1 At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 2 And
calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them 3 and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and
become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Whoever humbles himself like this child
is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5 “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, 6
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.
7 “Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by
whom the temptation comes! 8 And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It
is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal
fire. 9 And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one
eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire.
10 “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. 12 What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them
has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went
astray? 13 And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never
went astray. 14 So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.
(Matthew 18:1-14 ESV)
We continue following Jesus and the disciples but now we are heading south on a journey that will
eventually end in Jerusalem. Since last Sunday, according to Matthew, Jesus was transfigured and he has
performed more healings and he has repeated again mention of his suffering and death in Jerusalem and
that’s what going south means – going to Jerusalem.
And the disciples’ neurons are moving – we can only guess based on their words and behaviour but they now
come to Jesus and ask ‘Who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’.
Are they trying to get the criteria clear so that if Jesus goes …?
I don’t know!
But all religions have their great ones – their gurus, their warriors, their clever ones who know the religious
texts, the scholars, the political ones – the administrative ladders and it is always assumed that that it is better
to be up a ladder as far as you can than be low on one. It is akin, I think, to today saying how can I be the
best Christian and the question can be well meant but it assumes the wrong criteria – that we can see greatest
and best. We can in most areas of life but not spiritually – not really – because for starters we cannot see
definitively the Christian Church or even a Christian.
I know that seems weird and strange but if Christians exist through faith and a community of Christians is
the work of the Holy Spirit – and we say in our Creeds each Sunday “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy
Christian Church’ (Apostles’ Creed) or ‘And I believe in the holy Christian and apostolic Church’ (Nicene
Creed) and not ‘I see the Church and I see him or her and they definitely are Christian’ then the truth is that
we are trusting each other when I tell you and you tell me that we trust Jesus. Yes, our behaviour might
indicate whether we’re telling the truth but what we say and do is not full proof, it is just one indicator, and
so determining greatness this way is fraught with failure. Which is one reason why church scandals – and I
don’t want the Church or Christians to have them! – are scandalous because people had either promoted
themselves or they were seen by others as anything other than a sinner. The scandal is the behaviour to be
sure but I think what gals people more is the hypocrisy between words and deeds. If we are aware of our sin
then any claims to greatness should fall silent on our lips and should be devalued when said by others.
Jesus hears their question – and doesn’t answer it as they wanted – but instead gave them a children’s
address – literally. He put a child in the midst of them – and we have no idea where the child came from –
but we can assume that the disciples looked at the child and there really is nothing the child could give to
them. All the child can do is receive. There is a dependency to infancy, to being a toddler, and this
dependency lessens as we grow where we seek the goal of independence. There is a good dimension to this
so that people can serve others but on the inside or in relation to our inner self, this progression isn’t great
towards God. And the disciples asked about greatest in the kingdom of heaven, not the church, not the world.
And if they are still struggling to put the pieces together, Jesus clearly says that they must turn, change
direction in their thinking, and seek humility not greatness where humility isn’t interested in greatness or
even in itself and that, I think, is the point – stop thinking about yourselves!
Receive from God as a child receives things – you are dependent on God, not independent – and then get on
with your life without this self conscious assessment. Live in the moment, so to speak, and where is your
focus to be? On the well being of others.
I think it is interesting that Jesus then aligns himself with the child and says that if the disciples receive the
child, they receive him and then begins a section about not causing the little ones to sin, not to put
temptations and troubles in their way, and should they little ones be lost, don’t despise them but go after
them as a shepherd searches for a lost sheep. The problem with greatness is that some people can be too
beneath you and Jesus will have none of that attitude among his disciples, among any in his church who has
any sort of leadership, and among any of his followers. And who are the little ones now? Obviously children
never leave the picture and to trample on a child’s faith or to teach sin as normative is destructive. But little
ones can be any who look to you for an answer, support, help, encouragement, who contribute to your sense
of ‘greatness’ and Jesus, I think, makes it clear that we are to serve such people by pointing them to Jesus
and not self promote ourselves while serving them.
Jesus also didn’t sugar coat his expectation about how we regard and act towards ‘little ones’ by talking
about millstones and drowning, cutting limbs and the hell of fire. Yes, it is another hard saying of Jesus – we
heard one last Sunday as well. These sayings do exist in the Gospel accounts that Jesus makes it clear that
our propensity to judgement, to be better than others (many are too modest today to say ‘greatness’) mean
that people put others on ladders of good and bad, better or worse, and position themselves accordingly. And
there simply is a tension that people ‘beneath’ us can’t give us anything really and so we are not beholden to
them and so we don’t possibly make the effort with them – especially when it comes to spiritual things. Here
is another saying from Jesus that shows that we don’t take the Bible literally when he talks about millstones
and mutilation but we can sense the metaphor and the meaning.
Disciples, you want greatness? Then choose humility. Having chosen it, then forget about it and be active
serving those around you – especially those ‘littler’ than you. And yes, this is going to involve struggles –
patience, perseverance, faithfulness, clear teaching, confronting sin, mercy, physical help, battling your own
pride and arrogance – whatever it is, do it so they are not beholden to you. That is greatness to me.
I can imagine the disciples being rather shell-shocked by Jesus’ reply. It is tough. It is a task they wouldn’t
have expected. Maybe they wondered whether following Jesus was worth it. Is this another hard message
after his ‘deny yourself and take up your cross and follow me’? What have they got themselves into? We can
guess at their reaction. More on that next Sunday. But for now, Jesus’ words stand in the air, spoken, out
there, not taken back, heard.
Because the disciples discovered Jesus lived his own words for them and that they, the disciples, were his
little ones – and look what he did for them?
Consider the cross and empty tomb. Look what he did for you.
- Matthew 18:1 - 14