“Be a Student of Your Character Flaws”

Matthew 18:1-14

Matthew has been telling the story of Jesus as he remembers it. We are in chapter 18 and at this point, Jesus has spent a couple of years with His disciples traveling around and spreading the Good News. At this point, Jesus is on a road trip to Jerusalem for Passover. At the beginning of this trip Jesus revealed to His disciples exactly what would happen when they arrived. The disciples didn’t comprehend what Jesus had said. Now mind you, they said they believed He was the Son of God, the long awaited Messiah, and yet, when He tells them something, it’s almost like they don’t listen and they seem to miss the point. 

We have to give the disciples the benefit of the doubt because what Jesus has been teaching them is a whole new way to look at the world. 

He has been training them to see, hear and behave like they were living in “The Kingdom of God” reality. Which happens to be upside-down from their former existence. Jesus was challenging how they have thought of others, especially in regards to status and how human beings treat each other in community. 

Starting in chapter 18 Jesus will take a break from the road trip and pull His disciples aside and give them a deeper training on what it means to live in community with this upside down kingdom view. It’s like Jesus realized His disciples and followers weren’t comprehending kingdom values and they needed a refresher course on how to live in a community of Jesus followers. 

Chapter 18 provides details on what it looks like to follow Jesus on the personal and relational level. 

He begins with a very strong warning, with vivid imagery. He presents to the disciples and to us the need to become a student of our own character flaws and how we hurt other people without knowing it. Jesus reveals that the more we become aware of how we hurt people the more we become a life giving member of Jesus’ family and the people around us. 

We will be reading some practical teachings that Jesus gives us. It invites followers of Jesus into self discovery and self learning towards growth and transformation. 

I encourage you to join me as we learn together how the Kingdom of God values, when followed, can not only help us to grow individually but also as a community of believers. 

Basically, what is happening at this point is the disciples have a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to be the Messiah, King of Kings, Lord of Lords. They have their view of Messiah and regardless of what Jesus has told them about having to die and being raised three days later. Because of their misunderstandings, and because it doesn’t fit in their paradigm they’ve dropped whatever doesn’t match what they already think. And because they don’t understand they will perpetuate this misunderstanding when it comes to being a group of followers of Jesus. 

Check out the question the disciples ask at the beginning of this chapter, Matthew 18,

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”

Can’t you just see Jesus throwing His arms in the air and thinking, good grief! Where have you been the past couple of years? Do we have to go back to the basics?

It’s like the disciples have been talking about the idea of God’s kingdom and what is going to happen in Jerusalem, amongst each other and arguing over who was the greatest. So they came up with settling the debate by asking Jesus to decide. Demonstrating definitively that they just don’t get it. 

Jesus didn’t go into an explanation, He took a child and uses this child as a visual parable. He tells the disciples, “Be like this. Unless you are like this child you will not be able to enter the kingdom of heaven.”

This is where the disciples had to have taken a double take. It would be good for us to take a double take as well. 

Following Jesus and entering into the Kingdom of God is a fundamental challenge to all of us who think we know what it means to be human and live in society. It is different from how we were all raised in our families. Jesus was showing how upside down the kingdom of God is from human thinking. 

It’s where the least important is the most important.


Think about it. In Jesus’ day, children were not “listened to” or even offered an option to speak. They were thought of as property, not people. Jesus was making a statement that to be great in God’s kingdom began with taking a humble place. In order to have an influence in God’s Kingdom means you are willing to let others impose on you and you’re willing to serve and love others and come underneath them. 

That’s what it means to live in a community with a servant-king. 

For the rest of this chapter,

Jesus knows we don’t get it. 

Jesus knows we are going to mess things up. 

Jesus knows that in the process of messing things up we are going to hurt each other.  

The remainder of today’s Scripture that was read is what Jesus has to say about this. 

What did we hear when it was read? 

It was a bit intense wasn’t it? 

> Execution by drowning

> Self mutilation

> Hell

> Angels 

> Sheep

Jesus uses a lot of different images however He has one coherent thought. Jesus knows that not only His disciples, but every generation to come is not going to get it. So, as we grow to follow Jesus and try to live in the upside down kingdom, we are going to encounter things that are so different and strange and counterintuitive that we are not going to do the kingdom thing. The results are inevitable. We are going to fail as individuals and fail as a community and we are going to hurt each other. Because of this, Jesus wants His disciples to take our character flaws that we allow to occur and that hurt each other into account and realize how significant this is, for our own sake and for the sake of others. All of these images work together to demonstrate just how deadly serious our character flaws can be. Next week Jesus will offer some tools to use for conflict resolution, and the week after that He is going to teach us how to forgive each other. 

It’s like He’s telling us, to try and do everything you can not to hurt each other, but you are going to anyway. So, learn how to deal with the conflict once you have hurt each other. And above all learn how to forgive each other even when you hate the person. 

What do you know? 

Jesus knew life in a church community was going to be difficult. 

How many of us can relate to that kind of experience in any church community we have been involved with? 

The story Matthew gives us today focuses on how difficult things are when two or more sinful people decide to be in relationship with each other. 

Jesus begins His instruction by bringing a child into the center of the conversation. 

He points to the child and says if you want to know what the Kingdom of heaven is about you will need to become like this, a child. This requires, regulating your egos, it’s about being born again, having a sense of wonder, a sense of non-judgmentalism towards others. He began with the little one in the center, but then, in verse 6, He continues with 

“If anyone causes one of these little ones..”

He wasn’t talking about children anymore. At this point He would have pointed to all of those disciples and followers listening to Him. It’s sweet that He would point to His disciples and call them “little ones,” however, Jesus knows exactly how little ones will treat each other. He has been on the playground with a group of fourth graders who are empowered by the pack of friends and the nerd. It’s a brutal scene. 

Some of you may have such memories either from the side of the nerd or maybe you were the bully. I think everyone is aware of what I mean. Jesus knows that we are going to be like kids and that we are going to act like kids. God help us. 

So Jesus looks out over His disciples and says, if any one of you causes another one of you to stumble, then a quick execution of drowning would be more preferable.   

Okay, we need to define a some words in this statement. First, the word “stumble.” In other versions of the Bible you may read the word, “sin.” Jesus was taking from the book of Isaiah, chapter 8, the image of someone trying to pursue or move towards the image of God but someone puts an obstacle in their way where they “stumble.” 

Which could mean that you fail, or fall down, but it is more like being a follower of Jesus, due to character flaws, does something to another follower of Jesus who gets hurt, retaliates and then one or both of them aren’t following Jesus. More than likely they’ve dragged others into the situation as well, who as a whole are not following Jesus. Jesus said that it would be better to drown than to cause another follower of Jesus to sin or to stumble. It’s more than just “tripping.” The image here is more like falling over. Jesus wanted us to see the way Christians hurt each other, and how that hurts in a way that drives someone from following Jesus all together. 

Many of us either know someone or maybe have been that someone who has been so hurt by another Christian you’ve become disillusioned with Jesus all together. 

Like that ever happened in the history of the church? Duh!

Jesus knew this was going to happen. He anticipates it. Look at His description, that of a millstone. There were plenty of them in Israel at the time. A large circular stone that was rotated to grind up wheat and grain. He said it would be preferable to stick your head in the hole in the middle of that stone, strap it to your body, then go walk the plank in the Sea of Galilee, then to do something that would cause another disciple of Christ to turn and walk away from Jesus. 

This seems extreme, but Jesus was being serious and He wants us to take seriously the ways in which we hurt each other within the Christian community. 

Jesus then develops the thought to the world,  

Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble! 

Jesus expresses woe, or sorrow because of the character flaws each of us have and how we mess others up. Whether in our families, in our workplaces in whatever community we find ourselves, we are constantly making each other fall over all the time. Jesus says, “Such things must come,” it’s inevitable. People are going to hurt each other and make each other disillusioned with Jesus. 

But Jesus also adds, but woe to the person through whom they come! 

Here’s what Jesus knows. Families are not going to be perfect and that whatever goes on in each of our families creates insecurities, unstable, low sense of self-worth. So we develop all these techniques that allow us to feel secure and safe. 

We become bossy, we burst out in fits of anger, we learn to lie, become introverted, we all have ways of dealing with our fears and insecurities. We develop a childhood of behaviors that become ingrained in us. 

Whoa to the world when innocent babies spend a decade on the planet and become a messed up human being. 

Woe that this world exists. 

But also woe to that person who grows up and keeps the dysfunctionality going! That person who never does anything about it and just repeats the cycle. 

Basically Jesus is saying just because you grew up in a world that mistreated you, doesn’t give you the right to keep perpetuating all that. 

What a mess!

Take a moment, Jesus knows we live in a world where we are not going to treat each other correctly and that left on our own devices we won’t even keep ourselves responsible. 

Basically we are all responsible for ourselves. Jesus wants us to become a student of our character flaws, those things that are going to spill over and hurt other disciples. 

In the next section Jesus makes the point that we should care about this for our own sake. This is where He talks about self-mutilation. This isn’t the first time Jesus has talked about cutting off hands and feet. Whenever Jesus is serious He uses shocking imagery to get us to wake up. If you remember back in chapter 5 when Jesus was talking about sexual desire and lust. 

If you look at another human being and you play a little movie in your head where they become objects, Jesus said if this happens, cut out your eye, or cut off your hand. Like that’s the problem. 

Stop for a second and think about this. Where is the root problem? Jesus said if you think lustful thoughts and you lust in your heart. Do you think Jesus really believes that cutting out your eye and cutting off your hand would fix the problem? I doubt it, but did it grab your attention? Does Jesus demonstrate a gravity to the situation? 

In today’s Scripture Jesus adds cutting off a foot. Why did Jesus use these images? It’s another Jewish way of thinking. If you go to Proverbs you will read a lot about the eye, the hand and the foot. In Jewish literature the eye was how you see the world and how you see people. Your hand is what you do, your actions, how you treat people because of how you see. 

Your foot is about the path that you are on, how what you see and what you do, determines your life path. 

So Jesus wants us to realize how we see people, how we treat people because of that, and how you treat people becomes habits and patterns and becomes so ingrained that they state who you are becoming. They shape your path and the kind of person you are. 

Let’s take a church family scenario that I think everyone can relate to. How many of you have been in a group and you asked for prayer requests and it becomes the “prayer gossip” session.

 “Have you heard about so and so? We should really pray for them.” 

Then you get a story that is private, or used to be private, but whatever, something has happened and it doesn’t put them in the best light at all, maybe it’s embarrassing. 

What’s happening right there? 

We are putting a holy veneer over gossip. 

But there’s a deeper issue. Gossip hurts. People walk away from churches with enormous wounds and pain because of the sin of gossip against them. 

But what’s really going on in this scenario? 

It starts with the eye. I don’t see that person’s dignity as worth protecting. I don’t see that person as important as me or value them and their personal stuff. 

So that informs my behavior, my prayer request/gossip session. 

Then what happens, I might be thinking I’m caring and thinking about people, so I continue to do this and it becomes a habit. 

So years go by, if others join the practice, then what happens to the church when holy gossip is involved? That church becomes a toxic place. In theory we are following Jesus but for those who stay in that community, they stop sharing their personal things they really need to share for fear of becoming part of the gossip. 

This was what Jesus was talking about. He wants us to take how we treat each other seriously. He wants us to take a good look at ourselves and be honest about our own character flaws, and do whatever it is going to take to fix them. He tells us right out, it’s not going to be convenient. It’s going to actually feel painful. The analogy of cutting off parts of your body is right up there with having to own up to a deep character flaw.

According to Jesus, it is worth it, because the stakes are really high. This is where hell comes in. The question is, “Am I becoming a person whose heart is slowly being bent towards hell?” 

Here’s the word “hell” again. Jesus has brought it up once before in chapter 13. Jesus was trying to make the key idea that contrary to what most people think hell is, for Jesus, hell is both a future reality and a present reality. It is something we create now, through our own sin. Then our sin becomes so ingrained in us and shapes us and determines the path we are going. 

Just as in chapter 13, Jesus’ mission is to get the hell out of earth and to get the hell out of each of us. 

The question is, are we willing to let Him do it? 

This image of hell that Jesus was addressing is the kind of image where we defiantly say, “Don’t tell me what to do, I’m just fine. Sure I have my issues but they are not that bad, I’m okay.” 

Jesus is telling us through this passage, not to be naive. We all have hell bent abilities within us and we keep contributing to them unless we are vigilant to work against them. So work on correcting your character flaws for your own sake, and also for the sake of others. 

On to verse 10,

“See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.

How many of you have heard the saying that each child has a guardian angel? Well, this is where the idea came from. Although it is a beautiful idea, it is based on a misunderstanding of what is written here. 

The “little ones” Jesus was referring to were His disciples and followers, you and me, not little children. And where would we think a guardian angel would be? Most likely, here on earth, guarding us, right? But in this verse, where is the angel? In heaven, with God. What God is really saying is something like this. Think in your mind the one Christian you know that you really don’t care for. The person you really don’t like and would rather not hang around. Jesus is saying, don’t think for one minute you are better than that person. And if you think about messing with that person, watch out, bad idea. Because they have an advocate in heaven speaking up for them before God in heaven.  This is court room imagery here. Where everyone of Jesus’ disciples has a defending attorney. Beware, because that person you don’t like, they too have a person who is speaking right to the King on their behalf. Even if you don’t care for that person, the Father does. 

Which goes right into the parable of the sheep. The man loves all his sheep but if one sheep has been driven off because of the behavior of another disciple, that activates the Father’s heart. Jesus’ heart goes out for the lost and the perishing. 

So, it boils down to this. If I am not going to correct my character flaws for my own sake, I should at least do so for those in the Christian community because God cares for them a lot more than I do. 

As we go forward, after hearing this Scripture, we have to take a serious look at our own character and recognize the flaws and then do something to make them better. Just because Jesus knows it’s hard and knows we are going to hurt each other, is no excuse not to do anything about it. The stakes are really high. The destiny we pave for ourselves and the justice God delivers is at stake. 

What’s at stake? Those around us God loves and for whom Jesus has died. 

We may need to fess up and repent. The word repent in Greek means to “turn 180 degrees and go the other way.” 

Stop what you are doing and fix it. 

Seek justice, seek peace, seek the Kingdom of God.

Let’s pray.