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Numerous times in the Old Testament God gives commands that are intended to protect the foreigner, the fatherless, and the widow. He does this because these are people that are often targets for those who want to take advantage of others for their own purposes. He warns his people that he will come to the aid of those who are abused by others and bring judgment on the abusers. He encourages his people to speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves.
Jesus picks up on this theme as he teaches his disciples about humility. Remember that as he did this, he set a child before them. After answering John’s question about telling someone who was not part of the group to stop casting out demons in Jesus’ name, Jesus gets back to the child who is standing before them and issues a solemn warning. “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to fall into sin, it would be better for him if he were thrown into the sea with a large millstone hung around his neck.”
Children are vulnerable, often easy to take advantage of because they trust adults. They have not learned about all the evils in the world and can’t imagine that someone they think they can trust taking advantage of them or hurting them. So, God has given their parents the primary job of protecting them. If parents either aren’t willing or able to protect their children, God reminds all of us that we are our brother’s keeper.
A value that God wants us to have as a family is that we protect children; our own, and when necessary, the children of others – the fatherless or those who can’t speak for themselves.
In one of our Summer classes in Omaha, Prof. Deutschlander highlighted a word that’s easy to skip over in this verse. Whoever causes ONE, yes, Jesus is concerned about someone causing even just one of these little ones who believe to fall into sin or to be lost. Jesus cares for each person, even each little child. No human being no matter how young, how small, how helpless, escapes his notice. That should come as no surprise since we know that he came to live and die to take away the sin of the world. He lived and died for every single person who has ever been or will be conceived. That’s how much he cares for even just one.
In Matthew’s gospel this section concludes with this reminder, See to it that you do not look down on one of these little ones, because I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father who is in heaven. That’s the guardian angel passage but notice that it’s not just one angel that is sent by God to watch over his little ones. The word is plural. Angels are watching over the little ones, the trusting ones, the vulnerable ones, to protect them. If God considers them important enough to send angels to protect them and for Jesus to die for them, shouldn’t we consider it a very important thing to protect them?
What is Jesus talking about when he warns about causing little ones who believe in me to fall into sin?
Don’t miss that fact that he says that little ones, children, believe in him. There are many who speculate that because very young children don’t have a developed reason and can’t express their faith in words, they can’t have faith. But Jesus holds them up as examples of faith. Faith is not a product of reason. Sinful human reason always rejects God. Faith is simple trust in the promises of God even when they contradict human reason, trust created in the heart by a miracle of the Holy Spirit working through God’s word. When you understand that faith is not a work or a decision of man but a miracle of God, it’s easy to understand why Jesus says that little ones, described in Luke’s gospel as those either carried in the womb or in the arms, believe in him.
As those who believe in Jesus, these little ones are on the way to eternal life in heaven. But then, someone comes along and causes them to fall into sin. Literally, they scandalize them. They cause them to give up their faith and head down the path that leads away from God to eternal destruction.
What could cause this to happen? Paul says that the opposite of bringing children up in the training and instruction of the Lord is provoking them to anger. That doesn’t mean that you avoid ever doing anything that will make your children angry. Providing godly discipline based on God’s word is going to make them angry because their sinful nature rebels against it. But one of the greatest things that provokes children to anger and causes them to fall into sin is hypocrisy. When they see parents or others in authority demanding one thing from them but doing the opposite themselves, they are rightfully angry. And if that person in authority claims to be a Christian, they easily conclude that Christianity isn’t real, and it’s not for them. They fall into sin and often give up their faith. “Do as I say, not as I do,” never works out well.
There is good reason for Paul to stress FATHERS when he talks about protecting children and bringing them up in the training and instruction of the Lord. I’ve seen a number of statistics lately that indicate that if the Father takes the lead and is faithful in church attendance and Sunday School/Bible Class a greater percentage of his children will follow his lead.
When both parents attend Bible study in addition to the Sunday service, 72% of their children attend Sunday school when grown. When only the father attends Sunday school, 55% of the children attend when grown. When only the mother attends Sunday school, 15% of the children attend when grown. When neither parent attends Sunday school, only 6% of the children attend when grown.
Parents, protect your children by doing all you can to set the example. As Moses taught, talk about God and his word when you get up in the morning, when you walk down the road, when you sit down to eat and when you put them to bed at night. Let them know that, although you are far from perfect, God and his word are the most important thing in life because it is only there that you can learn what you need for eternal life.
Children also need to be protected from the world’s attitude toward things, from materialism. Here again, parents, what attitude do you display? What motivation do you give for children getting good grades, or participating in sports? Do you encourage them to do their best with the abilities God has given them while reminding them that it does no good to gain the whole world, to get the athletic scholarship, to go to the most expensive school, if you lose your soul?
Children, ours and others, need to be protected from pedophiles, human trafficking, and all kinds of evil. Remember, you are your brother’s keeper. Too many families cover up abuse because they want to keep another family member from going to jail. As bad as this is for a child physically, it often becomes a reason that they fall into sin, give up their faith, even become abusers themselves. We are to speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, even if it means a family member could end up in jail. Think about what Jesus says about the abuser and those who turn a blind eye to abuse – it would be better for him if he were thrown into the sea with a large millstone hung around his neck.
We can’t talk about protecting children without mentioning abortion. When news of the new Texas law came out, I had some online discussions with pro-choice people. They kept giving examples of women’s rights. I kept pointing out that a fetus is a human life. That’s not just a religious belief. Women all over the world have the ultrasound of their unborn babies plastered on their refrigerators and on their social media. The unborn’s heartbeat is detectible at six weeks. It was reported on the news that a baby born weighing less than a pound survived and went home from the hospital a few months ago. My point was, if you are pro-choice, at least be honest about what is happening. Abortion ends a human life.
From a religious perspective, you have to ask, does an aborted child who has an eternal soul from the moment of conception go to heaven or hell? Those are the only two possibilities. They are unborn so they cannot be baptized and have the Holy Spirit work faith in them in that way. Could they be brought to faith by hearing the word? It’s possible that God could do that, and we pray that he has, but how many of those unborn who are aborted had mothers or fathers who read the word out loud, or went to church where the word was proclaimed? Certainly, Jesus’ words apply to those who would prevent a child from ever hearing the word so that they could believe in him. It would be better for them if they were thrown into the sea with a large millstone hung around their necks.
Jesus makes it clear that a value we want to foster in our families is protecting children. As we think not just about the world in which we live, but even more importantly our own homes, we confess that we don’t protect children as we should. We don’t always set them a good example. Sometimes our words and actions exasperate them and tempt them to sin, or even question their faith in Jesus. All of us deserve to have a large millstone hung around our necks and to be thrown into the sea.
Jesus says, everyone will be salted with fire. Everyone needs to feel the burning of conscience caused by God’s law, by a recognition of their sin. Only then will we turn to Jesus for forgiveness and, with his help, turn away from our sin. Only then, strengthened by God’s care for us in Jesus, will we be able to care for children. Only then will we have the proper motivation to protect them and strive to bring the up in the training and instruction of the Lord so that, together, we may live with them in the perfect joy and peace of heaven.