I have been deeply impressed by Jesus’ continued emphasis on the individual, and it comes through most clearly in the longest section in the Bible about children—in Matthew 18. The scene begins with Jesus calling a little child to Him (see v. 2) and using that child as a central focus for His teaching:
At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a little child and had him stand among them (Matt. 18:1-2).
Note that Jesus is using one child as an object lesson. Then, as His conversation with the disciples continues, there is repeated mention of the word or concept “one” in this passage.
In Matthew 18:6, Jesus says, “But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea” (emphasis added).
Other translations render “to sin” as “to stumble.” Both concepts are included in Jesus’ meaning here. The warning is for anyone who causes a little child to stumble and fall in his or her spiritual journey.
I would feel much more comfortable if Jesus had said, “If anyone causes a bunch of these little ones to sin.” Regrettably, I can think back over my ministry years and remember times when I was too harsh with a child or I didn’t follow up with a child who quit coming. There have been times when my example wasn’t the best. Am I guilty of causing a child to stumble? I don’t think I’ve caused a bunch to stumble, but one—I want to say, “Jesus, that’s a really high standard.”
But Jesus is emphasizing His concern for people—and that includes even one little child.
Jesus returns to the emphasis on “one” in verse 10, when He says, “See that you do not look down on one of these little ones.” Every children’s ministry, even a small ministry, has at least one child that taxes one’s sensitivities. We all have one child who stinks or won’t obey or is loud or . . . (you fill in the description). I’m wondering if Jesus had that child in mind when He made the statement. The “one” in His statement is so significant. Think how it would read without it: “See that you do not look down on these little ones.” In that case, it would be a warning against not liking children—and we could all say, “Not me! I passed on that issue!” But He didn’t say it that way. He said, “Don’t look down on one.” Ouch. I confess. I’ve violated that admonition.
As I’ve matured, I’ve learned to see all children differently. One of my more recent “projects” was Damon (not his real name). When he first came, he was quick to get offended and would lash out—sometimes physically—at the other kids. When an adult corrected him, he would go sit up against a wall and sulk. It was a BIG temptation to look down on Damon—but Jesus said I was not to do that. So I gave myself the assignment of trying to value him and build him up. Other adults in our ministry did the same, and we began to see a change in Damon.
One day, he seemed especially cooperative and mature, and I determined to point it out. I said, “Damon, who picks you up?” Damon said “My dad.” (It was actually his uncle who had rescued Damon from a drug-infested, abusive home and adopted him.) I said, “When he comes, please tell him I want to talk to him before you leave. I want to tell him how much you are maturing and how you have been a good example to the other kids.” His face said he was pleased, and he promised to tell his dad.
Just a few minutes after we released the kids to go with their parents, Damon and his dad came up to me. “You wanted to talk to me about Damon?” I could hear the reluctance in the dad’s voice.
“Yes, I want you to be aware of how we see Damon maturing. His behavior has been much improved and today he was a great example for the other kids. I wanted you to know it.”
The dad’s eyes glistened. “I’ve been talked to a lot about Damon’s behavior,” he said. “But this is the first time I’ve ever gotten a positive report like this.” He gave Damon a big, BIG hug. Damon looked so pleased.
Ever since that time, Damon has been more mature, more responsive and well behaved. What if we adults had allowed ourselves to despise him? What would have happened?
My experience with Damon has reinforced the importance of what Jesus said: “Don’t despise even one.” Jesus said it. We need to obey.
In Matthew 18:12-14, Jesus says, “What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, I tell you the truth, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost” (emphasis added).
I think it’s fun sometimes to think of Scripture through the lens of “if Jesus were like us.” If we do that in this case, here’s how the parable might change:
If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not boast to the other shepherds about his excellent retention record? “I’ve got ninety-nine sheep,” he says. “How many do you have?”
Or maybe, if Jesus were like us, it might read like this:
If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not blame the one sheep for being so immature and uncommitted, and forget to go and look for the sheep?
Here’s another one:
If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not assume that another shepherd is caring for the one sheep that wandered off? Therefore, he will not venture into the mountains to find the one that was lost.
Aren’t we glad that God is not like us? Yet, while the point of this parable is to reveal the heart of God for even one person (in this case a small child is in focus), we ought to be seeking to emulate Him in our role as shepherds of the flocks He has given us.
Look again at these three passages (vv. 6,10,12-14). Three cautions are made clear:
1. CAUTION: Don’t cause one little child to stumble spiritually (v. 6).
I unpacked this verse in chapter 5 of Rock-Solid Kids, which is titled “Avoiding the Millstone” (click to download). Let me encourage you to read (or reread) that chapter; it is vital to follow this biblical mandate.
2. CAUTION: Don’t look down on one child.
Let me remind you, this was a dominant theme in Jesus’ ministry. He was always willing to minister to the individual and was not deterred by the most repulsive of appearances and behavior.
Think about this:
- What could be more physically repulsive than a leper with all his deformities? Jesus touched him (see Mark 1:41).
- What could be more disgusting than a naked, demon-possessed man? Jesus met him and ministered to him (see Mark 5).
- Who could be more pitiful than a blind or crippled beggar? Jesus didn’t avoid either one.
- Who could more dangerous to the reputation of a spiritual leader than a suspected prostitute? Jesus didn’t let that deter Him from ministering to the woman at the well (see John 4).
The next time you are tempted to look down on a child, remember the despicable qualities of these biblical examples of real people that Jesus ministered to, and then respond the way He did.
3. CAUTION: Don’t lose even one (see vv. 12-14).
One more time, let me rewrite this parable—this time in kid-min terms:
What do you think? If a children’s pastor has a hundred children in his ministry, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine at the church and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds him, I tell you the truth, he is happier about that one child than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off.
Do we do that? To answer, we probably need to first define what qualifies as “wandering away.”
- A child whose family moves to another geographical location? Probably not, as that scenario is outside of your control and influence.
- A child who goes to another church? Probably not, as you will hope and pray the child will be shepherded there.
- A child who no longer goes to church? Probably yes, because unless his parents do it, there is no spiritual shepherd looking out for him. And it’s most likely that parents who don’t take their child to church will probably not do it at home.
“Wandering away” pictures a child no longer under the care of a spiritual shepherd. That’s the definition I want you to consider.
The Potential of One
I have always loved the lyrics of the song “Shepherd Boy,”in which the writer describes how Jesse called his sons to stand before the prophet Samuel so one of them would be chosen to be king of Israel. However, “No one thought to call [David]; surely he would never wear a crown.”
The writer of these lyrics believed that Jesse may have felt that his youngest son, David, was not king potential and could be left out of the selection process. While Scripture doesn’t tell us what Jesse was thinking (see 1 Sam. 16), it is pretty clear that he thought it was sufficient to bring the seven older sons and leave David at home. Maybe the youngest simply was not valued in that culture, or maybe it was something about David’s personality that made his father think he didn’t have king potential, or maybe David was just out in the fields when the invitation came and there wasn’t time to go get him. Maybe Jesse thought, Samuel said to bring my sons, and I’ve got all but one. And he is too young for this special invitation, so I’ll just take the rest. It will be all right to leave just one at home.
Whatever his thoughts, David was disregarded, and you know the rest of the story. The one who Jesse overlooked is the very one whom Samuel said God had selected to use. May I remind you that we never know which child that comes to our ministry might be one for whom God has great plans. May I also remind you that God has plans for every child who enters our doors.
I have loved reading Finding Home, the life story of Jim Daly, president of Focus on the Family. As an orphan who was bounced from foster home to foster home, he was certainly a candidate for being overlooked. I doubt that anyone would have dreamed that he would become such a fine leader of such a fine organization.
What is the possibility that there is a Jim Daly in your children’s ministry program? Do you have a child with king potential, like David, who has not yet been invited? We dare not overlook even one, because we never know what God might do through him or her.
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Do you have a shepherd’s heart? I believe that the fact that you are reading this means that you do. I know that I do. However, this parable that Jesus shared of the shepherd and His sheep causes me to examine my own practice: Do I pursue a child who “wanders away” as diligently as the shepherd does in Jesus’ parable? I encourage you to reexamine your own pursuit of the individual child in your ministry.