The three-year Lectionary that many Catholics and Protestants hear in public worship gives us a great variety of Holy Scripture.
Yet, it doesn’t tell the whole story.
My series Forbidden Bible Verses — ones the Lectionary editors and their clergy omit — examines the passages we do not hear in church. These missing verses are also Essential Bible Verses, ones we should study with care and attention. Often, we find that they carry difficult messages and warnings.
The Parable of the Lost Sheep
10 “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven.[a] 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[b] Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.
From Matthew 18:1 through to today’s verses, Jesus spoke of ‘little ones’ — childlike believers, not children — and avoiding temptation.
In Matthew 18:1-4 He says that believers must become as humble as children. He was responding to the disciples’ question about the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. This is more evident in the parallel passages of Luke 9:46-48 and Mark 9:33-37. The latter, incidentally, is in the three-year Lectionary.
Matthew 18:5-6 deals with the gravity of people causing believers to sin. Jesus said it would be preferable for them to have a millstone around their neck and drown in the middle of the sea. As my post explains (see link), drowning was a horrifying punishment that was unknown to the Jews until the Romans came to rule over them.
Jesus went on to say in Matthew 18:7-9 that it would be better to remove an eye or a limb that causes us to sin rather than be condemned to hell.
He gave them the Parable of the Lost Sheep as an example to follow once they become evangelists and leaders of the fledgling Church. They did not understand it as such as they had no comprehension of what would happen to Jesus.
Jesus warned them not to ‘despise’ the believers who would soon be in their care (verse 10). Clergy and lay leaders can also draw something from that. They are not to laugh at believers, nor are they to treat their flock with condescension. They are not to ignore them or to debase them. They are not to behave towards those in their spiritual care as the Jewish leaders did with the devout Jews of modest means.
Matthew Henry tells us (emphases mine):
We must not make a jest of their infirmities, not look upon them with contempt, not conduct ourselves scornfully or disdainfully toward them, as if we cared not what became of them we must not say, “Though they be offended, and grieved, and stumble, what is that to us?” Nor should we make a slight matter of doing that which will entangle and perplex them. This despising of the little ones is what we are largely cautioned against, Romans 14:3,10,15,20,21. We must not impose upon the consciences of others, nor bring them into subjection to our humours, as they do who say to men’s souls, Bow down, that we may go over. There is a respect owing to the conscience of every man who appears to be conscientious.
Jesus’s warning also includes leading innocent believers into temptation and sin.
Jesus said that the believers’ angels ‘always’ see the face of God the Father in heaven (verse 11). These angels are guards for the faithful.
That said, both our commentators say that this does not mean each person has a specific guardian angel. Henry explains:
Some have imagined that every particular saint has a guardian angel but why should we suppose this, when we are sure that every particular saint [believer], when there is occasion, has a guard of angels? This is particularly applied here to the little ones, because they are most despised and most exposed. They have but little that they can call their own, but they can look by faith on the heavenly hosts, and call them theirs. While the great ones of the world have honourable men for their retinue and guards, the little ones of the church are attended with glorious angels which bespeaks not only their dignity, but the danger those run themselves upon, who despise and abuse them. It is bad being enemies to those who are so guarded and it is good having God for our God, for then we have his angels for our angels.
John MacArthur says:
It doesn’t mean that every little baby has a guardian angel for two reasons. First of which, it doesn’t say that. Second of which, it isn’t talking about physical babies. It also does not mean that every single Christian has his own personal angel. Doesn’t say that either. It just says their angels, collectively, are in Heaven standing in the very presence of God. They are the angels of His presence. They are the holy angels who have access to His throne. They behold His face, and those angels have as their special assignment the care of God’s little ones. That’s all it’s saying. You can’t conclude from that text that every single baby has his own angel, every single Christian has his own angel. That…that theory grew up, but it’s silly, because angels wasting their time when we were asleep just sitting around twiddling their celestial thumbs. I mean it wouldn’t make any sense at all. Plus there are times when some of us need a whole bunch of ’em, and we’d have to borrow them from somebody else. That’s not taught in the Scripture.
It did become believed in Judaism, however. The Jewish tradition and superstition, it appears in the beautiful story called Tobit, where everybody, every little child has his own angel. In fact, the Jews did believe this in the time of our Lord, and that’s why, in Acts 12:15, you remember when they were praying for Peter to get outta prison? And the Lord delivered Peter, and he banged on the door, and the little girl came to the door and came back and said, “It’s Peter.” They said, “No, no, he’s in prison.” They were praying for him to get out. They just believe he would. And so somebody says, “Oh, it is his angel.” Now, that wasn’t necessarily theologically correct. What it did was articulate a superstition at the time, and the superstition was that everybody had an angel, and that, when you died, it was very likely that your angel would then appear to the people who loved you after your death to let them know that you had gone. And so they’re saying, “Oh, this means Peter’s dead.” So they articulate that common superstition that is not taught in Scripture at all. All it’s saying in that verse is that God has all these angels standing in His presence, indicating their infinite holiness, and they are dispatched for the care of His little ones.
The eagle-eyed reader might wonder what happened to verse 11, which is in some Bible manuscripts but not in others. It is this beautiful verse:
For the Son of Man came to save the lost.
The parable which follows has its parallel passage in Luke 15:4-7:
The Parable of the Lost Sheep
4 “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? 5 And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. 6 And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ 7 Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
MacArthur says that Luke’s passage relates to unbelievers. Matthew’s concerns the faithful.
As I mentioned above, Jesus gave the disciples this parable in order that they would care for the converts and not neglect them like the Jewish leaders did. MacArthur tells us:
The Pharisees and the scribes, when they found somebody that was lowly or somebody that was insignificant or uneducated, untrained, not intellectual, not well-born, no influence, no money, they despised. They crushed. They stomped on those kinds of people.
However, this is not Jesus’s way, nor the way He wanted His disciples to treat the faithful:
… it is said of the Messiah in Matthew 12:20, “A bruised reed shall He not break, and smoking flax shall He not quench.” A bruised reed trying to stay up in the wind, but bruised and about to bend and fall over, smoking flax trying to stay lit. The fire trying to be alive, but all that’s left is a small, little indication of light, and the smoke is coming that indicates its flickering out. When Jesus finds one who is broken and one whose life light is flickering, He doesn’t break it further and stomp out the flame that is remaining as the Pharisees did. He doesn’t break the bruised reed, and He doesn’t quench the smoking flax. Rather, He strengthens the bruised reed, and He fans to flame the smoking flax. The weak and the helpless, the powerless, those destroyed by sin and suffering, those bent with care, those lacking resources, those that the world pushes aside and tramples and despises and crushes and treated…and treats with contempt, the Lord loves and gathers the broken people to His heart. He heals the sick. He raises the outcasts. He cheers the fearful. He strengthens the doubters. He feeds the hungry; forgives the sinners. Not only that, He takes on their sorrow, takes on their woes, takes on their pain and exchanges His love.
Therefore, He gave them the parable of the shepherd — ‘the man’ — who owns one hundred sheep and goes to find the one that strays (verse 12). When the man finds his lost sheep, he rejoices and treasures it more than the ninety-nine which are together (verse 13).
Jesus concluded by linking that to God’s will for those who believe in His Son (verse 14) — let no believer go astray.
The Jewish leaders did not go looking for Jews who were not going to temple or for those who were broken spiritually or emotionally. They did not care. Jesus wanted the disciples to know their flock and minister to them as individuals. They were to know the faithful and their circumstances.
Of the shepherd, MacArthur says:
I think the idea here is very, very beautiful. I think a shepherd was so well acquainted with his sheep that he missed the presence of one because of its uniqueness, not because it didn’t add up when it was mathematically charted. It wasn’t a question of counting all day long. It was a question of missing one, because you didn’t see the inimitable characteristics of that one sheep that you knew well being acted out on the stage of the field. The shepherd really knew every sheep. In fact, most of the shepherds would know every little idiosyncrasy about every sheep, every little quirk, every little thing that the sheep did that was unique to that sheep, because they would inspect them every night as they were taking into the fold for the night; and so the shepherd would miss the one sheep.
He points out that the Bible has several verses about God’s love of the humble believer, among them:
1 Peter 5:7, “He careth for you.” And He cares for every single one of them. The Bible says repeatedly, “There is no respect of persons with God.” He doesn’t play any favorites. He doesn’t say anything about the sheep. He doesn’t say His fattest sheep, His best sheep, His most valuable sheep, His pet sheep. Didn’t matter. It was just one of the sheep; but every one of them was equally important to the Lord; because there’s no specific valuation given to one over another.
I love what it says in Job 34:19. Talks about God, and it says, “How much less to Him that accepteth not the person of princes, nor regardeth the rich more than the poor! For they are all the work of His hands.” God is not particularly fancied by princes, nor does He fancy them to be better than paupers; and even in Matthew 25, when men are judged, sent into eternal hell for what they have done, He says, “Because you have not done it unto the least of these, My brethren.” There is no respect of persons with God.
This divine approach towards all believers is something which should reassure us. God loves us in our humble circumstances, our infirmity, our brokenness. May we show others the same generosity of spirit.
In closing, the remainder of Matthew 18 is in the three-year Lectionary for public worship. I wanted to call attention to the verses on forgiveness. The first concerns what to do if someone sins against us (verses 15 to 20). Verse 18 says:
Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed[f] in heaven.
Whatever we hold against someone in this life will be held against us in the next unless we mend our fences with that person.
Verses 21 to 35 relate the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant. It begins with this exchange:
21 Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.
The parable concerns a merciful master who forgave his servant’s debt. The servant, however, did not forgive someone who owed him. Not only did he choke the man, he had him put in prison. When the master found out, he became angry with the servant for not showing mercy to his debtor:
34 And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers,[k] until he should pay all his debt. 35 So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”
Let us not bear grudges. Let us make up with those who have wronged us in the past. Let’s put away our family feuds. Let’s do this as soon as we can. Any day could be our last on this earth. We do not want to die only to find that our grudges will be held against us in the world to come.
Next time: Matthew 19:1-2