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.
Once again, Jesus does the astounding, the unheard of, the shocking … and once again, it is easy for the full weight of it to go right over our heads! Putting a child in the midst of grown-ups and pointing to him as a role-model simply wasn’t done. Yet it is so easy to misread this today as we have put children upon a pedestal of innocence, cuteness, and preciousness. It is not always a bad thing in our day and age to be considered child-like. Is this what Jesus is telling His disciples to emulate? But children can also be childish, they are, you see, little sinners in the image and likeness of their parents before them. Surely this is not what Jesus would hold up for the Twelve?
To understand Jesus’ point you need to understand His context. In the ancient world children were loved but seen as helpless … indeed, to many they were seen as a burden. They were only truly worth something once they were no longer children and could give back to society! Until then, as much as you might care for them they were simply a drain. Their promise was not found in innocence or cuteness, or an over-inflated sense of wonder, but simply in their potential – what they might one day become. But don’t be fooled dear friends, it is not the child’s future potential that Jesus points to as greatness either.
Do you begin to understand the shocking nature of Jesus’ object lesson? Can you begin to plumb the depths of the astounding words “unless you turn and become like children” Unless you turn (actually “be turned”) be converted, be called, be changed in your thinking you will never understand true greatness! Unless you are shocked out of your ordinary thinking you will never even enter the kingdom, much less be great in it! The kingdom of God stands all reason it on its head!
4 Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Being humble in words or even in outward acts is easy. True humbleness in spirit is something very different. True humility means confessing our inability to do anything to be worthy before God or earn our salvation. It means depending entirely upon God’s mercy for forgiveness. It means standing our reason on its head and recognizing that we are – where it really matters – helpless … a burden … without any potential whatsoever. We need looking after. We need to be cared for. We need to be loved and nurtured, and protected. We may posture and strut and think that we are pretty great, but it is not true. We have nothing to give to God that He needs, and we need everything He offers, because we can’t do it ourselves. True greatness in God’s kingdom comes only through complete trust in the Lord to save us and make us worthy.
This kind of humbleness is truly humiliating. No one likes to see themselves this way – broken, weak, helpless. Quiet, cute and meek we could put up with maybe. But not this. Yet, Jesus says, this is the only way into the kingdom. This is the measure of true greatness among us. It is also the very basis for how we should view, and treat, not only ourselves but one another.
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.
You see, the question of greatness is not about who we get to be. It is a question of who we get to serve! Jesus explains here, how we are to act toward one another … especially those who God views as the greatest, that is the little ones. Little ones are not just children but any who might be considered weak and helpless … those in the most need. How we treat them, is of the greatest importance in the kingdom.
Do our actions and attitudes toward our fellow brothers and sisters truly reflect this terrible and stern warning from God? Or are they guided by our own sense of merit, ease, or convenience? Do we do unto others as we would have done unto us (an attitude that seeks our own greatness) or do we do unto others simply because they need it? Are we willing to sacrifice what is ours to bear their burdens? Are we willing to give up our time, our money, our comfort, our “greatness” not based on the potential that they might one day give back, but simply because God loves those who are in need. The greater the need the greater the love.
Are we willing to stand firmly behind the Word and the Sacraments even when all others so readily dismiss them … even if that means being called old-fashioned, unloving, or uncaring? Are we ready to stand behind Christ and His promises – where He has promised they will be found – so that those who need Him most will always have Him available? Even if it costs us everything in our families and our communities? Are you willing to let your own ideas of calling, and greatness, and praise, and entitlement, and worth, die that you might cling to Christ alone as an infant clings to her mother or father alone? Are you willing to take everything about life in this world and stand it on its head, give up all your pretensions for the sake of those who cannot or will not give back? …
… for then and only then will you begin to understand true greatness. The greatness of the Son of God who came and made Himself less than nothing, even to the point of giving up His own holy, precious, eternally great life upon the cross for those who still think they can be something more than they are without His help and forgiveness. Greatness measured by humility and need, not by strength or ability. Greatness not in who we are but who we serve. Greatness that never once asks the cost, but is thankful for the opportunity. True greatness that comes to us through the most humble means … be it the rough timber of the cross, the cold stone of the empty tomb, the splash of water or the taste of bread and wine.
True greatness must come to us through the Gospel, and confession and forgiveness. For we are helpless and burdened by sin and the conceited desire for greatness that is not ours to hold. But even little ones like us can find true greatness in Christ! 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.” It should be noted that faith and our place in the kingdom are never limited by age or by mental abilities. They are gracious gifts of God, protected and nurtured by God. No one is measured by their abilities or their potential, but by the great things Christ has done for them! As such this gift should be recognized & encouraged by us!