Saturday, May 6, 2017

Words within hyphens matter

One need be careful to read the Bible in its fullness.  Narrow interpretations of the text can prove damaging.  One matter that came to my attention on reading newspaper articles, transcripts and commentaries arising from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse is that a narrow reading of Matthew 18:6 often arises.  The narrow reading is to the reference within the verse of children of young age.  In the context of the matters before the Royal Commission, not all read the verse narrowly.  Some read the verse both in relation to the children that were harmed and the associated victims (their parents, siblings and relatives etc).  The broader reading brings in other conceptual aspects of Jesus’s teaching.

“If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble,
it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck
and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.” Matthew 18:6 NIV
Narrow reading
The risk of reading the verse narrowly comes from interpretation of “little ones” as those of young age.  It ignores the clarifying text “those who believe in me”.  The text “those who believe in me” is preceded, and followed, by hyphens.  Hyphens play a role in grammar of indicating that the text within the hyphens is understood with the text that precedes it.  Accordingly, to read “little ones” as only being persons who are young of age is to ignore the theological impact that Jesus brings to the text by addition of the words “those who believe in me”.

Broad reading
Jesus speaks of himself as a shepherd who has come to gather his sheep (John 10:14).  He is a mother hen calling his brood near.  To Jesus the little ones are those who face persecution and contempt of the world.  They are little because they have believed.  They are little because they have understood that they need be born again (John 3).  They are little because they have begun life again – in the Spirit - as infants.  They are vulnerable in that wolves – roaring upon them in their innocence (Luke 10:3) - can snatch them away through false teaching or dispatch them irreverently (Galatians 5:15).  They believe and yet their belief is itself vulnerable or fragile.  They have professed a faith in the shepherd and seek all the protection and comfort that the shepherd offers.

That “little ones” is not a reference to those of young age is clear in that Jesus earlier in Matthew 18:3 had called a child to draw out an illustration: “unless you change and become like little children”.  The illustration is to how one must change to become a little one.  A man of 110 years of age, on his death-bed, may profess faith in Christ for the first time and become a little child (Hallelujah!).  He may be 110 years of physical age with a body that has the marks to show for it, yet, his spiritual age at the moment of his profession is zero.  Matthew 18:4 draws this home – those who take a lowly place are due greatness in the kingdom of heaven (as occurred with the contrite thief).

Christ paid the greatest price for the little children.  Christ cannot pay that price again.  And, the price that Jesus paid - and that the price will not be paid again - warrants the penalty upon those who cause his followers to stumble.  A small millstone would serve the purpose that Jesus proposes of it, yet Jesus illustrates the graveness by reference to a large millstone.

A point to consider
The hyphenated clarifying remarks “—those who believe in me—” are interesting for a reason other than the immediate need for a broad reading of the text.  Some theologians have argued that belief requires maturity of thought.  To that end, it is plausible that “little children” is not inclusive of those young of age.  Therefore, it is possible that those who adopt the narrow reading of the text are absolutely wrong.  John Gil’s Exposition of the Bible puts it this way:

which believe in me;

which cannot be said of infants, or little ones in age, and who also are not capable of offence; but must be understood of adult persons

In the context of Royal Commission
Elsewhere in this blog, I have discussed the disturbing use of the expression “survivors” in substitute of the expression “victims”.  In short, I have proposed that “survivors” is a very Orwellian Newspeak way of trying to brush a problem under a carpet.  “Victims” instead calls it as it is.  Fortunately, some in the media have identified that “victims of child abuse” are not simply those subject sexual abuse, but also those family members and relatives who have had to care for the child.   Persons who have never recovered from abuse – at a cost to their productive role in the world – allow us to see that all in society are victims.  Some have turned from the church because of sexual abuse upon themselves.  Others have turned from the church because of abuse they have known against loved ones.  In some instances, church going parents loyally and faithfully sent their children into the care of others only for the child to be abused. The whole family were then ostracised by the church.  In this sense someone may cause a child young of age to stumble and cause a direct link to the stumbling of adults.  Would Jesus have the millstone only hung around an abuser’s neck for the abuse to the child young of age?  Is it not proper to recognise that adults surrounding the child have also been caused to stumble?

I praise the Lord that I am a little one.  I praise the Lord that great is the reward that awaits his little ones.


Note: all links correct as at 6 May 2017
Note: this is the last of a rash of punctuation themed blog posts.  They all arose from a book Eats, Shoots and Leaves.

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