At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them … If Peter and the other apostles had such a hard time coming to terms with the role of the Messiah (as we saw last Sunday), it’s little wonder that they didn’t really understand their own place in His kingdom either. Chapter 17 in Matthew’s Gospel shows this problem clearly. In chapter 18, which begins with our text for today, Jesus spends His time overturning their misunderstandings about the kingdom. He invites those very same disciples (and by extension, us now) to a radically different way of thinking and living in community. And it all begins with a key question, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” The greatest is the one who “humbles himself like this child.”
“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. “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, … “See that you do not despise one of these little ones.
So what makes that child so great an example? It is not that children possess some special quality worthy of emulation. Being full of wonder and innocence and other such nonsense has nothing to do with it. Indeed, the point is that they (like Israel, and like the Church) are dependent. I told you Jesus was overturning a lot of wrong thinking! Note the accent on faith in verse 6, “little ones who believe in me.” They rely on God for everything – to supply their needs, to give them their identity, to rescue them and protect them. With no disrespect to children, they are needy, and dependent on others for their very survival.
Jesus is calling upon His disciples to regard such needy fellow humans, these little ones, as the most important people of all and worthy of virtually unlimited care and forgiveness. In the ancient world this was such as children, widows, slaves and enemies. Today it is not much different. The weak or disabled, the unborn, or the overly long in dying. Those who are disabled (physically or mentally). The faces may change but the burden does not. How important could such a person be? On their own they aren’t. But in God’s eyes everything changes. No “little one” is to be despised or looked down upon.
A “little one” should be received in Jesus’ name, as if Jesus were that very person. That’s how important we are to view these little ones … as the greatest one! No one should cause such a child to sin, but the world will provide temptations, and woe to the one by whom they come. To wound the one for whom Christ died is to sin against Christ (1 Cor 8:12). How precious is this “little one”? Jesus goes on to explain.
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? And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.
Little ones are not just the needy and the dependent. They are also the lost and the straying. It is no coincidence that Jesus moves from children to sheep. They share many of the same qualities. Dependent on another to guide and protect, but now stubborn and wandering comes into the picture. Yet God’s love for them is no less. Any shepherd rejoices over one stray sheep who wanders from the flock and is brought back, and so the Father rejoices over this one “more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray.” Not one should be allowed to perish.
Can we do any less in our prayers for, and interactions with, those who have turned their backs to God? Those who should know better, or never did know any better. Those who have followed the promise of ever-greener pastures in some other field … any other field. Our family, friends, neighbours and co-workers. There are a thousand reasons to stray and lose yourself, a thousand promises that only ever take and never seem to give. A thousand ways that pleasantly lead to destruction, but only one that seeks to find you again. The Good Shepherd who knows each and every sheep by name … whether they know him or not. Whether they want to know Him.
“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses.
How do you deal with the one who sins against you—who strays at your expense? You confront the sin out of love for the sinner. You confront that sin with the loving Saviour who seeks the lost and straying. The protecting Saviour who upholds the weak and the needy. The living Saviour who though he was the greatest, died for the most vile and debased. You speak and listen again and again to the Law and the Gospel to hear again that Jesus is the Savior and has rescued all from the power of sin by dying and rising. You deal with them in the sure and certain knowledge that Our Father rejoices over a sinner who repents and returns to the fold. In the event that he won’t listen, let him be considered as one who is a Gentile and a tax collector. And then ask yourself how Jesus treated such as those outside of the kingdom.
What holds all these thoughts together can be seen in verse 5 (“whoever receives one such child in my name receives me”) and verse 20 (“where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them”). Jesus is one with the believer and is among believers who gather “in [his] name.” He continually cares for – protects, returns and restores – each one. The “child” who brings nothing of his own, who only believes, is the most precious (greatest) in the kingdom of heaven, should not be led into sin, should be found when he strays, and should be led back by as much Law and Gospel as it takes – however long it takes.
I told you it wouldn’t be easy. To be a disciple of Christ is to operate under a radically different way of thinking and living in community. It begins with a key question, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” The answer, the disciples would quickly find out, did not rest with them! Jesus’ answer to them and to us is to spend less time seeking greatness and more time serving any and all God has placed in our lives as if they were. For in God’s eyes they are. Just as you already are. Treat the needy, the lost, the hostile as if they were the greatest and true greatness will come … for them, for you, and for the glory of the one you serve. The one who is always looking out for little ones like you and me.