“12 What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? 13 And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. 14 So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.” (Matthew 18:12-14)
Who are the little ones in verse 14? Since in verses 1-7 Jesus puts a child in their midst as an example of the greatest in the kingdom, “little ones” could simply refer to kiddos. However, I (and most commentators) take little ones to mean the “least of these,” or anyone of little significance. This view doesn’t exclude a child from fitting into this group, but it sees the child in verses 1-7 embodying the principle Jesus expands in 10-14.
The Greek word means small or little but it is applied in various ways: little in size, time, value, quantity, rank, etc. It’s used 30 times in the NT and I believe more often than not it primarily refers to those of little value or significance. That doesn’t mean it can’t have multiple meanings at once, such as small in size and perceived smallness in value because of that size (ex: the mustard seed). Here are a few examples.
• “They all paid attention to him, from the least to the greatest, saying, ‘This man is the power of God that is called Great’” (Acts 8:10).
• “And they shall not teach, each one his neighbor and each one his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’
for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest” (Heb. 8:11).
• “Also it causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead” (Rev. 13:16).
In Matthew 18 the child represents those not thought of as the “big players” in the kingdom. The opinion of the child doesn’t matter, no one goes after their respect, and they seemingly add no value or prestige to the kingdom. Frederick Dale Bruner writes, “It is not so much the child’s subjective innocence or purity that is in view as it is the child’s objective smallness and low status. The child, in the opinion of Jesus’ culture, had to limit itself to listening and obeying.” [Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary, Volume 2 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 208.] In his commentary, Craig Blomberg sees the wording in verse 4, “whoever humbles himself like a child,” as a transition to show that “little ones” refers to disciples of little standing and not just children. “According to Jesus it is not the significant one, the important one, the esteemed one who ‘in the world’ is considered great, but it is the little one, the unimpressive one, the one standing in the background and in the shadow of the mighty ones who is the person [Jesus] considers great” (Bruner, 209).
In the parable of the lost sheep (18:10-14), Jesus reveals the heart of God as one who seeks the humble—or humbled. God lays down the example of what He requires of His followers in verses 1-9: welcoming the unwelcomed and seeking after the stray, seemingly inconsequential sheep most would let go. The parable pictures a Shepherd who isn’t willing that a single one of his sheep would be lost. He loves the individual, even when it’s a “little one” most would cast aside. The Father seeks out his strays, not abandoning them to their own waywardness. The parable seems to have two primary themes: (1) God seeks out any of his lost sheep, and (2) God seeks out the little ones.
I’ll close by highlighting a few applications, complementing them with some insightful and illustrative quotes by Frederick Bruner.
How does a church make seeking out the straying a priority? Do we care more about those who come in and out then those who just come in and pad our numbers? One of the reasons why we make a big deal about getting people into relationships and into community is so they are known. Churches aren’t just into their programs but they desire their people to be in relationship with others they can care about and who can care about them. Every church must have a means of tracking, seeking, and caring for those who are wandering. “What Jesus does mean here by ‘your Father’s will’ is that it matters deeply to the Father how lost, straying, and weak persons are regarded in his church. God seeks out the lost; so should we“ (Bruner, 221). We have to make a personal effort to seek out people we don’t recognize and seek out those we aren’t seeing (both in our smaller group settings and in the larger corporate gathering). Churches need to have strategic plans for how we will know who’s starting to slip away and then how we will seek them out.
“The problem sheep is described as planomenon, a word from which we get our English word planet, meaning ‘a wandering one’ (cf. Gundry, 366). The word can also be translated ‘lost,’ for the wanderer is temporarily lost to the flock. Our churches are accustomed to thinking of the ‘lost,’ however, as those who have never been in the flock at all. But in Matthew’s version of the story we are dealing with weak Christians, not with lost non-Christians. Jesus asks disciples to run a tight ship, to have churches that show unusual solicitude for those slipping away, and to mount an active seeking ministry. This means an active visitation program in the Christian congregation (cf. Prov 27:23).” (Bruner, 221)
“The whole Christian community should hear itself called to a ministry of visitation. Officers of the church should be the first to take this chapter to heart, but in all church teaching and programs the motive to seek the lost should be
central.” (Bruner, 219)
The importance of seeking out the one.
It’s tempting to have the “we can’t win them all and we can’t keep them all so let’s not worry attitude.” If someone has a small group of 15 people needing shepherding, can they really worry about the one person who doesn’t come back? If a person leads a ministry of 50 or 100 people, can’t they ignore the one person who slips out and focus on the others? It’s true that we can’t drag unwilling sheep back to the fold and it’s also true that our time and relational capacity is limited so we can only invest in so many people. But there’s also this example given for us to seek after the one person who strays. We are patient, committed, and endure in steadfast love. We don’t simply say since we have the 99 the other 1 isn’t important. We see people, especially the wanderers who most people don’t think about, as individuals and we care about them and love as individuals.
“We should note again the recurring ‘one.’ Jesus is not asking for a cosmic love; he is asking for an almost banal love of unattractive individuals. ‘Don’t look down on even one insignificant person!’ In every believing community there is at least one person for whom we feel something like deserved contempt. Such people Jesus now upgrades.” (Bruner, 217)
The Little Ones
The little ones: the children, the insignificant ones, the ignored, the embarrassing and awkward, the immature. We cannot despise, mistreat, or neglect them even when everyone else does. We see them not merely as the class they’re a part of but as an individual whom God has compassion on. It’s not just some socially liberal interpretation of the Bible to see Jesus pursuing the neglected, the outcasts, and the marginalized. That doesn’t capture everything about his ministry but it’s clearly an essential part of it. God loves the unlovely. God’s extravagant grace is seen in reaching out to those who know they bring nothing to the table, the ones who can’t pay him back and well aware of how ill-deserving they are. Throughout the OT and in the life of Jesus we see God’s heart for all people, but especially for the little ones. God loves the unlovely—including us. Our experience of His love changes us so that we become lovers of the unlovely and those who seek out the ones others have left out.
“Those who are least significant in the Christian community are those who are on the fence, who are half in and half out, who are half-hearted in their devotion to Jesus and to the Christian enterprise. Their insignificance is due in part to their spiritual indifference…The temptation for the spiritually serious is to look down on half-hearted or ‘nominal’ Christians to whom Jesus Christ seems to mean too little.” (Bruner, 217)
“Those whom we find socially unattractive or spiritually unstrategic are the opposite in the eyes of Jesus…Jesus’ treatment of children in the Gospel is a manifesto for Christian education and for the dignity of all who work with children and other socially ‘unstrategic’ persons: the mentally weak, the sick and again, the dying, the handicapped, prisoners, battered persons, HIV/AIDS patients, the lonely.” (Bruner, 218)
In 1-4 Jesus calls the disciples to turn away (repent) from their pride and zeal for prominence and he exhorts them to embrace humility. Craig Blomberg does a great job on connecting 1-4 to verses 5. “The disciples must not merely humble themselves; they must welcome all others who humble themselves as believers.” [Craig Blomberg, Matthew (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992), 277.] He then continues by quoting Bruner, “Matthew 18:1-4 calls us to humility, then v. 5 gives us a major way to practice humility” (Blomberg, 277). There are moments where all of us feel our complete inadequacy. We sense we truly are the one straying sheep or we are the child in the midst of adults. We feel our incompetence and we recognize our littleness in multiple ways. It might at first feel shameful or embarrassing or humiliating, because we’ve followed the script that it’s the great ones who matter and being great brings fulfillment and purpose to our existence. But, a fleshly humiliation can give way to a spiritual humility where we let the wave of weakness remind us who we really are before God. And in that moment, we see God’s bigness more clearly and we feel our smallness more deeply. Remembering we receive grace because God sought us out—undeserved and unprovoked—creates people who are willing to go against the grain by seeking out and loving on those who everyone else as rejected as inconsequential.
“…Jesus’ command to humble oneself does not mean to make oneself smaller than one is—to belittle oneself; for ‘the child does not make itself smaller than it is, but it knows how small it really is. Thus humility is nothing else than knowing how small we really are before God’ But, let us admit it, in the modern world we have largely lost our sense of God and so, with that loss, comes a very dim knowledge of any littleness before God.” (Bruner, 210)
“…humility was not seen as a virtue by ancient moralists, who equated humility with servility; but Christians were the counterculturalists par excellence, inviting the pagan world into the completely classless ‘club’ of the congregation.” (Bruner, 210)
Assurance of salvation
There’s a theological application to comfort us in assurance of salvation. God will pursue those who are his and preserve his sheep through their perseverance. He doesn’t just keep the good sheep who stick with things but he pursues the wayward and brings them back in. The doctrine of eternal security, assurance of salvation, or perseverance of the saints (or whatever you call it) reminds us that our salvation isn’t in our hands now because it didn’t begin in our hands. It wasn’t our idea, it didn’t start with our initiative, and we didn’t receive grace because of what we did. Our assurance is on God’s shoulders because he sought us out, he called us in, and he opened our eyes. He cares about every one of his sheep and will go after them so they’re not lost. Those who think salvation can be lost don’t get the fact that salvation was never left us to up to get in or stay in. Our salvation is God’s work and we can trust in his steadfast, eternal, persevering love that never lets off the gas and never lets us get out of reach. The parable of the lost sheep should comfort us that God will not lose a single one of His sheep…ever.
“The emphasis again is upon ‘the one,’ heightening once more the infinitive importance of the individual (the Christian faith’s special gift to social thought)…The one statistically insignificant wanderer means everything to this Shepherd. Human thinking says, ‘Let it go; we have ninety-nine.’ The Father’s thinking is, ‘There were one hundred; where is my one?’” (Bruner, 219)