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Drastic measures are required! Because each one, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, is precious in God's sight.
"Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of offenses? Offenses must come, but woe to that man by whom the offense comes!
"If your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you. It is better for you to enter into life lame or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet, to be cast into the everlasting fire. If your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast if from you. It is better for you to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into hell fire.
"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 in heaven. The Son of Man has come to save that which was lost.
"What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them goes astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine and go to the mountains to seek the one that is straying. If he should find it, assuredly, I say to you, he rejoices more over that sheep than over the ninety-nine that did not go astray.
"Even so, it is not the will of your Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish."
Matthew 18:6-14 NKJV, condensed
Partners, not Rivals
This is Part II of the theme, Who is the Greatest? With a small child on his lap Jesus was sitting in a home in Capernaum (probably Peter's house), instructing his disciples privately. His answer surprised them--whoever is humble like this child is the greatest in God's kingdom! Then Jesus revealed additional insights.
We naturally think "little ones" refers to children. But as we read further we notice many of Jesus' words are not meant to be taken in a literal sense. Instead he painted a picture his listeners would not easily forget. Jesus has already told his team they must become as little children. Since they are disciples, they will do as Jesus said, at least that is their greatest desire. So for the rest of this conversation, I believe Jesus is referring to his disciples according to what they aspire to be--great in God's kingdom and hence, little ones.
From Mark's gospel we learned the disciples had been arguing with each other on the road to Capernaum about who was top dog. Definitely not the childlike behavior Jesus was seeking from his kingdom workers. Their behavior disturbed Jesus greatly. They had stirred up feelings of strive and contention, and piled destructive words on each other. What they needed to know is that they don't become more valuable in God's sight by tearing each other down.
(Just one footnote before going further so you get the impact of Jesus' words. People from Galilee and Judea feared the sea and shuddered at the thought of drowning in it. In Revelation 21:1, in one of the Bible's final depictions of heaven, there's a sigh of relief in the words, ". . . there was no more sea"! Also, people in Israel could picture an everlasting fire; the one at the garbage dump outside Jerusalem was always smoking and smoldering. It was an abhorrent place and no one wanted to get stuck there because centuries before, the Canaanites used that very spot to burn human sacrifices to their gods.)
It was within that background that Jesus reprimanded his disciples. You little ones who have so much to learn and so far to grow, you must not cause each other to stumble and fall from the way of discipleship. Temptations will come, but woe to you when you set the trap. It would be better for you to drown in the terrifying sea with a great millstone about your neck, than cause such an offense.
Jesus wanted them to know how offensive their sin was to God, so he prescribed drastic measures to deal with it. If something causes you to sin, cut it off immediately and throw it as far away as possible. Better to go through life with only one hand, one foot or one eye, than to have two of each and be thrown into that everlasting fire. Jesus' words struck a chord; you can hear the gulps go around the room when they realized they were acting like rivals!
Opposite those hell fires and the abominable sea stands the kingdom of heaven and that's where Jesus wants all his disciples to remain. In fact, here's how great and valuable everyone is who walks the pathway toward their heavenly Father. God is so possessive of his own, God doesn't want to lose any children along the way.
"What do you think?", Jesus asked those Twelve. I'm going to tell you how important each of you is to God. If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and just one of them goes astray, even if it's the smallest lamb, the shepherd will leave the ninety-nine and go in search of the one that is lost! Alarmed and anxious, he will go as far as necessary and take all means possible to bring the lost one back into the fold. If the shepherd is able to find and reclaim his lost sheep, he rejoices more over that one, than over the remaining ninety-nine.
Even so, Jesus told them, their shepherd God does not want any of his little strays to perish. To that end, God has taken drastic measures, too. Angels to keep constant watch! And the "Son of Man" to find the missing and save any that fall by the wayside!
Use the following questions for small groups, journaling, further study or reflection.
Icebreaker: What are your childhood memories of the good shepherd and the lost sheep story?
If you had $100, and you lost $1, would you miss it? If you had 100 tools or kitchen devices, and lost one, would you miss it? If you answered no to the first question and maybe to the second, what made the difference?
Why does Jesus want us to know that if God had 100 sheep and lost one of them, God would take drastic measures to find the lost one regardless of who it was? What is the role of the remaining 99? Summarize the message of the lost sheep story. How valuable are you in God's eyes?
How do you react to Jesus calling his disciples "little ones"? In what ways are we all like little children in God's sight?
Conflict within our homes, our places of worship, and among nations--do you ever stop to think about the damage it does? Describe how strife and rivalry causes people to stumble in their faith and fall away from belief in God. To what extent are we all responsible for bringing each other home to our heavenly Father in the end?
Compare or contrast the drastic measures you take to avoid straying from the way of Christ and the drastic measures God takes to find you when you are missing.
John 17:20-21 records the words Jesus prayed a few days before his death. Jesus prayed that his disciples and all who believe through their word, would be one, just as Jesus was one with the Father. Why would Jesus pray for unity among the believers? Make a list of some things which unity achieves and disunity destroys. How important is peace and cooperation and the image of humbly serving each other rather than wanting others to serve us?
Matthew put the lost sheep parable in the context of those straying from within the fold of God--who stumble along the way while following Jesus and cause each other to sin. If we believed this, would we think twice before acting like rivals? What do we need to do to become a stepping stone for each other and not a stumbling block?