Called into the center (March 12, 2023)

A uniform lesson for March 12, 2023.

Uniform Lesson for March 12, 2023
Scripture passage and lesson focus: Matthew 18:1-9

The overall theme of this quarter’s lessons is Jesus Calls Us. But the focus for this first unit of passages is Called from the Margins of Society. What group of people does a particular culture consider on the margins? How does that consideration change over time and the ebbs and flows of civilizations? One of the most difficult aspects of biblical interpretation is hearing these ancient texts accurately. A word or an action in one cultural setting can mean something quite different in another. This week’s lesson is a case in point. When Jesus, in the middle of a discussion regarding greatness, summons a child and places this child among the disciples, how did these disciples hear and see this? What group of people would we likewise summons and place amid our gathered congregations and deliberative bodies?

Jesus called a child

I write this article as the proud grandfather of four (and counting!) grandchildren. One of my challenges at this stage of life is to remain as interested and committed to my adult children as I can’t help but be toward my grandchildren. Have any of you ever rushed past one of your children to pick up and hug a grandchild? We live in a culture that often summons us to place children in the center of our circles of greatness. Many parents are tempted to allow their children to be the leaders and the marshals of their family gatherings and activities. It was not so in Jesus’ day.

In a more subsistence and marginal culture, children were indeed valued, but, perhaps, not for what they were, but what they might become. Children were seen as adults-in-waiting, future productive members of their families and communities who might one day be great, but who were now seen as the least. We still understand the shock of the religious authorities when Jesus welcomed sinners and ate with them, but we experience little surprise when Jesus summons a child and places that child in the middle of the disciples.

When Jesus did this in his time and culture, in the middle of a discussion about greatness, it would be — like what? Maybe wheeling into the middle of our gathering an aged resident from the local memory care unit? Maybe placing front and center a young woman without papers still damp from her crossing? Maybe inviting to serve on the session the teenager struggling with issues of sexual identity, vocational calling, or even belief? Whoever might be so summoned and so placed must be someone who goes against our church’s and our society’s expectations regarding greatness — or the acted parable and the accompanying words do not work.

Impotence versus innocence

Maybe the key is to focus on what Jesus says after the child is in place. Jesus doesn’t claim that this child is innocent and pure, versus the guile and guilt of the disciples and us. Even grandparents know that grandchildren can sometimes be as scheming and selfish as the rest of us. No. Jesus says we must “change and become like children” not in terms of age, an impossibility, or innocence, equally out of our reach, but in terms of “humility” (vv. 3-4). What makes a person truly humble? Vulnerability. Lack of power. Living a life where you have no intrinsic value and no marketable purpose. And the wonder is that such exposure and forced humility is sometimes the gateway to trust — in powers greater than oneself, up to including God. Jesus calls a child and that child comes. Not necessarily out of deep faith or understanding but because children, in this society, were used to being summoned and placed. But it’s where Jesus summons this child and places this child that’s the kicker: not on the margins, but in the middle!

Warnings against abuse

It is indeed the vulnerability and the impotence of children in Jesus’ culture that leads him now to unleash some of his least charitable words in all of scripture — about placing millstones around our necks and cutting off our hands and feet. Why such offensive and dangerous language? Because the abuse is so great. Anyone in power who summons, instructs, or abuses a little one, regarding power, access, or belief, will stumble. Watch out. We may not only find ourselves at the fringe of the circle, but entirely outside the bounds. Yes, Jesus is coming at us — out of love for the least.

Question for discussion:

Whom would you summon and place today?

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