Preacher: The Rev’d Canon Jenny Wilson

In the name of God, creating, redeeming, sanctifying, … Amen.

“I Love you,” says God, ….“Let me say it again another way.”

A priest I once knew was talking about God, imagining God having a conversation with us. And God saying, “I love you”. And then realising that we have not heard, or have not understood, or perhaps more importantly have not felt, God saying, “Let me say that again, another way.” God longs that we will hear. Jesus, God’s Son, longs that we would hear too.

We are in chapter 18 of Matthew’s Gospel this morning and we see Jesus saying what he wishes to say one way, and then in another, and then in another way, such is his longing that we would know the ways of God. Matthew’s Gospel, written for a Jewish audience, often portrays Jesus as a teacher. The gospel has five passages of teaching, the first and most well known being The Sermon on the Mount. Jesus, like Moses, goes up a mountain and then talks of God, beginning his words with the beatitudes, those strange blessings that are so counter to the ways of the world. Chapter 18 is the fourth passage of teaching and contains two themes. The theme of who matters and the theme of how people are to relate and particularly how people are to forgive in God’s community. We will address the first theme this week and the second the next.

Jesus has been gathering and instructing a community of disciples in the midst of growing opposition from the religious leaders. As we heard last week, Jesus has told his disciples that following him involves taking us their cross. Strange blessings, strange instructions. Jesus pauses again to teach the disciples and the teaching we heard this morning comes in response to a question. No doubt struggling with Jesus and his strange words, and struggling with the opposition of the religious leaders, the disciples ask the wrong question, if you like, or at least a question that shows they have absorbed little that Jesus has said.

“Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” They say. They are clearly not comfortable with the vulnerability of life with Jesus where beatitudes are to be followed and a cross is to be carried. Let’s have a little power instead. Who is the greatest?

Jesus starts with a definition.

He calls a child, whom he put among them, and says, ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. (Matthew 18:2-4)

The greatest in the kingdom of heaven is like a child. That is his definition. This is certainly not what the disciples would have expected. For children in Jesus’ time and place were invisible. He was not being romantic about them; he would have known that children like adults, can be winning some days, and profoundly irritating on other days. That is not the point. He is making the invisible visible. The ignored, noticed. To be great, you must be like the least, he is saying. This is about a radically different understanding of status. It is about abandoning self reliance and the desire for power; about living in community in a place of trust in God.

Jesus then speaks about the issue of stumbling. It is a vivid idea. Stumbling happens when we are walking along a path, in this situation the path of the kingdom of heaven, and something causes us to trip up, to be halted in our walking, our living well in the way of God. Jesus has come that we might thrive in the great love of God and that we might encourage one another in that way.

But, Jesus says,

If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of stumbling-blocks! Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the stumbling-block comes! (Matthew 18:6-7)

We know that Jesus is not beyond using dramatic exaggeration to illustrate his point. Woe to us if we ever cause a “little one”, a vulnerable member of our community to stumble, to be tripped up in the way of God. Woe to us if something about us causes us to stumble; it is better that that aspect of us be thrown away. The stumbling that Jesus is speaking about here relates to the context, to the question he has been asked. Who is the greatest? The one who is like a child. If anything about you gets in the way of this, if anything about you encourages you to seek power, and especially power over the vulnerable, the “little ones”, look carefully at that, let go of that.

“Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”

We are part of the way through Jesus’ response. He is not interested in the idea of the great. If you want to enter the kingdom at all you must be like a child, he says. Jesus defines, and he uses dramatic exaggeration to give some insight into, the way of God. To give insight into a kingdom where power and status cause stumbling, where power and status are not life giving at all.

Jesus knows, though, that we find these things very difficult to understand and so he uses, finally, his best armoury, his greatest teaching tool. He tells a story.

Walter Brueggemann, the Old Testament scholar, wrote the following:

People are changed not by ethical urging but by transformed imagination. [1]

Don’t tell people what to do, in other words, tell them a story that will change how they see the world.

Rowan Williams writes of God being represented by a whole narrative, a whole story particularly when Jesus speaks in parables.

Emily Dickenson says it in a poem


Tell all the truth but tell it slant —

Success in Circuit lies

Too bright for our infirm Delight

The Truth’s superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased

With explanation kind

The Truth must dazzle gradually

Or every man be blind —

 The truth must dazzle gradually … the truth of God will reach us rarely though instruction, rarely via definition. The truth will reach us perhaps through parable, through story. Tell it slant …

And so Jesus finishes his response to the question of the disciples with a parable and one we know well, The Parable of the Lost Sheep.

What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. (Matthew 18:12-13)

I have been told that the best thing to do with a parable is to let it irritate us. To find where we do not understand. And this place of not understanding may well be different for each one of us, not surprising if we allow ourselves to be encountered by the living word of God. Is there anything irritating about this parable? We are so accustomed to it that it may be difficult to imagine the reaction of those hearing Jesus for the first time. Let us put ourselves in the place of each of the characters in the story. What must the shepherd be feeling to search out the one sheep who goes astray? What is the response of the ninety nine sheep left behind? And what of the lost sheep? What does it feel like that the shepherd would risk the lives of all the others, that the shepherd would bother to go out on the mountains in search of him, of her? What is our response? Where do we not understand? With whom do we most relate?

Jesus is telling God’s truth slant here in this parable. And he is telling all the truth as he is not only telling us what God is like, but he is telling us what we are like too. Does this extravagantly loving shepherd annoy us? Does he seem simply irresponsible? Or do we remember when we were utterly lost …are we utterly lost? … and does this extraordinary love come to us as an incomprehensible and joyous relief?

Jesus tells God’s truth in stories in the end. And who best hears, responds to, revels in stories?

‘Truly I tell you, Jesus says unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

For children hear stories. Children revel in stories. Children allow themselves to be moved, to be transformed by stories.

Become like children, Jesus says, and then you will understand the ways of God. Then you will know how to thrive in the kingdom of heaven. Then you will hear God say that the lost ones are God’s great loves and might be our great loves too. Which is a great blessing, for we all know that on some days at some times on our lives those lost ones, those little ones are us. Strange kingdom this, when it is when we are humble and frail that we are thriving in the kingdom of heaven.

“I love you,” says God. Searching across the mountains for God’s sheep that is lost. “When I find you, I’ll say that again another way.”

[1] Brueggemann, Walter Hopeful Imagination (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986), p25.