This morning’s Gospel begins with a question from the disciples “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (Matthew 18:1) Jesus used this question as a starting point for describing the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, how the church should deal with the greatest in the kingdom, and the magnitude of the forgiveness of sins that is set aside for the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
Last week’s Gospel described that point in time when Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. (Matthew 16:21) Shortly after that time, Jesus took with him Peter and James, and John his brother, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. 2And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light. (Matthew 17:1–2) We covered that reading on the Sunday of the Transfiguration at the end of the Epiphany season. A few verses before today’s Gospel begins, we have another Passion Prediction. As they were gathering in Galilee, Jesus said to them, “The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men, 23and they will kill him, and he will be raised on the third day.” (Matthew 17:22–23)
So, Jesus has recently given some of the disciples a glimpse of His glory, and, at least twice, He has told them about His upcoming suffering, death, and resurrection. You would think that the disciples would be interested in the topic that Jesus placed before them … His upcoming suffering, death, and resurrection. You would think they would have questions about that. That is what you would think, but that is not what they asked. At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (Matthew 18:1) Some of them had seen Jesus shining brighter than the sun and talking with Moses and Elijah. All of them had heard Jesus talk about His upcoming suffering, death, and resurrection in Jerusalem. And this is the question that comes to their minds?
Jesus never skipped a beat. He knew a good teaching opportunity when it happened. Calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them 3and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 18:2–4) Jesus took the opportunity of their question to teach them that greatness in the kingdom of heaven is totally different than in the kingdoms of this world.
Right away a lot of people are saying something like, “Ah, the innocence of youth. That is what Jesus is teaching. He is pointing to a child because the child is so innocent.” I’ve got to admit that when they are all decked out in their Sunday best, they can look pretty innocent, but ask any parent who has raised a couple of kids. You must teach children to tell the truth because they are natural liars. You must teach children to share because they are selfish by nature. I have seen infants with murder in their eyes. Children may look innocent, but they are not. As King David wrote, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.” (Psalm 51:5)
So why did Jesus use a child as an example of the greatest? What is so special about them? What can they do for the kingdom? What can they do for Jesus? The answer of course is nothing.
That’s just the point, isn’t it? Children have no capacity for entering the kingdom of God and not much for serving in it. Children are helpless. We think of Jesus with the children, but those children never came on their own. Now they were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them. (Luke 18:15) Notice that someone brought the infants. They didn’t come of their own power. In today’s Gospel, Jesus put him in the midst of them. Did the children even know what was going on in these situations? Probably not.
Which, again, is just the point, isn’t it? For when it comes to the Kingdom and a right relationship with God, there is no room for human initiative, effort, self-seeking, self-promotion, self-justification, self-advocacy … none at all! In fact, that all gets in the way, forms obstacles to grace, and misses the point entirely of how God wants to save us, God’s way of saving us … by doing it all for us Himself in Jesus!
So Jesus taught His disciples that the one who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven is the one who needs the most help. The one who is totally helpless is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. This is the opposite of this world where the one who gives the most help is the greatest.
So the one who is the most helpless comes under God’s protection. 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. 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! (Matthew 18:6–7) 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. 12What 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? 13And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. 14So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish. (Matthew 18:10–14)
Even the verses that deal with church discipline are about the helpless … the helpless one who has strayed. Even here, Jesus teaches, “If [your brother] listens to you, you have gained your brother. (Matthew 18:15)
So the helpless are the greatest. They are the perfect candidates for grace.
At another time, Jesus said, “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, 27and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, 28even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:26–28) God himself became helpless, humble, lowly. The one who needs no one’s help became not only a little child, but also a suffering, dying grown-up. He humbled himself even to death on the cross to secure God’s grace for these little ones.
This sinful world seeks greatness through power. Jesus Himself said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. (Matthew 20:25) That is the way of the world … get power and use it to control others. The one who uses power and control the most effectively is the greatest.
On the other hand, Jesus points to a helpless child as the standard of greatness in the kingdom of heaven. The one who is the most helpless, the weakest, the humblest, the lowliest, the most dependent on God, and the most reliant on Jesus … this is the greatest.
There are the times when the difficult life of bearing the cross beats down. The flaming darts of the evil one are especially fierce. Those who suffer these attacks are the little ones who are the greatest. Jesus said, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me.” (Matthew 18:5) In this way, the Holy Spirit works through the church to bear one another’s burdens.
Then there is the way that all of us need and depend on God. At the time that God the Holy Spirit works faith in us, He must take us back to infancy. We are all helpless to save ourselves. Therefore, we are all like helpless children who need rescuing. That is what the Holy Spirit does when He gives us the faith that relies on Jesus alone.
When we were at our most helpless, when we were dead in trespasses and sin, the Lord treated us as the greatest in the kingdom. He took on our weakness and died that we might live. He rose that we might have eternal life with Him forever. It is He who takes the most helpless and makes them the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Amen
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