The Value of Little Ones
Miranda Sawyer is a British journalist, who in 2007 wrote about a dilemma she faced. This dilemma was prompted by two big events.
First of all, the death of her grandmother. In the final month of her grandmother’s life, her grandmother was confined to a room, in Miranda’s words, pumped full of morphine and saline. She was 101 years old, her body was fading, and mind was withering. At one point, Miranda, during her visit, sensed that her grandmother was trying to signal her to unplug all these things that were pumping stuff into her. In other words, help her die. Miranda explained to her grandmother she couldn’t do that. Two days later, her grandmother did die.
The second big event occurred five months later when Miranda found out she was pregnant. Questions flooded her mind.
“Was I having a boy or a girl? Would we like the same music? Would we like each other? But I also found myself pondering other, trickier dilemmas. I spent some time thinking about the precise point when our baby came into existence. Was he there before I did the test? Something was, or the test couldn’t have come up positive. But what? A person? A potential person? Life? What was life exactly?”
“When I got pregnant soon after my granny’s death, it felt weird. I was calling the life inside me a baby because I wanted it.”
So, she’s wrestling with this idea of not being willing to end her granny’s life. What if she was willing to end her baby’s life?
“…because I wanted it. Yet, if I hadn’t wanted it, I would think of it just as a group of cells, that it was okay to kill. It was the same entity. It was merely my response to it that determined whether it would live or die.That seemed irrational to me. Maybe even immoral. But I couldn’t be an anti- abortionist. I’m not religious. I have ethics, but they’re nice, squishy ones: I’m humanist, liberal, anti-establishment. And I’m a feminist.”
Now, this dilemma launched Miranda on a nationwide journey, producing a documentary on abortion rights in the US, not the UK. She visited abortion clinics, interviewed pro-life protesters, and she just became more confused. She became convinced of two things. One, life begins at conception. She believed firmly that science makes that quite evident, but then two: women should have the right to abortions. And she saw this,
“I appeared to believe that women should be allowed to kill.”
And this was her conclusion:
“My trip did end with me coming to terms with my two opposing beliefs. In the end, I have to agree that life begins at conception. So yes, abortion is ending that life. But perhaps the fact of life isn’t what is important. It’s whether that life has grown enough to take on human characteristics, to start becoming a person.”
That phrase there is crucial, “to start becoming a person.” Do you see what just happened? Miranda is resolving the tension between the life of the baby and the rights of the mother by distinguishing between a human life and a person. It would be wrong to kill a person, but not a life, because that life hasn’t, in her view, met the threshold of personhood. The formal name for this is called the Personhood Theory. As Nancy Pearcey explains the distinction that some ethicists have created, “to be biologically human is a scientific fact. But to be a person is an ethical concept defined by what we value.”
So, you see there are two levels here, like a two-story building. On the top level, you have “personhood,” which brings about a certain moral and legal standing. But at the bottom level, you have a “body,” a human life, an expendable biological organism. This is the dominant ethic among secular and even some religious bioethicists today. Let me give you some examples. Pearcey lists some of these. Joseph Fletcher, for example, argues that what is critical is personal status, not merely human status. So, you can be a human without the value or rights of a person.
Bioethicist John Harris writes,
“Nine months of development leaves the human embryo far short of the emergence of anything that can be called a person.”
A person, in his view, is “a creature capable of valuing its own existence.” He goes on.
“Nonpersons or potential persons cannot be wronged in this way because death does not deprive them of anything they can value. If they cannot wish to live, they cannot have that wish frustrated by being killed.”
Did you see the argument? What moves you from being a human life to moving up to personhood, one of the factors is you have to be able to wish to live. So, it’s your “want” that moves you from being human life to a person.
Francis Crick, who was a biophysicist, argues this,
“No newborn infant should be declared human until it has passed certain tests regarding its genetic endowment. And if it fails these tests, it forfeits the right to life.”
So, you have to (in order to be, in his case he’s using the word “human” and “person” the same), but you have to pass certain tests in order to achieve “personhood.” And if you can’t pass the test, which obviously infants can’t pass the test, then you have to have someone else who will pass the test for you to declare you a person. The most well-known case of a baby being aborted and then living is Floyd vs. Anders, where a little boy survived 21 days after going through an abortion. But the federal judge concluded that because the mother had decided to abort him, “The fetus, in this case, was not a person whose life state law could protect.”
So, in this case, the fetus is outside of the womb and alive. So, the distinction is not in the womb and out of the womb; the distinction is wanted and unwanted. If this baby was wanted, it would be a person. If this baby is unwanted, it is a nonperson. Now, does that scare anybody? That is a terrifying view of personhood. And many people who embrace this view would describe themselves as progressive, but what this actually is regressive. I know we use the word “traditional” typically to think of our nation, like what was going on at the beginning of our nation, but this is true traditionalism, going back to pagan traditional views of humanity.
For example, if you go back to the Greco-Roman world, abortion and infanticide were common. You could end a life at any time the parents wanted, before or after birth, because the parents, specifically, in that case, the father had absolute authority over the life of that child at any age and could terminate the life if that life was not wanted. So, we’ve progressed. Now we have given that right to the mother rather than the father, but it’s still the same barbaric view of human life, and it’s really a regression.
In the Greco-Roman world, lower class people, slaves, the colonized, children, poor women were all described as “non habens personam,” which was Latin for “not having a persona,” not being legally and socially persons with all the status and rights that came with that. In Nazi Germany, before Jewish people were sent to the gas chambers, disabled people and others who were deemed not living a life worthy of living were sent to the gas chambers as a declaration of personhood. You don’t meet the threshold.
Several years ago, Nancy Pearcey was asked to do an interview on NPR (National Public Radio) in San Francisco. The interviewer was asking some preliminary questions about abortion and other things, and he said that most people think that abortion is acceptable “until the fetus becomes a person.”
“That phrase carries enormous philosophical baggage. It assumes a fragmented, fractured view of the human being that treats the body as extrinsic to the person, and therefore expendable. By contrast, those who oppose abortion hold a wholistic view of human nature as an integrated unity, which means the body has intrinsic value and worth.”
And the producer seemed surprised by that argument, like he had never encountered that. And so, she went on,
“The pro-choice position is exclusive. It says that some people don’t measure up. They don’t make the cut. They don’t qualify for the rights of personhood. By contrast,” she said, “the pro-life position is inclusive. If you are a member of the human race, you’re in. You have the dignity and status of a full member of the moral community.”
Interestingly, a few days later after that interview, the producer called her and said the interview had been canceled and would not be aired. Because this is a hard thing for people, who when we view ourselves as enlightened and advocates of human rights, when we have to come face to face with where our thinking is actually taking us. So where do Christians get this idea from that every human life, no matter how small, no matter how young, no matter how old, no matter how able or not able, every human life is valuable?
Where does that come from? That wasn’t just an invention of western philosophy. It rests firmly – there are a lot of places we could go to and have gone to like Genesis 1, where all human beings are made in the image of God, and therefore sacred. Life is sacred, not because of what a little person can do or not do, but because of whose image that little one is made in. Or we could go to Psalm 139, and we’ve done that. But for today I want us to land in Matthew 18.
If you’ll turn there, Matthew 18, page 823. If you want to grab a Bible out of the back seat near you, so you can see I’m not making this stuff up. Page 823 if you’re using one of the seat Bibles, Matthew 18. This chapter is a masterpiece in relational wisdom. It is borne, though, in the midst of petty argument. What the context is, if you look at the Synoptic Gospels, which those are Matthew, Mark, Luke, and if you merge together those three accounts of this event, you see very quickly that the disciples were traveling with Jesus from Caesarea Philippi to Capernaum.
It was about a 40-mile trip, and as they were journeying, they were arguing among themselves as to who would be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Now, isn’t that just like us? You think about what they saw, what they had just encountered.
James, John, Peter had just seen Jesus transfigured on the Mount of Transfiguration, like glowing. They had come down from the mountain, and they had just seen Jesus cast a demon out of a boy. So, they had all just come from amazing, miraculous experiences, and their response to that was to argue with each other. Does that not happen to you? You can have an amazing worship service, and when you’re driving home, you’re arguing about something stupid. Our family never does that.
So, this is the way we are. This is the way the disciples are, and if you look at Matthew 18:1, “At that time, the disciples came to Jesus saying, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’” Notice that’s stated in a very theoretical way. They’re not really revealing the argument they’ve had and that they think, they want to be the greatest.
Verse 2, “And calling to him a child, He put him in the midst of them and said, ‘Truly, I say to you, unless you turn (that’s a word for repent) and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.’” Now understand a couple things. Notice he’s saying, “become like children,” not “become innocent like children.” If you think children are innocent, you need to have some. That’s not the point. It’s not naive, become naive and gullible like children so you can be a real Christian, a fool. No, not that. He says very specifically, “Whoever (verse 4) humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” So, you actually need to repent and become like a child.
Now, we can’t even get how scandalous in our culture this is. Because of Jesus, children are viewed differently today than they were pre-Jesus. They were non habens personam, not having a persona. They hadn’t gotten there yet. And so, for Jesus to actually look at all these people, his disciples, and say, “You actually have to become like that.” You have to lose your sense of social standing. You have to release this idea that I’m as good as you, but not as good as you, and I kind of measure up, and I’m better looking, and I know more and all that garbage that we adults do.
You actually have to have the humility of a child, who has no basis on which to stand before God and say, “I’m good enough, smart enough, strong enough, I’ve done enough.” All of that has to go if you’re going to even enter the kingdom of heaven. In other words, you don’t earn it. You can’t get there by something you think you’ve done or have become. And notice he says this actually forms the basis, not only of your relationship with God but also it changes the way you relate to others. Look at verse 5,
“Whoever receives one such child in my name, receives me; but 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.”
This is a radical shift of thinking from all this meritorious status, hierarchical caste-system mentality that is embedded in every society. To turn from that and to become as a little child, actually is the way to enter in by faith into this kingdom of heaven. But it’s also transforming the way you look at and treat and think about everyone around you. And this is the first big section in Matthew 18. So, if we could really quickly summarize the whole chapter and then go back and focus in on one part. So, verses 1-9 is the basis of relationships: childhood humility. It’s been many years since we’ve looked at this chapter, but the basis of relationships, childhood humility. Humble yourself like this child. Verses 10-14, the value of relationships, individual significance. Verse 10, “Do not despise one of these little ones.”
Verse 15-20, the upkeep of relationships. How do you maintain these relationships? Progressive communication. Go alone, take two or three, tell it to the church. These relationships are so valuable, you don’t just ignore them. And then verses 21-35, the healing of relationships is continual forgiveness. Peter asks, “How often do I forgive?” And then Jesus tells the parable of the unforgiving servant, essentially saying, “When you look at what God has forgiven you, how can you put a governor on your forgiveness? How can you stop forgiving? So that’s the flow of the whole chapter. Let’s drill down for a moment in verses 10-14, that second section, the value of relationships, which is individual significance.
Look at verse 10, “See that you do not despise one of these little ones.” “See that you do not despise.” Despise is to devalue, to minimize the significance of, or to show no concern for. “One of these little ones” is literally referring to the children that Jesus is pointing to, but by extension, all people, first of all believers and then extending to potential believers.
So why? Why should we not despise them? Well, notice first what arguments Jesus doesn’t give. He doesn’t say because they’re wanted by another human. He doesn’t say because they fit into our lifestyle and plans, or they contribute to society, or they are deemed worthy by those in power. None of those arguments. He says because they have a Father who values them. They have a Father who values them. And he expresses this in three ways.
First, in verse 10 second half, “For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven.” So, their angels see the Father’s face. And the “always see the Father’s face” is highlighting that their value is not what they see. Their value is “who the ones who look out for them see.” These little ones, who have no status or power within themselves, are connected to very powerful people, i.e., angels who are always beholding the face of their Father. Second argument, their return brings more joy to their Father. In verses 12-13,
Jesus tells the story of a man who has 100 sheep, a shepherd, a very wealthy shepherd, and one of them has gone astray.
“Does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go and search for the one that went astray; and if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray.”
His point here is, even a wealthy shepherd doesn’t write off the one straying, rebelling, frustrating, maybe even distracting, useless sheep. No, he leaves the ninety-nine, he goes after that one sheep, and when he rescues that sheep, he rejoices more over that one sheep than over the ninety-nine who didn’t go astray. What is the point there?
The point is the value of the one. And for all of us, this illustration of the Father, our Father’s heart, is really our testimony, right? He came after us, the one. He didn’t write us off when we were easily written off as a waste of time, as a failure. We blew it again! We had to ask forgiveness again! We have to return again! No. He rejoices more over the one because the one is valuable. And then his third argument is, their perishing is not the Father’s will. Verse 14,
“So, it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.”
So, he just summarizes his argument. If our will is going to be aligned with his will, we’re going to be concerned about the one. Now in this context, Jesus is primarily talking about our relationship with one another as believers, but his arguments are laying a foundation for the value of the individual. And his arguments are breathtakingly controversial and historically transformational. Why so? Well, two big Ideas that I want to leave you with. Number one, value. Value. Jesus is establishing the value of each individual, no matter how young, weak, or unable to voice their own desires.
David Bentley Hart touches on this when he writes,
“The new world we see being brought into being in the Gospels is one in which the whole grand cosmic architecture of prerogative, power, and eminence has been shaken and even superseded by a new, positively ‘anarchic’ order: an order, that is, in which we see the glory of God revealed in a crucified slave, and in which (consequently) we are enjoined to see the forsaken of the earth as the very children of heaven.”
Do you see what he’s saying? This was, and many of us have heard the gospel enough to where we are not scandalized, but in Jesus’ day, this was absolutely anarchic. It actually toppled the power structure of the day. “See that you do not despise (or devalue) one of these little ones” would have been insane in that day. Why would you value that? They’re not valuable. They have nothing to offer. And Jesus is saying personhood is not achieved by status in society or performance.
A good way to summarize it would be, “personhood is not occupational, but relational.” Not occupational in the sense of performance, based on what you can do or can’t do. It is relational in that whose image you are made in. So, a child is valuable, not because it can help out on the farm, or produce babies one day, or take care of us in our old age, or reason, or contribute or anything like that. What God is saying in Genesis 1 and then Jesus is saying from another angle here in Matthew 18 is, the value flows from the Creator, not the contributions of the individual. And that big idea that is applied to everyone gets specifically applied to salvation through the gospel.
So just like you can’t earn personhood, you receive it from the Creator. So, you can’t earn salvation. So, Jesus didn’t just teach this. He lived it. He was a womb-dweller. He came as a baby. He became helpless, weak, vulnerable.
He lived as a servant. He died as a criminal and a slave to convey to all the value of personhood. Now, this all has huge implications on how we treat the weakest and the most vulnerable among us, no matter how young or how old. I want to work through this. For the rest of the service, we’re going to talk about a couple specific ways to apply this.
But let me begin in a very practical way with regard to child safety. Why are we as a church fanatical about protecting our children? Why do we have a very complex (what feels very complex) system of screening in order to seek to protect our children? By the way, we have over 800 North Hills people who have gone through our multi-step screening and training safety process. Isn’t that amazing? Over 800 who have done this so that they can love our kids.
But let me just show it to you just so you get a glimpse and you understand what the theological basis of this process is. Membership for at least six months, two references, interview with the department head, background check, online training course for those who are over 18, North Hills Child Safety Training, no one-on-one scenarios with volunteers and children or teens. Some people can look at that and say, “Dude, I just want to volunteer in the nursery.” But why are we fanatical about seeking to protect our kids?
Well, Jesus said, “It is better to put a millstone around your neck than to offend one of these little ones. They are valuable. Do not despise one of them.” So that drives us in a very practical way to seek to create a safe environment
for our children. Value. The second big idea here is joy. Joy. If you are currently short on joy, I would encourage you to look carefully at verse 13. At the end of this story that Jesus tells about a shepherd who goes after the lost sheep, he emphasizes that there is a greater kind of joy in this rescue that flows from his Father’s heart.
“If he finds it, truly I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray.” God experiences a greater joy over the one who everyone else might write off as insignificant or a lost cause. The unwanted baby – more joy! The orphaned or foster child – more joy! The difficult teen who feels and acts unlovable – more joy! The young pregnant woman who is terrified.
The woman who has had an abortion who feels unforgivable. The senior who fears losing physical and intellectual capacities and wonders if that makes him or her sub-person. A sub-person.
What this verse is saying is there is a kind of joy, a greater joy, that flows from our Father’s heart when we tap into that heart, his heart, for the one that everyone else may overlook or write off as insignificant. And if you currently are experiencing puny amounts of joy, you might just want to think about tapping into the Father’s heart for a greater kind of joy that comes when you set aside kissing up in our culture to the popular and the powerful and aligning your values toward impressing them and achieving a kind of status and success where everybody says you’re important. Rejecting that and saying, “No, Father. I’m tapping into your heart for the ones that everyone else may ignore or write off or discard, and I’m going to align my life, my priorities, my wallet, my time, based on greater joy values. There is a kind of greater joy. Now, does that mean it’s always going to be fun?
No, but there is a greater joy. So, I just started reading a book this week, just started, Alan had given to me, written by a doctor who cared for patients experiencing dementia and recently was diagnosed with dementia. That’s got to be a really weird feeling when you daily are caring for dementia patients and then you begin to realize you have it. And this doctor is describing the impact this has had on her life. But I want to give you a little glimpse of this. Notice the rays of joy that come through as she aligns her heart with the Father’s heart. ”
When I was asked to write about how dementia affected my relationship with God, my first reaction was to say it was the other way around. Knowing the Lord and being kept by him affects my life with dementia more than words can say, and probably more than I realize. It is knowing him in my life that gives me joy.I believe that as cognition becomes limited, the person with dementia becomes more aware of spiritual things, possibly because inhibitions or social assumptions are removed. My dementia has greatly deepened my relationship with God; having dementia has enriched my life. Now, living in a dementia-inclusive village, I am able to walk this path with many others and encourage them to find joy and know God’s love.”
Now she is not sugar-coating this, because obviously, she knows that she is at the very early stages. But what she is trying to do is help us understand that if God were to call us to a place where our cognition, our capabilities, physical or intellectual capabilities diminish, from our Father’s perspective (from our culture’s perspective, that’s dehumanizing). From our Father’s perspective, that is not dehumanizing. Our value is rooted much more deeply in his heart, in his image. And the joy comes, not from trying to prove ourselves strong or capable, but as this doctor illustrated, having a heart for others, who desperately need to hear about a Father who loves them for who they are, not what they can do or not do. And that begins in the womb and goes all the way to the tomb from a Christian perspective.
So, there’s a couple ways we can live this out this week. One is, there should be some of these cards in seatbacks near you. Feel free to take one as a family, or if you’re going do it, take one as an individual. But this is a Sanctity of Life Prayer Guide, and it just gives you an opportunity this week, launched from Sanctity of Human Life Sunday, to pray certain passages of Scripture and to align our hearts with our Father’s heart for the weakest among us. We’re really asking him to do a detox on us and then align our hearts, and then to cry out for those who can’t cry out for themselves.
So, I encourage you this week, each day to spend a few minutes crying out with the help of that prayer guide. In a little bit, we’re going to show a video after we have a time of worship. It’s a short video of another way that we can reflect the Father’s heart. But for right now I want us to call out to our Father. And wherever you are today, ask him to reveal his heart to you.
Father, we thank you for using the words of Jesus to align our hearts with your heart. I pray specifically for some who may not know you in here. Their faith is in themselves, not in Jesus. Today is a beautiful day for them to hear your Spirit say, “Come to me. Believe in me. I have given my life for you to pay for your sin, to set you free.” As Ivy said, “The truth in Jesus sets us free.” And Lord, I pray that if we’re too proud to hear your heart, bring us down. Please, Lord, strip us of this false understanding of status. Lord, we want to pray also for those who have been crushed, whether it’s their own choices or the choices of others today, that they’re having a really hard time hearing your heart, believing your love.
I pray specifically for women who have had abortions, who are crushed with guilt, shame, that Lord, you would open their ears to hear your voice saying, “Come. Come.” And Lord, for others who have heard voices of shame, whether from themselves or their culture, Lord, may we hear your word calling us to become as a child, not to despise one of these little ones, and to see the joy in your face as you call us back to yourself. Lord, thank you that even from our seats right now, as we cry out to you, you hear us. You wash away sin and lies. You pour out your Spirit in abundance. You are ready to heal, to help, to save. And, Lord, we thank you. We thank you, in Jesus’ name we pray.