“Take heed that you do not despise one of these little ones” (Matt. 18:10). St. Luke puts it a little differently:
“It is impossible that no offences should come, but woe to him through whom they do come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were thrown into the sea, than that he should offend one of these little ones. Take heed to yourselves” (Lk. 17: 1-3a).
In Matthew’s Gospel, the context makes clear that Jesus is specifically referring to children when he says “little ones,” for Jesus puts a child on his lap before he says this. However, Jesus is not only referring to those who are young in years, but he is also referring to those who become children to enter the Kingdom. In fact, a strong case can be made that the little ones refer not only to “the little ones who believe in me” (18: 6), but also to those who are lost:
“Take heed that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that in heaven their angels always see the face of My Father who is in heaven. For the Son of Man has come to save that which was lost” (Matt. 18: 10, 11).
The very next verse then begins the parable of the lost sheep, which in Luke’s Gospel is referring to the publicans and harlots. Furthermore, in Luke’s Gospel, this warning not to offend the little ones follows immediately after the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, which would imply that the little ones refer also to the poor and destitute. It seems to me that the little ones can refer to just about anyone who is weak and easy to ignore, dismiss, forget, or just not consider important—like the crumbs that fall from a table.
Jesus warns us to take heed not to despise or offend the little ones not only because it is so easy to do, but also because the penalty is so severe. Look at the whole context of the quote from Matthew:
“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. Woe to the world because of offences! For offences must come, but woe to that man by whom offence comes! If your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off and cast it from you. It is better for you to enter into life lame or maimed, rather than having two hands or two feet, to be cast into the everlasting fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out and cast it from you. It is better for you to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes, to be cast into hell fire. Take heed that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that in heaven their angels always see the face of My Father who is in heaven. For the Son of Man has come to save that which was lost” (Matt. 18: 6-11).
To tell you the truth, as someone who leans toward universalism, I am scared to death by these verses. In the Age To Come, we will see as we are seen. All of the little ones that I have despised will be known to me, all of the offences I have unnecessarily caused will be known to me, this for me will be the suffering of the undying worm and the unquenchable fire (to cite Jesus’ comments on this very matter as recorded in Mark’s Gospel 9: 42 – 50).
Jesus is serious about watching out for, caring for, and not offending the little ones: both the little ones who believe in Him and the little ones who are lost whom Jesus came to seek and save. But how are we to do it? How are we to avoid offending the little ones?
When I look at my own life, I notice that whenever I think I am important or that the job that I am doing is important, I notice then that I am very likely to despise the little ones, the weak ones, the ones who get in the way. I start thinking that the job that I am doing is more important than the people I am doing it for or with, or more important than the people who just happen to be standing by (or in the way). Thinking that the job that I am doing is very important is just a back-handed way of thinking that I am important. Functionally, it is the same (at least for me). But when I think that someone else could easily do the job I’m doing and when I remember that things and jobs and tasks are not eternal, but people are, then I am less likely to indulge my desire for self-importance. Then I am less likely to despise the little ones.
However, there is also an even darker aspect to the offence of little ones. Here I am thinking of the lustful passions of uncontrolled sexual desire. As I noted above, a strong case can be made that Jesus intended that harlots be included in the group identified as the little ones. Every human struggles at some points in their life with overwhelming sexual desire of one kind or another. And, if we are not very careful to control these desires, they will rage within us and drive us to actions that are not expressions of love, but expressions of self gratification at the expense of some little one whom Jesus came to save. Especially men, but not only men, are guilty here: for it is not so much a matter of testosterone versus estrogen as it is a matter of uncontrolled fantasy. Uncontrolled fantasy and the power to control, manipulate and use someone else, these are what drive us to offend the little ones.
At one point in my life, when I was experiencing particularly strong temptations to immoral thoughts, I began to be saved when I called to mind Jesus’ words in St. Matthew’s Gospel: “If your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off.” In my mind, whenever inappropriate sexual thoughts assailed me, I would picture myself cutting off my hand with a large meat cleaver. Extreme. Gross. And effective. With time, I have tried to train myself to see every person whom my mind presents to me as an object of lust, as a little one, a little one whom Jesus came to save, a little one whom I would offend if I continued thinking the wicked thought that had occurred to me. I do, however, keep the meat cleaver in a nearby mental drawer just in case….
And of course, sexual lust is not the only form of inordinate desire that drives us to offend the little ones. Greed in all of its forms drives us to despise the little ones: our underpaid employees, anyone lacking financial acumen, and the sucker born every minute. All of these little ones we blithely take from and offend—just because we can. Jesus’ words come to mind: “What does it profit someone to gain the whole world, and lose their soul?” Perhaps it’s better to be poor than it is to become rich offending one of the little ones. Perhaps it’s better to sell all and give to the poor and so enter heaven with no money than it is to enter hell with millions of dollars.
Fear is another passion that drives us to despise the little ones. Fear creates prejudice. Fear generates hate. Fear drives a party spirit that feels entitled, even compelled, to insult, belittle and not take seriously all the little ones who do not hold the party line. What is it that we fear? Perhaps if we feared death and judgement as we should, we would not fear what people might do to us. Perhaps if we continually called to mind the hour of our death, as many of the Church Fathers advise us, then we would have nothing to fear in this world—nothing to fear except that we might offend one of the little ones.
Perhaps I am crazy. Perhaps I am too extreme. But Jesus had some pretty extreme things to say on this matter of offending little ones. Take heed.
But I can’t leave it on that note.
There is Grace. There is mercy. There is forgiveness. We are forgiven as we forgive—and Grace helps us learn how to forgive. We are shown mercy as we are merciful—and Grace teaches us to show mercy. And Grace is freely poured out, if we would but turn to God, if we would but repent, again and again and again. Because, truth be told, we are all the little ones. The mighty and the weak, the rich and the poor, the important and the unimportant, even the abuser and the abused, we are all broken, we are all the lost little ones whom Jesus came to seek and save.