Often, the 18th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel is looked at as a somewhat disconnected series of scenarios. It seems more likely however that the entire section contains the multi-faceted answer of Jesus to the question posed in the first verse by His disciples.
“Greatness.” How do we define it? What is it? And what especially does it mean to be great (let alone THE greatest) in the kingdom of heaven? Let’s take some time to consider each aspect of the answer Jesus gives them.
I doubt that very many people speak today in the terms used by the Disciples here. The word “greatest” here conveys just what you might think. Who is the strongest, best, or the most superior of all? They were all too familar with being underdogs to the Pharisees and the Sadducees, not to mention occupying Rome. But in the kingdom – when everything is set right – who will be the greatest then?
In our more “polite” society today, we might inquire more about “significance”. We each want to be significant in some way. To have a life, to be a person who is not meaningless and without impact on this world. We want to MEAN something – to some-ONE, at least. The thought of being utterly disregardable – superfluous, gnaws at the core of who we are. No, most of us don’t have the need to be the absolute best – to always rank at the very top of the heap – but we would like to think of ourselves as at least being IN the heap. We want to know we’ll be missed when we’re gone. We want to have meaning. To be thought of as great in some capacity, if not in the eyes of the whole world, than in the eyes of our peers, or family, or kids, or spouse – or if no one else – in our own.
Herein lies the problem Jesus must address. Significance and meaning for us is located in our present sphere – among ourselves and others like us. The Disciple’s question however opens the scope of the discussion further. What about in the kingdom? What about when Christ rules and reigns? No doubt, for a few of them anyway – it included what this might look like when Israel once again ascends to be the jewel of the nations. When Rome is defeated, and the Messiah rules, and the Jewish nation is the first of nations above all others – Who will be the greatest THEN? That is the question. What will significance look like there? Jesus’ tells them – it won’t be like anything you know know.
So it is, Jesus unpacks the first part of His answer to them. He does it, by calling a child, a small child, perhaps even a servant-child, to Himself and placing the little one squarely in front of them all – holding him there. “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. “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, 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.”
His first point? Greatness in the coming kingdom, is found in those who are – like this little child – completely unmindful of pursuing greatness at all. It is a category absent from their thought process. The “greats” in the kingdom don’t pursue significance in the eyes of the world, other men, peers, family – or even themselves. Seeking greatness isn’t even on their radar screen. Responding to His call is the only thing which occupies them. And woe to those who disregard these who seek His approval alone and no one else’s. To lead them out of this youthful unself-consciousness is to lead them into the World’s deadliest trap – living for the approval of men. It is soul-slavery of the foulest kind. Woe to us, who make others somehow need to meet OUR or anyone else’s approval. It would be better for us to have a millstone tied around our necks, and be cast into the depth of the sea.
Oh Christian – flee the plague of greatness, no matter how it comes dressed to you. Live only to answer your Master’s call.