he succeeds?

At its heart, it’s a change in how people use power. People do whatever it takes to eliminate their competition. Jesus experienced it (16:21; 17:22). He calls us to use our strength to support each other as we do for children, instead of taking advantage of each other and trying to trip each other up (18:3-6). But how?

Genuine transformation is not forced. It rises from within — the community giving to the least and the lowest the same welcome we give to our king (18:5). Not by enacting legislation, but by enacting love.

That’s why it takes so long. The willing transformation of humanity into a global community of God is the restoration project God is undertaking in Christ.

So, we’re living in the middle of a make-over. If you’ve renovated a kitchen, you know that lots of stuff doesn’t work well while it’s in progress. God has set his anointed in place, but people are still figuring whether if want to live generously (to benefit the kingdom) or selfishly (to benefit the self).

The problem is that when we trust Christ’s way of being human, we find ourselves at the mercy of those who do evil to get ahead. Jesus faced this: it’s why he was crucified. It’s what he meant by taking up our crosses too (16:24). We’re as vulnerable as little children. But it’s the only way for the world to become a kingdom of heaven (18:3).

Does our king care that his little ones are so vulnerable while he’s renovating the world? Does he have anything to say about that?

Matthew 18:7 (original translation, compare NIV
7 Woe to the world of such entrapments! The traps are inevitable, but woe to the person who sets the traps!

Hmm. That doesn’t sound like the voice of a king enforcing justice. It’s the voice of a prophet, warning people where their current path will take them. The world where people trip each other up to gain an advantage is no gain at all. That world is doomed. God’s reign will replace it.

Our king does not prevent people hurting us or putting roadblocks in our way; he warns those who try to derail his little ones that they have no future.

But before I point the finger at anyone else, the king reminds me that that I’m part of the renovation too. My own choices can derail me. No point looking for an evil glint in someone else’s eye, if I’m tripping over the log in my own (7:1). My own foot can trip me up. My own hand can set the traps:

Matthew 18:8-9
 8 If your own hand or your foot trips you up, chop it off and throw it from you. It’s better for you to enter into life with a disability or limp than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into the fire forever.
9 If your eye trips you up, pull it out and throw it from you. It’s better for you to enter into life one-eyed than to have two eyes and be thrown into Gehenna’s fire.

Whoa! Heavy words!

Gehenna is often translated Hell, but it was a literal place just south of the temple mount in Jerusalem. In Jesus’ time it was a place where rubbish was burnt, but the Valley of Hinnom (the Hebrew name) had a terrible history. In the time of the Divided Kingdom, people had burnt their children there to gain the favour of the gods (2 Kings 23:10). Even kings had sacrificed their sons, the princes of God’s people (2 Kings 21:6; 2 Chronicles 28:3; 33:1). Jeremiah described their actions as so detestable that Gehenna would be a place of slaughter (Jeremiah 7:31-33; 19:1-15; 32:35-36). He was right: the bodies of those who did not survive the Babylonian invasion of 586 BC were burnt or buried in Gehenna. That’s how Gehenna became associated with judgement, death, and burning bodies.

Jesus believed Jerusalem was about to see another event like that. Just as Babylon had done, Rome would invade the city and tear down the second temple (Matthew 23:37–24:2). This time the authorities were doing something even more evil than killing their own sons: killing God’s Son (16:16, 21; 21:37-39; 26:63-66; 27:40-43). They killed God’s Son to keep their power, but they gained nothing. When God raised him from the dead and gave him the kingship, they lost everything.

So, this is the challenge Jesus issues: wouldn’t you be better to suffer loss now by living as a little one under heaven’s reign, rather than seek to gain selfishly and end up losing everything? At the end of a restoration project, the stuff that didn’t get renewed ends up at the dump. Better to lose a limb now than to lose everything when God raises the dead. You don’t want to refuse the king’s restoration of his realm, and be thrown out as refuse when the renovation is complete.

Please hear Jesus’ reference to Gehenna in context. God is not satisfied with the way the world is: that’s the whole point of sending his anointed to restore it as a kingdom of heaven. Verse 7 is a demolition notice for existing structures: the world cannot stay as it is. Verses 8 and 9 warn us to stop tripping each other up and taking advantage of each other — characteristics of all that is wrong with the world, and the reason Jesus was crucified. When God completes his restoration project, he will dump and burn what could not be restored, the stuff that does not come into the age to come. Jesus’ point is that you’d be better to lose something now than to lose everything because you would not be part of the restoration.

There is no way for the world to become what it can be (a kingdom of heaven) unless we change and become like little children (18:3). Instead of seeking power over each other, the king wants us to take the lowly position (18:4) and treat each other with the same honour we give him (18:5).

The best servants of the king see how things affect him. They notice the grimace on his face when he hears how one of his people has been mistreated. The angels who surround the throne do, and the implication is that his earthly servants should care as they do:

Matthew 18:10
 10 See that no one disrespects one of these little ones. For I tell you that through it all, their angels in heaven see the face of my Father who is in heaven.

Yes, we may seem disadvantaged until the renovation is complete. But our suffering is not meaningless; it’s redemptive. We know this if we keep our eyes on the Father who doesn’t want any of his little ones in danger (18:12-14).

Open Matthew 18:7-10.

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Author: Allen Browne

Seeking to understand Jesus in the terms he chose to describe himself: son of man (his identity), and kingdom of God (his mission). Riverview College Dean

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