This section of Matthew’s gospel is never considered by the Revised Common Lectionary, probably because it is thoroughly covered in Year B when considering Mark’s vignette about children being prevented from interacting with Jesus. Matthew seems to be attempting to run with some kind of metaphor about evil people who cause children to be lost to God’s saving grace.
He starts with a straw man who asks “Who is greatest in God’s domain?” He then has Jesus declare that “if you don’t do an about-face and become like children, you will never enter Heaven’s domain” (Five Gospels translation). That seems reasonable, depending on how the phrase is interpreted. Either Jesus expects his followers to be as trusting of God and God’s covenant as children are of their parents, or as innocent of the wicked ways of the world as children are romantically assumed to be. But he follows this with several non-sequiturs: “Therefore those who put themselves on a level with this child are greatest in Heaven’s domain. And whoever accepts one such child in my name is accepting me.” But he ends this with a clear threat: “Those who entrap one of these little trusting souls would be better off to have millstones hung around their necks and be drowned in the deepest part of the sea!”
During the Presbyterian wars of the past several years over the ordination of GLBT parishioners, the image of tying millstones around particular necks in the progressive ranks appeared fairly often. Such language might be seen as prophetic hyperbole, until it becomes a call for literal action. Sharon Angle’s “Second Amendment Remedies for the Harry Reid Problem” comes to mind. Whether the millstone remedy appears in Mark, Matthew, or Luke, we can be certain Jesus never said any such thing. In early Christian groups, repentance and conversion were the most important issues: local members of synagogues wanted to prevent apostate rebellions, and Jesus followers demanded voice and legitimacy. God’s judgmental wrath and threats of apocalyptic consequences for back-sliders has had a long history. Matthew was most likely concerned about belief in the story that Jesus was the promised Messiah, who would deliver the world from injustice. If the world was not saved from that injustice, in other words, if people rejected the teachings of God’s own Anointed one, the consequences for the world would be dire. Certainly for Matthew and his community, those consequences must have included the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, and the exile of the Jewish people. Not too many more years passed before the emphasis changed from Matthew’s conviction about deliverance from injustice in this life to the emphasis of the early church on salvation from hell in the next life.
Nevertheless, for 21st century exiles from orthodox Christian belief, the words Matthew gives to Jesus have a legitimate prophetic ring: “Damn the world for the traps it sets! Even though it’s inevitable for traps to get set, nevertheless, damn the person who sets such traps.”
Assuming the “kingdom” is a non-violent covenant for distributive justice-compassion in this world here and now, what tricks, traps, facts, and lies are preventing the kingdom from being realized today? Have any of them risen to the level where a prophetic call for a “millstone solution” might be appropriate? The list of usual suspects includes Wall Street bankers; “health” insurance companies; oil companies; big pharma; and the seeming inability of anyone to supply the verifiable facts about the solvency of Social Security and Medicare. Then there is the perfidy behind the Republican winners of the 2010 election such as Scott Walker, John Kasich, and Mitch Daniels. To ensure that this list isn’t only about Republicans, we have the widespread suspicion that in order to win the fight over the debt ceiling President Obama is poised to sell down the oil-slicked Yellowstone river everyone who is 50 and over, uninsured, and making less than $250,000 a year.
But these are easy targets, good for a few rounds of defiant liberal beers. What Matthew is talking about is much more subtle: “Even though it’s inevitable for traps to be set, nevertheless, damn the person who sets such traps.” Traps like local church “policy governance” that prevents any creative activity that does not already have a policy in place. Instead of progressive programs, we get study commissions. Traps that lull us into a false sense of personal security such as airport screening methods, concealed gun carry permits, and proof of citizenship requirements. Traps like “the chronological in-depth structured interview, or CIDS,” which promises to find the top-notch, high-performing, perfect fit for your corporate business plan, but screens out independent thinkers whose talent lies in actions that spring from the heart. Most insidious of all, is the trap that assumes that everyone is a liar, a cheat, and a thief, and is generally guilty until proven innocent.
In such a world, Matthew’s concluding Parable of the Lost Sheep takes on a truly contrary meaning. “What do you think of this? If someone has a hundred sheep and one of them wanders off, won’t that person leave the ninety-nine in the hills and go look for the one that wandered off?” Are you kidding? The rest of them would be gone by the time you got back – either they would have been stolen, or they would have scattered at the first opportunity. No, no. First put the ninety nine into the corral with the dogs to guard them. If the wolves get the one that strayed, it’s only a one percent loss – collateral damage. It’s shrugs we offer the capitalist shepherd, not millstones and consignment to the bottom of sea. His stats are excellent: 99%. But what about his integrity?
Jesus’ point in the parable is that in God’s world, where God’s non-violent, radical fairness holds sway, ninety-nine percent is not good enough. The foundation of Jewish law is to love God with all your heart and all your soul and all your strength, not 99%. In addition, you are to love your neighbor as yourself. This is bad news for the rich young ruler who says he has kept the law to the letter – he has done his 99% – but Jesus tells him “If you wish to be perfect, make your move, sell your belongings, and give (the proceeds) to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven [God’s realm]. And then come follow me.” When he heard this advice, Matthew tells us, “he went away dejected since he possessed a fortune” (Matthew 19:20-22).
“Damn the world for the traps it sets!” Matthew’s Jesus rages. But we hang the millstone around our necks ourselves.