“Jesus flips everything on its head. Jesus puts this little boy in the center and tells his disciples they need to become like a child, otherwise they will never enter the kingdom. Forget about being the secretary of defense; you won’t even get in without becoming like a child.”
Can you imagine if all of your conversations were recorded? Certainly, some things we’ve said would embarrass us a bit if they became public record.
The early disciples had one of those conversations. Looking back years later, I’m sure they cringed at the memory. In Matthew 18 they were engaged in an intense debate with each other about who among them was the greatest. This seems like a petty thing to debate.
At this stage of the Gospel narrative, they were becoming more convinced that Jesus was indeed the promised King—the Messiah. And this had implications for them as Jesus’s close friends and disciples. They could potentially be up for some high-level cabinet appointments. So they ask Jesus this ill-advised question in Matthew 18:1: “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
As we learn by how Jesus answers the question, they had a misunderstanding about what the kingdom was. And when I think of how Jesus responds to their argument, I’m rebuked by a warped sense of kingdom values. I think we might be allergic to humility and insignificance. Perhaps you can identify.
Jesus Teaches About a (Different) Kingdom
Actually, Jesus doesn’t answer their question. Instead, he redirects them away from their appraisal of their greatness and teaches them what God considers to be great. Jesus teaches them about the kingdom of God by educating them about kingdom values. He redefines greatness according to the dictionary of heaven.
How would you define greatness? How do you know when you see it?
You likely won’t be surprised that at the time of the writing of the Gospels the world defined greatness much like people do today. It was seen in power, influence, security, wealth, and knowledge.
And today, greatness is, generally speaking, described by one’s achievements, influence, and experiences. Depending upon which part of the country you are in you see different pronunciations of greatness. In L.A., greatness is tied to entertainment. In Washington, D.C., it’s political. In New York it’s financial. And, here in Boston, greatness is often related to education. Not that any of these things is categorically bad or wrong. They are just different than what we find in the teachings of Jesus. Jesus has a different metric because he has a different value system. The values of the kingdom of heaven are a bit different from what’s common in our world. When we encounter Jesus, we find the shocking reality that true greatness is expressed in terms of humility.
Jesus Directs Us to a Child
Jesus responds to the disciples’ political posturing and personal campaigning with a shocking lesson. In verse 1 we read, “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 . . .”
To answer their question, he calls a child to the forefront and places him in the midst or the middle of everyone. If you think this is a strange way to answer this debate, you would be right.
Jesus goes on in verse 3, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Jesus flips everything on its head. Jesus puts this little boy in the center and tells his disciples they need to become like a child, otherwise they will never enter the kingdom. Forget about being the secretary of defense; you won’t even get in without becoming like a child.
First I think it will be helpful to say what this doesn’t mean. I don’t believe Jesus is saying we have to become childish or immature in order to see the kingdom. He is not celebrating the foolishness that often attends adolescence but rather the apparent insignificance. In the first-century Jewish context, a child would have no real importance; they were insignificant. They couldn’t serve in the military or lead in the community. They were not wealthy or wise. Because of their stature and experience, they were humble members of the community. Also, children are a picture of trust and dependence. Rather than adults who display and depend upon their wisdom and accomplishments, children are comfortable holding the hand of the one who is more significant than them. They are content to take their place with humility.