A millstone around your neck
A heavy burden weighing you down. Inescapable. And probably self-inflicted. That’s how we think of a millstone around our necks. A job, a relationship, an ongoing commitment – these things can often be called “millstones around our neck.”
But when Jesus said it, He wasn’t referring to a wearisome inconvenience. He was speaking of a deadly punishment:
“At the same time came the disciples unto Jesus, saying, Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? And Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them, And said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoso shall receive one such little child in my name receiveth me. But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.” (Matthew 18:1-6)
It’s not simply that this millstone weighs you down as you trudge along the road. It’s much worse than that. This millstone sends you plummeting to the ocean floor. This is about being swallowed up in the abyss, never to rise.
In fact, Jesus says that such a death would be preferable to the fate He’s talking about. Drowning is better than what awaits “whoso shall offend one of these little ones.”
How can Jesus paint such a violent picture? It all flows from His protective love for these “little children.”
He begins by teaching us to be little children.
Matthew Henry comments on this:
“Children, when very young, do not desire authority, do not regard outward distinctions, are free from malice, are teachable, and willingly dependent on their parents.”
Unlike the disciples in this scene, the little children are not grasping at glory. They are simple, humble, dependent, happy with their lowly position in the group. They are content simply to be with Jesus.
This is the essence of the Christian life. But then Jesus adds a second quality in verse 5. He wants childlike Christians to receive the humble and lowly also. The person who is received by Jesus (v4), is to be the person who receives like Jesus (v5).
Here we see how much Jesus values child-like faith. The essence of the kingdom is being received by Jesus as a child-like truster. In turn we become receivers of other child-like trusters. The kingdom which Jesus is describing is so different to the power-grabbing philosophy of the disciples. And Jesus will oppose their theology of glory with all His might. He is determined to paint the kingdom as a kindergarten of kindness. Status seeking is completely excluded. And verse 6 will declare it in the strongest terms:
“But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.” (Matthew 18:6)
If the disciples were offended by being told of their need for “conversion” in v3, how will they feel after verse 6?
I don’t think we’re meant to imagine Jesus looking past the disciples to some shadowy figures in the crowd. This is not a verse about stranger danger. It’s a verse about self-assured glory-seekers – just like the disciples have been in verse 1! It is behaviour just like the disciples’ that will “offend” (that is, it will make little children stumble). The most dangerous thing for child-like trusters is a culture of leaders who are constantly asking and assessing “Who is the greatest?”
It’s the affectation of grown-up glory-hunting that causes “little ones” to stumble. This grasping for greatness shepherds them away from the very essence of the Christian life – resting in Jesus like a child in His arms.
So Jesus says “Don’t even think about it! You’d be better off drowning yourself than harming my children.” It’s very strong teaching.
Are we child-like? Dependent? Have we resolved to abandon the power-plays and status-seeking? Or do we despise the little ones (v10)? Do we look down on them, desiring to raise ourselves up? Are we essentially asking each other “Who is the greatest?”
If we are, we’re already swallowed up in Gentile thinking (the sea and the nations go together in the Bible). If we raise ourselves up we’ll be cast down. Instead, to be a great one let’s become a little one.