At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, ‘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. ‘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! ‘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 lame than to have two hands or two feet and to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into the hell of fire.
Years ago I created a painting called Striving for Righteousness. A man sits in an ancient church, staring into a hand held mirror. The other side of the mirror, a stained-glass window lets light shine on the man’s face, but it doesn’t get through the mirror. Beside the man, on a table at the end of the pew, sits an offertory bowl holding the man’s cut off hand. Oddly, the man isn’t in agony, but looks hard at the mirror as if to say, “Well I’ve done it. Am I good enough now?” Occasionally seeing these moments literally throws a very different light on a Jesus tirade.
This story is in the midst of dialogues about Jesus’ identity, relationship in the Trinity, what it means to understand people’s relationship to God, and the depth and strength of God’s forgiveness. In this moment, Jesus is calling people to step back from their acquired bias, exceptionalism and greed. Before they’d learned to be selfish or afraid, they were trusting, as children are before they learn otherwise. Jesus is asking us not to do dramatic things, but to breathe and renew our childhood trust – and to not stop others trying to do the same. We can let go of stumbling blocks and put our trust where it is safe – in God, seen in Jesus’ example of inclusive love, growing in us by the Holy Spirit.
This is no easy ask for many of us who’ve had our trust injured or been misled to put our trust in the norms of the cultures in which we live. It’s hard work letting go of all that learning to allow our trust to be revived and focussed in God. But it’s worth a try. It’s more effective and less painful than picking away at sins. Rich new life awaits.
God of all forgiveness, We can so often know why you shouldn’t love us. We can name our sins speedily. If you could truly see us, your love would not shine our way. Forgive these misconceptions. Forgive us for the arrogance that we could know better than you. Gently urge us to trust you and to receive your life. Gently urge us to trust those whom you give us to trust. You are our eternal joy-giving Love. Alleluia, Amen!
The Rev’d Elizabeth Gray-King, North Western Synod Pastor, St Columba’s URC Oxford