For the past several months, I have been preaching through Luke’s Gospel on Sunday mornings. This Sunday will be my 39th sermon from Luke, and we are only in Luke 17. If you look through my blog archives you will find most of these sermons. If you are interested, you can go to our church’s YouTube Channel to view them. (Click here for that.) One of the things I like about Luke’s Gospel is his emphasizes on the marginalized and vulnerable in our society. Dr. Luke talks more about the poor and needy then any of the other gospel writers.
Recently, while studying and reading and preaching through Luke 17, I ran across this verse, “It would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a millstone around his neck then for him to cause one of these little ones to sin” (Luke 17:2). The question becomes, Who are these “little ones?”
If you are like me, you quickly assume “little ones” refers to children. And it may, but the context doesn’t seem to suggest that. Later in Luke, Jesus does mention children, but up to this point in his gospel, children are not mentioned. There is no evidence children were present in this particular passage.
Luke 17 seems to fall in the context of Jesus’ teachings that began in Luke 14:1 and ends in Luke 17:19. Jesus really emphasizes the poor and marginalized in these chapters. He says in Luke 14:13, “But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed.” Jesus then gives a parable about throwing a banquet for the poor. Instead of inviting the rich and powerful, He says, “Go out quickly into the streets and alleys of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind and lame…Go out to the roads and country lanes and make them come in, so that my house will be full” (Luke 14:21 and 23). Then, in Luke 16:19-31, He tells His famous story of the Rich Man and Lazarus. In this life, the Rich Man enjoyed luxuries and hosted banquets for the rich and powerful, while Lazarus had nothing and was ignored by society. People took little notice of Lazarus. People were doing exactly what Jesus said they should not be doing. After telling this story to the Pharisees (the Pharisees were the “Rich Man”), Jesus turns and speaks to His disciples, telling them not to cause “these little ones to sin.”
In context, “little ones” refers to people like Lazarus, and like the lame, the blind, and the poor mentioned earlier. The “little ones” are those whom society ignores; those whom society takes little notice of. Jesus is telling His followers not to treat the marginalized all around us as if they are unimportant. People whom society has discarded must not be discarded by His disciples! Jesus says if we ignore them, causing them to sin, we would be better off dying by criminal execution! (There is some evidence that ancient cultures actually did tie millstones around criminals’ neck and throw them into the sea as a form of execution.)
How do we cause “these little ones” to sin?
I work with the homeless in my community, providing them emergency shelter on frigid nights. These guys are my friends, and they have told me stories of how they survive on the streets. One trick they use on cold nights when they have nowhere else to go is to get a brick, walk up to a local business, throw the brick through the window of the business, and then wait for the police to come and take them to jail so they can get out of the weather.
My community is full of churches. In fact, a recent studied show that where I live has more megachurches per capita then anywhere else in the United States, which means anywhere else in the world. My county is the seventh riches county in the United States. Yet, we don’t have a single shelter for the homeless in my town! Most everyone in my community would consider themselves Christians. Yet we ignore these men who walk the streets. (Not to mention those living in their vehicles.) Since there is nowhere for the homeless to go, they break the law to survive. By ignoring them we are causing them to sin, and God is not pleased.
Here is the point I made to my church while preaching this passage: If we close our eyes to the needs of the forgotten, causing them to steal, borrow, and beg to survive, it would be better for us on judgment day if we simply died by criminal execution! No wonder Jesus says to His disciples, “So watch yourselves” (Luke 17:3a).
Remember, Jesus spoke these words to His disciples, to those who claimed to follow Him. May we not, by our apathy, “cause one of these little ones to sin.”