Jesus the Gangster


I am doing a series of posts on Matthew chapter 18, which is has been one of the pivotal texts for my own spiritual growth journey. The previous entry looked at the pursuit of greatness, which is the topic that begins this encounter.

Jesus follows up that conversation by talking about the humble posture of children, and how we as adults can learn from them. Wonder, trust, reliance – these are just a handful of the qualities that come easily when we are young and become quite difficult as we advance in age.

If this encounter just ended there it could be construed as just a nice little Sunday school lesson. I can imagine the disciples walking away saying, “Ok, point taken.  Child like faith is important.  Little Samantha here is showing us how important kids are.’Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.’  Got it. Be nice to them, pay attention to them, don’t make such a big deal when they interrupt our service.  Yeah, yeah, got it.”

But it doesn’t end there. Jesus flows right from his teaching on childlike faith into… well, how do you describe what he says next? It sounds downright gangster:

“At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a little child, whom he placed among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes a humble place—becoming like this child—is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were drowned in the depths of the sea. Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble! Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come! If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell.” (Matthew 18.1-9)

I have reflected on this passage so many times and looked at it from so many different angles. The method that has led to the greatest transformation is when I allow my imagination to enter the story, and I pretend I am watching this all unfold as one of the 12 disciples.

It begins with an immature debate about who is the greatest in the kingdom, and Jesus walks right into the conversation. He gives them a little speech about the importance of children and what we can learn from them.

But then something happens.

Seemingly out of the blue, Jesus escalates to a whole new level. His demeanor changes drastically. He becomes dead serious, and his eyes begin to burn with a passion that goes beyond anything the disciples have ever witnessed.

They are on the edge of their seat. What is Jesus going to say next?

Jesus begins to speak. “If anyone causes one of these little ones…”

The text seems to indicate that Jesus pauses… maybe for dramatic effect? He is making a serious point here. After the pause that seems caught in eternity, Jesus continues.

“If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were drowned in the depths of the sea.”

If you are one of the 12 disciples watching this conversation unfold, I think there is only one response you could have in this moment.

“What in the #*% just happened?”

I think it would be almost impossible to overstate their shock. Remember, they knew Jesus well, and this was a man who was the antithesis of anything violent.  This was the Prince of Peace, the kind and gentle Shepherd. This was the man who said that if your enemy strikes you, the best response is to turn the other cheek and let them do it again.  This is the man who said that those that pursue peace and harmony will inherit the kingdom.

Yet suddenly, in the middle of what seemed like a cute Sunday school lesson, Jesus goes on a graphic and chilling verbal rampage. A boulder around the neck, and thrown to the bottom of the sea? That’s straight out of the movies. The disciples must have been wondering, “Who took our Jesus and replaced him with Tony Soprano?” 

Then, just to be sure they don’t miss the gravity of what he is talking about, Jesus continues, refusing to take his foot off the throttle.

“If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell.”

In that moment the disciples must have felt their jaws drop. They had never seen Jesus get so fired up about a topic, and they certainly never heard such a graphic depiction from him.

Because this text has meant so much to me I’ve searched through the 4 Gospels looking for anything comparable in terms of tone and graphic detail. I’ve never found anything that remotely compares. Shortly before his march to Calvary Jesus flips over the money changer’s tables in the temple, and that might be in the same neighborhood.  But there is nothing in that exchange about boulders and ropes and the bottom of the sea. There is nothing about cutting off your limbs or gouging out your eyes. That imagery is reserved for those who are on the wrong end of harming the “little ones.”

Doesn’t that change the encounter a bit when you look at it through the eyes of the disciples? What would you have seen and heard in that moment if you were them? And what should we see and hear as modern day disciples?

My best guess is that there were two sets of questions that arose in the disciples in this moment:

1.) Why is Jesus so fired up right now? What is it that has got him at a fever pitch?

2.) Why is he unleashing it on us? Is this is some kind of displaced anger? Did one of us do something to a child?

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