In order to understand this text well we will deal with the entire pericope starting from verse 1 -14. We are now in the fourth of the five great discourses of Matthew. Chapter 18 is the community discourse addressed to Peter and the disciples and broadly deals with community relations.
The text opens with the disciples asking Jesus who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. The entire pericope must now be seen on the basis of this question and not through a modern day application of issues or our own interpretation.
This question asked by the disciples is a bit of an oddity. You won’t be asking this question when twice before this; in rapid succession (Matthew 16:21-23 and 17:22-23) Jesus has declared his passion death and resurrection. Perhaps what was bogging the minds of the disciples was the primacy of Peter, for Jesus in Chapter 16: 16- 19 had declared him to be ‘the rock’ and now the others wanted to know where they stood on the charts of power.
Jesus places a child in their presence as an answer to their question. They were driven by the desire to be given status and Jesus clearly demands that they change their mindset. Using a double negative he insists they will never enter the kingdom of heaven if they are driven by such earthly titles and honours.
Children, in first century Palestine were considered the lowest on the social strata. While they were loved and cared for they certainly had no rights. Jesus was not asking the disciples to emulate the faith of child but rather become like a child who has no rights. In verse five, Jesus humbles himself identifying with a child who has no power and wants the disciples to do the same.
It is with this context in mind that we should read verses 6- 9. The desire for power and position in the community is stumbling block for the others. This word ‘stumbling block’ used seven times in four verses is translated in Greek as ‘skandalizos’ from where you get the English word, scandal. The power struggle within the elders of the community becomes a counter sign to Matthew’s ‘little ones’, the new converts to the faith. Jesus advocates a watery grave with a millstone round the neck for such people; the millstone was to ensure that such thoughts would sink to the bottom of the sea in the hope that such desires for power never surface again.
So any part of the body, be it the eye, hand or foot that drives the rest of the body towards the lust for power should be discarded than have the entire body be burnt in the fires of Gehenna. The word hell used in verse nine was a reference to the valley of Gehenna which was situated outside the city of Jerusalem where the rubbish of the city burnt constantly.
The community discourse was thus meant to be a guidepost to the leaders of the Church. It was their duty to ensure that their very behaviour would shine like a light to the rest of the community and not scandalize the little ones. These little ones were not to be despised but to be protected and defended from the forces of evil within and without.
However, there was always a possibility of the sheep straying. Unlike Luke’ Gospel where the sheep was lost, Matthew’s Gospel refers to the sheep that chooses to stray away. This perhaps was a reference to a community member who lost his faith or simply decided to be adventurous and move away. Technically it is foolishness to leave ninety nine sheep vulnerable to wolves while the shepherd goes in search of one lost but this is exactly what Jesus desired. He desired us to risk all for the sake of one in order to highlight how precious every soul in the community is. Jesus desires us to have the right concern for every member of the community especially those who have gone astray.
If leadership in the Church plays the number game, then we will be happy with the ninety nine and the seemingly packed Church at Sunday mass. We fail the Lord when we take comfort in a full house at Sunday mass. Sadly a count of the sheep may reveal that in the course of time the number that strayed away in not one but one too many.
Fr Warner D’Souza