The Gospel brings freedom. But we, as human beings, have a way of creating bondage. Somewhere in the command to rule and subdue the earth, our thirst for power took on a life of its own. Instead of leading and creating after God's example, we conquered and destroyed, treading down upon any other semblance of free will. We yearn for control and will take any chance we get to experience that feeling.
Matthew 18 takes us on a little journey from power to liberty, with a word of caution at the end. Like any of us, the disciples wanted to know who was the best. Who prays the longest or most elegantly or most honestly? Who has the better grasp of theology? Who does more little good deeds? Who is the kindest and humblest? However you imagine the ranking in the Kingdom of Heaven, the disciples wanted to know who was on top. However, Yeshua's response reveals a shift in focus that cuts against our fleshly inclinations:
"Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. ... "See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven. (Matt. 18:3-4, 10 ESV)
A child is powerless (especially in the ancient world), relying on his parents for provision, protection, and discipline. They had no social status, no wealth or name of their own. By calling a child the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven, Yeshua was turning our culture's ideas of power and status on their head.
If such is the case in the Kingdom of God, then we can understand why God commanded Israel to free the slave in the seventh year (among other protections for women, strangers, and the marginalized). God cares nothing for our power structures of kings lording over subjects or masters controlling slaves. He finds no pleasure in chauvinism or displays of wealth. No, He turns His eyes to the least of these, the forgotten, the humiliated. So, when Israel reneges on their covenant to free their slaves in this week's haftarah, God takes notice:
Therefore, thus says the LORD: "You have not obeyed me by proclaiming liberty, every one to his brother and to his neighbor; behold, I proclaim to you liberty to the sword, to pestilence, and to famine, declares the LORD. I will make you a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth." (Jer. 34:17 ESV)
What we have here is the classic principle of measure for measure. We see this principle illustrated again in the latter half of Matthew 18. The point is this: God has not bestowed His mercy on us because we are more moral or somehow better, or even to make us better than everyone else. He did so that we might extend that same mercy to others. As long as we let God's love flow freely through us, it is our life. But as soon as we stop it up inside of us, it rots just like the life-giving manna that the Israelites tried to hoard.
God has granted us freedom and mercy. Let us seek every opportunity to proclaim the Gospel and spread the Kingdom by doing the same for the least of these. Forgiving those who have wronged us. Lifting the burdens of the undeserving. Remembering the forgotten.