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‘At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
A rather embarrassing and inappropriate question for those who have been called to a man who is known for being ‘despised and rejected by men.’ A man ‘from whom men hide their faces.’ A man of whom others confess, ‘we esteemed Him not.’ (Isaiah 53:3) These are the disciples of the One to whom the psalmists and the prophets were talking about when they said, ‘I am a worm and not a man, scorned by mankind and despised by the people.’ (Psalm 22:6)
But look how Jesus responds to them. We would like to scold these Neanderthals for being so ignorant and insensitive. But Jesus is patient and merciful with them. And His patience and mercy with them comforts us, because we it gives us good reason to hope that He will be just as patient and merciful with us.
‘And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, “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.’
So what are we to learn from Jesus’ answer here?
First of all, we should hear what Jesus does not say. He does not say, ‘you boys should not be striving for greatness. It would be better if you ditched all desire for greatness and learned to settle for mediocrity. You’re setting yourselves up for disappointment. Strive to be a second rate disciple. Who needs the pressure’?
No, in fact, He affirms their quest for greatness. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be great. In fact, I hope that all of us want to be ‘great’ at our job. If we don’t, if we’re perfectly satisfied with being mediocre, I suspect we’re probably cheating our employer out of some of what he’s paying us. I hope that every husband wants to be a great husband and every wife a great wife and every parent a great parent. There’s something wrong with the person who doesn’t want to be ‘great’ at every vocation in life that they have.
So, it’s not the quest for ‘greatness’ that is at issue here. It’s the definition of ‘greatness’ that’s at issue. What does it mean to be ‘great’ in the kingdom of heaven? How is ‘greatness’ in the kingdom of heaven defined? We know about how ‘greatness’ is defined in the world, but what about ‘in the kingdom of heaven’?
What was it that Jesus saw in those whom He singled out saying, ‘O woman, GREAT is your faith.’ (Mat.15:28). Or of the Centurion, ‘with no one in Israel have I found such faith.’ (Matthew 8:16). Once we establish a proper understanding of what ‘greatness’ is, then I think it will be easy for us to see ‘who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.’
Surprisingly, Jesus sets the standard of ‘greatness’ in the kingdom of heaven with a child. Hold on. Jesus is going to shake the ground under our feet with this one. He’s about to shake out all of our thoughts and our ways like a sheet in the wind. We say, ‘don’t be a baby.’ Jesus says, ‘be like a baby.’ We say, ‘stop acting like a child.’ Jesus says, ‘unless you become like a child you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.’
So, what is it about a little child that illustrates ‘greatness’ according to ‘kingdom of heaven’ criteria?
Let me warn you, this is going to require us to think about children in a way that we don’t normally think about them, in a way that we may not be very comfortable thinking about them, specifically ‘young children’ because that’s the example that Jesus uses. We want to think about children as they really ARE like and not what we think children SHOULD be like. When we can take off the rose colored glasses we can begin to rule out a few common misconceptions of what Jesus is pointing to here.
We can rule out the idea that ‘greatness’ is found in a child’s ‘innocence.’ Sure, we would like children to be innocent, but really… who are we kidding here? Sometimes they are, but other times they can be the most scheming, devious little creatures in the world.
We can also rule out the idea that ‘greatness’ is found in a child’s ‘trusting’ nature. It would be nice if children were trusting. Sometimes they are, but sometimes they really aren’t. You say, ‘trust me, you need a nap. If you don’t take your nap you’re going to be very cranky later.’ But they don’t trust you at all. They totally doubt that you have any idea what you’re taking about.
The point is, we sometimes interpret this important teaching of Jesus as though He grabbed this child to illustrate His point because this just happened to be a ‘perfect child.’ As if He said, ‘become like good, well-behaved children’ and you’ll be ‘great’ in the kingdom of heaven.’ But not all children are ‘well-behaved,’ ‘adorable’ and ‘innocent.’ Let’s get real! Picture a real brat, demanding and strong-willed, disobedient, never satisfied and hard to please. Now, we’ve got a REAL child to deal with.
Now we’ve got a good picture of the child that God calls ‘my child’ throughout the Old Testament. God calls Israel, ‘My child.’ They are the ‘children of God.’ But they were surely not innocent, nor were they trusting in their heavenly Father. They were constantly doing what they were told not to do and constantly getting into trouble because they didn’t listen. Now that sounds like a real child doesn’t it?
So, what is it about a child that exemplifies ‘greatness in the kingdom of heaven’? It is that one quality that is true of every little child, no matter how good or bad they may be. Children are ‘totally helpless’ and children are ‘utterly dependent.’
Greatness in the kingdom of heaven is not defined by how good we are or how innocent or trusting we are. That is the way we define ‘greatness,’ because we are always evaluating others and ourselves on the basis of our performance and achievements and behavior. And we think that God evaluates us on the same basis. That is the way ‘greatness’ is defined in the ‘kingdom of the world.’
But in the ‘kingdom of heaven,’ the standard for greatness among the disciples of Jesus, is the acknowledgement and acceptance that we are totally helpless and utterly dependent upon Him for everything ‘ material and spiritual. We depend upon God for everything necessary for the body and life. Luther rattles off a short list ‘ ‘clothing, shoes, food and drink, spouse and children, house and home, land, animals and all that I have.’ And we are totally helpless against the devil and to be reconciled before God for our sins. We depend entirely upon Him to defend us from all evil and forgive us all for all of our sins. We can do nothing to justify ourselves before God.
Like little babies, all we can do is cry. We cry to God, letting Him know that we need this or we need that. And we are totally dependant on Him hearing us cry giving us what we need. And we are glad when He hears us and gives us all that we need according to His perfect love.
This is ‘greatness in the kingdom of heaven.’ As long as we see ourselves as self-sufficient, able to fend for ourselves, we will not call upon Him. Maybe we’ll call on Him in emergencies, like we do the plumber or electrician. But that’s the extent of it. But the greatest in the kingdom of heaven hears Jesus when He says, ‘apart from me, you can do nothing’ and says, ‘yes Lord, you I depend upon you for everything.’ (John 15:5).
A childlike helplessness and dependence upon His love and care for us is the best condition we can be in for our spiritual wellbeing. The Lord wants nothing more than to take care of us and give us His gifts, His love, His forgiveness and the ‘greatest in the kingdom of heaven’ are those who willingly and eagerly take what He desires to give. St. Paul puts it perfectly when he writes to the Corinthians saying, ‘When I am weak, then I am strong.’ (2Cor.12:10).
And the greatest in the kingdom of heaven never grow up. As little children grow up we expect them to become less and less needy and more and more responsible for taking care of themselves. When adults act like little children, we rightly say, ‘its time for you to grow up.’
But in our life before God, we never grow out of our complete and utter dependency upon God. In fact, real spiritual growth goes in just the opposite direction. As we grow in our faith and become more and more mature in the grace of God, we become more and more aware of just how spiritually helpless and dependent upon God we really are. This is Jesus commended the woman and the Centurion for.
Needless to say, we are not, by nature, wired to think about our lives before God like this. Like little children, we are not born with an existential self-awareness of our real, condition before God. In fact, we are born with the sin of Adam, deeply woven into our being. We come into this world wired to believe that we can ‘be like God.’ We believe that we can take care of ourselves just fine. We can atone for our own sins and fix our broken lives.
What I mean to say is, there is no greatness in the kingdom of heaven apart from the Holy Spirit. We are so helpless that we will never know how helpless we are apart from the Holy Spirit working through the Word of God. But the Spirit comes to us like a rescuer comes to an abandoned baby. He calls us by the gospel and enlightens us with His gifts, especially His gift of Holy Baptism, where He rewires us so that now we see what little children we really are.
And like children, we learn our lessons very slowly and very often, we learn them the hard way. And so when Jesus says, ‘Unless you turn and become little children” He is not just talking about a one-time event in our life. That word for ‘turn’ is the same word as ‘repent.’ The old sinful nature in us is always trying to grow up and exert our independence and exercise our self-sufficiency before God. We decide for ourselves which of His ways follow and which of His Commandments we’ll keep. And God, the loving Father that He is, disciplines us, ‘for the Lord disciplines the one he loves.” (Hebrews 12:6) This is a daily ‘turning,’ ‘repentance,’ that Jesus is calling us to.
But this ‘turning’ FROM our sin and ‘humbling ourselves’ is also a turning TO the One who is answering the disciples with such patience. As we turn from our sin and turn to Jesus, we see the One who is the ‘greatest in the kingdom of heaven.’
Jesus Christ is the One who ‘humbled Himself’ and became a little child, a fetus in Mary’s uterus, a newborn infant lying in a manger, totally helpless and dependent upon Mary and Joseph. Here is the only perfectly innocent child, who trusts in His heavenly Father to completely that that He was pleased to do His Father’s will, being obedient unto death even death on a cross.
Because we will not turn and humble ourselves to become like little children as we should, Jesus has humbled Himself FOR US and IN OUR PLACE. Through Holy Baptism, Jesus is the little child IN you and He is the little child FOR you. We are totally dependent upon Him and He is totally dependable for us. We are completely helpless before God, and He is our help and our salvation and He sends the ‘helper,’ the Holy Spirit to you that ‘Like newborn infants, we may long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up to salvation.’ (1 Peter 2:2)
He who is the ‘greatest’ in the kingdom of heaven, became the least, so that we who are the least in the kingdom of heaven may be called the greatest.