Tuesday, September 01, 2009

The Little Ones

Mark 7:1-23

If you have ever worked with computers or have had a bad experience with a utility or credit company that uses computers, you know the adage, “Garbage in, garbage out”. That is, if you put bad information into the computer, it will stay there no matter how well you do the job, no matter if the stars are all properly aligned; the computer will only be able to do what it was originally told to do with what it has. It will not correct itself sooner or later nor will it adjust any new information that comes after the first bad batch. It will still function as if the bad information is as valid as any subsequent, “good” information. The only way such a thing can be corrected is if the bad information is replaced by new and more accurate information.

According to Mark (7:15), Jesus said, “There is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile”, but according to Matthew (18:6-7), Jesus also said: “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea.”

Both statements refer to outside influences, external forces at work in our lives both of which impart good and bad information. However, one statement seems clear that regardless of the source of input, we as individuals are still responsible for how we process that external information and what we choose to do with that information. The other statement still refers to external forces but holds these forces responsible for “causing” the other to sin, perhaps the operative term and distinction in the latter statement being “the little ones who believe in Me”.

There can be no doubt that Jesus is referring to biological children, of course, but His statement can also be extended to include those who are “little” (ie, “new”), or weak, in the faith; that is, newly converted Christians as well as those who could be vulnerable under trying circumstances such as a recent death of a loved one, divorce, loss of job, or any other traumatic and life-changing event; or those who have been mistreated by Christians in the past, regardless of their biological age. The Lord makes it very clear not only in these passages but also throughout scripture that those who do harm to His people in any way will answer to Him sooner or later. It’s not about karma or that old “what goes around comes around” mantra. It will not be “fate” or cosmic forces that bite evil-doers in the rear-end. The wrath will be just, it will be fierce, it will be intentional, and it will come directly from the Lord Himself. There is nothing ambiguous about this, nothing uncertain. “Vengeance is Mine”, says the Lord.

These statements are also a spiritual wake-up call to those who might try to dismiss certain personal behaviors and attributes by suggesting that “the devil made me do it” because Jesus is not talking to the evil one; He’s not even talking ABOUT the evil one. He is talking to regular people, religious people, pious people and not-so-pious people but people, all with minds and wills of their own. And while Jesus’ words sound ominous, they should be a source of great comfort to those who will be and have been victimized by gossips and slanderers, cheaters and predators. The major problem with any of this is that those who are hurting or have been hurt in some way need to see those responsible for their pain suffer in some real and tangible way. This answers why our judicial system in this country is so overrun with civil lawsuits. While the “little ones” watch from near and far.

We don’t trust justice; not really. In fact, it would be difficult to prove that we really believe in “true justice”. We mean to come out on top in a legal situation. But if we have truly been harmed, it is unfortunate that we sometimes have to go to law to force another to do the right thing. Even then, however, we put more faith in the fallible, man-made system. We are also stating to the Lord on some level – and more notably, to the ‘little ones’ who may be watching and learning - that the Lord need not bother with vengeance “later”; we’ll see to it now – and on our own terms. And the “little ones” are always watching.

But this is not about going before a judge to settle a matter rather than taking the law into one’s own hands. Rather, it is about the daily occurrences in our lives, things we all but take for granted as simply “the way it is”. So many of us subject ourselves to the contemporary mantra that “things are what they are”, and to a certain extent it is true enough. However, we tend to react to what “is” according to secular standards rather than evaluate according to biblical ones. That is, we use our experiences and our knowledge and even our education to deal with things as they come up, but we rarely evaluate “what is” according to what we’ve learned from Bible study and prayer. It is such behavior that marks the difference between a genuine disciple and those who are merely Christian by affiliation with a church or by name only. And the “little ones” are always watching.

In this contemporary and decidedly secular culture, Christians are probably THE MOST WATCHED group of people. Some look to us for hope or as an example of what faith can actually do, but far too many others watch and wait in joyful anticipation of the moment when our human nature will come pouring through the cracks, those moments when we simply show what we really are. And sad to say, we reveal ourselves all too often when we allow our emotions to run away with us and ultimately betray not who we really are but, rather, who we should be. And the “little ones” are always watching.

John Wesley often encouraged the early Methodists to be very slow to speak and not waste words. Being slow to speak does not necessarily mean we have nothing constructive to say or that we cannot keep up with what’s going on, but we should evaluate rather than react to any given situation according to what Christ calls us to do, to be, and to say. And if we feel no spiritual compulsion to speak, it is best to remain silent lest our humanity betray our faith. And “wasting words” was simply an admonishment to speak only when it is profitable to the glory of the Lord and not for our own recognition, mindful that the “little ones” are watching.

Jesus seems clear that what we say says a lot about who and what we are, but I also think the WAY we choose to express ourselves in any given situation also probably reveals more than mere words would. And not only are we defined in such a way, we are also defiled – if we are defiled at all. We often reveal an uglier side of ourselves when we speak without thinking – and it is made worse by public knowledge that we are Christians and are presumed to be acting as Christians on behalf of Christ Himself. And the “little ones” learn by watching, just as biological children do. If a Christian drinks to excess, hangs out a casinos, sleeps off a hangover on Sunday morning, or curses and gossips and even slanders another, so will the “little ones”. It’s what they see, it’s how they learn.

I remember years ago Charles Barkley, the former professional basketball player, absolutely rejected the notion that he was a role model on any level. He maintained that people are responsible for themselves and that he should not be to blame for the behavior of others, even children. To a degree, he’s right, of course, but he was only kidding himself by refusing the inherent influence that comes from being a celebrity. He may not have asked for it, but he got it anyway, along with fame and fortune. And the “little ones” were watching.

Being an adult alone comes with certain duties and responsibilities, but being a disciple of Christ – a witness to The Truth – comes with it not only these duties and responsibilities but also – and more importantly – opportunities to use these duties and responsibilities to reveal to the “little ones” the glory and majesty of the Lord. And we do this, as James reveals, by weaving the Word into the very fabric of our essence, our total being. And this is done as we move far beyond simply “hearing” the Word and taking it unto ourselves only for our own benefit as we declare our own salvation and never mind our ultimate duty and responsibility to others, never minding the very real and very inescapable fact that we are placed in charge of the “little ones”.

The Word was “made flesh” in Christ, but the Word is given hands and feet and LIGHT through faithful discipleship. We don’t have to agree with this awesome responsibility – in fact, we can actually reject it outright, but we cannot deny the Reality that we cannot have justification without sanctification. That is to say, it is careless and dangerous to suggest we can have the Destination without enduring the Journey.

The Word of the Lord is not only life-changing but life-giving through faithful witness. It is not completely unlike the Word of the Lord in the Ark of the Covenant: handle it very carefully according to the Lord’s instructions lest it bring about destruction rather than edification. While the “little ones” watch from near and far.

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