Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Jesus had some millstone-related things to say about that.

Image source.

Good news, everyone! Remember how I was blogging through the gospel of Matthew awhile back, and then I just kind of stopped? I’m finally starting again. Let’s take a look at Matthew 18:1-14

First, Jesus tells his disciples that the one who is like a child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. What does this mean? What particular characteristics of children is Jesus getting at? The only clue in this passage is Jesus mention of “humbling yourself” like a child. Maybe that’s it?

But really, are children actually humble? Children would also argue about “who is the greatest.” Maybe Jesus is saying children are humble because they are dependent on their parents; they recognize that they can’t do everything. Maybe?

Christians like to talk about how we should have "faith like a child" but I did some googling and can't find any biblical reference to support this. Matthew 18 only mentions humility, and Luke 18:17 says we must "receive the kingdom of God like a little child"- again probably a reference to humility. I’ve heard many atheists argue with this "childlike faith" concept that Christians praise; believing everything an authority figure tells you isn’t really a good thing. If Jesus thinks children are better because they’ll just believe stuff without asking too many questions, well, I can’t get on board with that.

Umm but actually children do ask a lot of questions. They are generally curious. They want to know “why?” Perhaps their motivation for asking questions is not to challenge and disagree, but to better understand something that they already trust their parents are right about.

Just like how I think if God is legit, then God can handle us questioning and doubting.

Then there’s this bit about “whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.”

Well, that’s lovely.

Children will believe what you tell them, so if you teach them a type of Christianity that views certain groups as inferior, and then they go and treat people badly because of their beliefs... well Jesus had some things to say about that. If you teach your children that everyone secretly knows Jesus is Lord but they choose to not be Christians because they would rather sin, and then your children go off and argue and accuse people accordingly, dude, what have you done? It’s not really the kid’s fault; they’re just repeating what you said. They don’t know any better, at that age. But you have no excuse. If you’re an adult, you’ve had enough time and opportunities to find out that that’s bullshit.

Similarly, I believe we can extend this idea to teachings that are harmful to the children themselves. If you teach that having premarital sex will ruin one’s life, that “your virginity is the most important gift you can give to your husband”, that “every crush takes away a piece of your heart you can never get back,” then WHAT THE HELL? You’re a freakin’ adult, surely you’ve had some romantic experiences, or at least you know people who have... you should know this is bullshit. Seriously, especially that line about losing pieces of one’s heart every time you like a boy, geez, just, WTF? IT’S ALL LIES and Jesus had some millstone-related things to say about that.

If you teach that girls’ bodies are so dangerous and powerful, so they need to be “modest” or else they’re sinning. If you teach that being gay is wrong. If you teach that being transgender is not a real thing. Yeah, Jesus was not a fan of people leading children astray like that. 

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The next part of Matthew 18 has Jesus discussing “temptations to sin.” He says, “And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire.”

Let me add to that: “If your interpretation of the bible causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away.”

This is for all y’all who oppose LGBT rights because “we have to find a balance between being accepting and loving, and what the bible says.” Yeah, cut it off and throw it away.

And for those who teach men should be the leaders, and women should submit, and women shouldn’t teach: have you noticed the pain that this causes to actual people, created in the image of God? Cut it off and throw it away.

Again, if your belief in hell causes you to sin by treating people like projects, cut it off and throw it away.

All of Scripture can be summed up as: Love God and love people. And that’s not “love God first and love people second”; no, there is no situation where we have to choose loving God over loving people; there is no situation where we love God by being unloving toward people. Remember what God said in Isaiah 58, about how the people were so religious and they were fasting, but it was no good because “you oppress all your workers.” No, true fasting is “to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke.”

(Can I get an amen?)

Remember what Jesus said in Matthew 25:40, "whatever you did for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me." We love God by loving people. And if your interpretation of the bible causes harm to people, cut it off and throw it away.

Let me put it another way, just so all you Real True Christians out there can be 100% sure that I’ve “been deceived by the world” and I’m a “false teacher”: I don’t care what the bible says. If a belief actively hurts others, then I refuse to accept it. Cut it off and throw it away. 

Okay, let’s back up a minute. I just said “If your belief in hell causes you to sin by treating people like projects, cut it off and throw it away”, but hang on a second, Jesus talks about hell in this very passage here. How can I use a passage that mentions hell to argue that we should quit believing in hell?

Ah, yes, I’m glad you asked. Let’s take a look at what exactly Jesus is saying here about heaven and hell, and we will see whether it matches the common evangelical Christian understanding that “all non-Christians automatically go to hell.”

When Jesus says, “It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire,” it seems that he is saying sin causes people to go to hell. If you keep your temptation-hand and so you sin, you go to hell. If you cut it off so you don’t sin, you go to “life.” Wait wait wait... don’t evangelical Christians believe that faith determines whether you go to heaven or hell? Just, do you really really truly believe in Jesus or not? Why is it that, in this passage, Jesus doesn’t at all imply that going to hell would be related to the beliefs one holds?

“Ah, no no, you see, Jesus is talking about habits of sin. Your hand causes you to sin, and you know this, it must have happened many times. If you really really truly dedicated your life to Jesus, then you would not allow that habit of sin to continue. A person who is really truly saved- by faith!- would do what Jesus says and cut out the things that tempt them. Plus Jesus is only talking to his disciples here- he doesn't need to mention the whole 'we are only saved by faith, ie, believing the correct information' thing- I mean, that's obvious. He just needs to remind them about the 'if you're a REAL Christian, you would do this' thing, [you know, because separating real and fake Christians is a very important concern for us].”

In other words, we already know the right answer is “all non-Christians automatically go to hell.” The bible is clear, ya know. Well, except not really in this particular passage, but it doesn’t matter, we already know that’s the right answer. SO, ASSUMING that Jesus OF COURSE would never teach anything other than “all non-Christians automatically go to hell”, we can come up with an explanation for how this fits with that doctrine.

(Determining who is following the “plain meaning of Scripture” and who is “reading too much into it” will be left as an exercise for the reader.)

Additionally, don’t Christians believe that in heaven, everything will be perfect and we’ll have new bodies? So why does Jesus mention the possibility of being in heaven as an amputee? Yeah, based on all these bits that don’t exactly make sense, I’m concluding that Jesus isn’t literally telling us how heaven and hell will work. Instead, he’s saying how important it is to get rid of stuff that causes sin (ie hurts people).

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The next part is the parable of the lost sheep, and look at that, Jesus is still speaking on the topic of children. He says, “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.”

Uh, what? Each child has his/her own personal angel? Just hanging out in heaven? ... Staring at God?

I don’t know, guys. This bit is pretty WTF for me. I got nothin’.

ANYWAY LET’S TALK ABOUT THE LOST SHEEP. (If you haven’t read it, go here.)

So what is the “wandering off”? I always assumed it meant sin, but now I’m not sure. There’s nothing in this parable about the consequences of this sheep’s sin; only the fact that the sheep won’t be safe when it’s alone, which maybe could show the fact that when we sin, we are hurting ourselves too?

I don’t know about that... when Christians use the term “wandering away” or “led astray” to refer to sin, the focus is on how this particular individual is sinning by believing the wrong thing. There are some rare cases when this kind of language is used to refer to getting addicted to drugs (which actually is harmful) but generally it means “this person has changed their beliefs, and now they believe things that aren’t the correct things.” (Which is, of course, what happened to me.)

If that’s the case, then this is a parable about someone who questions what the church taught them, but in the end they realize that actually the church was right about everything and they come back to the herd of sheep. God mercifully allows them to realize “we’re right and you’re wrong.”

Yeah I wouldn’t be a fan of that parable.

I define sin as something that hurts others (or hurts yourself). So if this parable is about the sheep sinning by wandering off, who exactly is this sheep hurting? And where is God’s compassion for the sheep’s innocent victim? And why would sin be portrayed as confused wandering rather than an attack on people who bear God’s image?

Maybe instead, the parable is about loneliness. Maybe it’s about the sheep that doesn’t fit in, who’s not accepted by the others. Maybe it’s about those of us who have changed our beliefs and now we can’t find a church that will love us. And the good news is God cares about that. God knows we need acceptance and love. And there is hope that we can be brought back to the group of sheep- not because we decide to conform and deny who we are, but because “us and them” can learn to accept each other. Someday.

And there is more rejoicing over the one lost sheep who finally found a place to belong than over the ninety-nine who were fine.

Image source.

Discussion questions:

When Jesus said the greatest in the kingdom of heaven is one who is “like a child”, what qualities was he referring to?

Could the bible/ one’s interpretation of the bible be something that “causes you to sin”, that Jesus tells us should be cut off?

What was up with that “their angels always see the face of my father” bit?

What does the lost sheep’s wandering represent?


This post is part of a series on the gospel of Matthew.

Previous post: From Demons to Money Fish (Matthew 17:14-27)

Next post: Matthew 18 (Matthew 18:15-20)

Click here to go to the beginning of the series.


  1. I have no idea what "their angels" refers to, but I've long been curious. If anyone knows, please comment. :D
    And I think if anything can cause you to sin, including if your interpretation of the Bible keeps you from loving people, yes, cutting it off can be good. Hard, though.
    I also don't know about the lost sheep, but I like your interpretation. It's been so hard fitting in at church. Recently, though, I found a Bible study that has a few more left-leaning people and so I'm beginning not to feel so anxious and alone now - which is a new and hopeful feeling. :)

  2. I have never quite understood what "their angels" means either. As far as the lost sheep thing goes, I think it's important to think about the fact that the Church did not yet exist when Jesus taught this parable. So He wasn't talking about people who were in the Church. His listeners would probably have thought of the "fold" as Torah-following Jews: that is, those in covenant with God. "Wandering away" must have had something to do with not keeping the covenant, ceasing to worship God or to do the acts of devotion to God.

    In other words, the parable is not about what you do or don't believe, and it's not about whether or not you're going to church! It has to be about whether or not you're following God and in covenant with God. Certainly if you're questioning, and your questions are about whether the chuch has been getting it right about what following God means, then I'd think you'd be less of a wandering sheep than those who think they're still in the fold but have stopped following God or wanting to do God's will.

    As for the thing about cutting off your hand-- well, I think people get confused, but orthodox (little "o") Christianity has always taught that it's your sin that causes you to go to hell. It's not lack of faith that causes you to go to hell-- I think that's a major misunderstanding that people fall into. The idea is that faith in Jesus saves you from your sins, otherwise your sins would send you to hell. Lack of faith simply means you aren't trusting Jesus to save you from your sins, and thus you go to hell.

    But yes, I think Jesus is saying your sins can send you to hell, so if some sin is so much a part of you that it feels like your own hand, you'd better cut it off no matter how much it hurts.

    As for hell itself, and what He meant by "eternal fire" and whether that means "eternal conscious torment," -- that's another issue, and I don't believe in eternal conscious torment. But that's for another discussion.

  3. Good point about the church not being a thing yet, at the time when Jesus talked about the lost sheep. I'm still not convinced about what "wandering away" means.

    About sins sending us to hell- yeah, that's what I was taught, we all sin so we all should go to hell, but God, in God's unreasonable mercy, provided a way for at least some people to unfairly get out of it, through faith in Jesus. But in this passage, Jesus doesn't seem to be working from that assumption at all. He seems to be saying a specific habit of sin is what makes the difference between "life" and hell, rather than "we're all just immersed in sin all the time and therefore deserve hell." Soooo I guess we could still argue that Jesus is saying sin is what sends people to hell, but definitely not in the way the traditional evangelical teaching on hell says.

    When I say I don't believe in hell, the "hell" I'm referring to is "all non-Christians automatically go to hell, and are tortured infinitely forever." I think there must be some kind of judgment, but one that's actually just. But I'm not very clear on what it would look like.

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