If you had a choice of either being the greatest at something or the least at something, which would you choose? Would you want to know everything there is to know about something or know nothing at all? Obviously if you could choose to be either the greatest or the worst at something, you would choose to be the greatest, right?
The Gospel that we just read from Matthew 18 is very rich in a wide variety of topics: the serious nature of sin, the generosity of God’s forgiveness, the love God has for His little ones, and the serious consequences of leading His little ones astray. Of all these topics, the one topic that seems to underlie most of the Lord’s teaching in Matthew 18 is the topic of Christ’s little ones.
Matthew 18 begins with one of those teachable moments in which the disciples plant their feet firmly in their mouths and ask Jesus a question. At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” This question tells us that the disciples don’t get it. They are still trying to figure out which post they will have in Jesus’ cabinet once He takes over.
We might think that the question that the disciples ask is a rather strange question, because if you really stop and think about it, what does it matter if you are the greatest in the kingdom since you will be in heaven! However, for the disciples, they didn’t see it that way. They knew that someone would be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven and they wanted to know who; specifically, would it be them.
Jesus’ teaching defuses the thoughts of the disciples. He doesn’t answer, “It will be ‘insert disciple name here.’” He doesn’t come out and say a particular disciple’s name. Instead, he calls a child to Him. Now if you’re a disciple, you’ve got to be on pins and needles wondering what Jesus’ answer is and then out of nowhere, He calls for a child to come to Him. One has to wonder if Jesus is trying to dodge the question. Then, Jesus answers the question: “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself likes this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”
How can a child be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? If there was going to be anyone who is the greatest in heaven, it would be one of the disciples at the very least. They were the ones who followed Jesus, who did the work of Jesus. How is it that their greatness would be usurped by that of a child?
Yet again, the disciples miss what Jesus says. Look at a child for a moment. Children are often seen as signs of hope for the future and gifts of God. In themselves, however, children are ignorant, unfit to rule, cannot choose between good and evil, are not able to count, cannot defend themselves and are readily deceived. They are needy. They require someone to provide for them. Left to themselves, they will not be able to care for themselves. If you are a disciple, you have to be scratching your head at Jesus’ answer. But if you look deeper into Jesus’ words, then you will see what He means by child.
Regardless of how old you are, you are still a child. That’s right; I said you are a child. I don’t mean because of your attitude or your behavior. You are a child because God has made you a child; a child of God. Why is this so important? Left to our own sinful self, we will never be able to provide for our redemption. There is nothing that we can do to earn our salvation and so it must be earned for us. In your Baptism, you received God’s name. At that moment, you became His redeemed child and all that God has to offer you became yours.
If you want to know who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, all you have to do is look in the mirror, for you are the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. It might be hard to believe that you are the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, that surely there must be someone who is greater than you. But you are wrong. You are the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, because God the Father has created you, God the Son has redeemed you and God the Holy Spirit has sanctified you. You are God’s beloved creation and God has sent Jesus for you, so that you would be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
For the disciples, and unfortunately, for all too many, greatness is something which they think they have earned or accomplished for themselves. In this world, you can achieve greatness; greatness in the eyes of the world. You can be the greatest athlete. You can be the greatest musician. You can be the greatest in your line of work. You can even be the greatest parent and earn the coffee mug that proves it. But all of this is measured in the eyes of the world’s standards. Greatness in the eyes of the world can come and go. You might be remembered after your death for something of greatness that you did during your life, but again that greatness is measured by worldly standards.
Ironically, greatness in God’s eyes is not because you’ve done anything special, because you haven’t. It’s not because you’ve done anything great, because you haven’t. Your greatness is because it is Christ-earned greatness. Jesus Christ, through His atoning death and sacrifice, gave to you what made you great in the eyes of God the Father. He gave you His holiness. He gave you His righteousness. He gave you forgiveness of all of your sins. He gave you everlasting life. He gave all of this to you, and because of Christ and Christ alone, you have been made the greatest in the kingdom of heaven because God has made you His beloved child. In Jesus’ name, amen. Now the peace of God that passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus, amen.