1At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 2And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them 3and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
5“Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, 6but 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.
7“Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation comes! 8And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. 9And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire.
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. 12What 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? 13And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. 14So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.
15“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. 16But 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. 17If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. 19Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” Matthew 18:1-20
The greatest in the Kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ…It is not who you think it is. It is not who you expect it to be. Like the disciples who had at other times debated who the greatest was (i.e. Mark 9:33-37; Luke 9:46-48), we too have certain ideas of who the greatest is—the most popular, the most generous, the most powerful, the most appreciated, the most recognized, the one who most meets the requirements that we believe makes one to be the greatest.
In truth, all of our ideas, all of our expectations, all of our ‘requirements’, all of our qualifications, and all of our conditions of who the greatest is run quite contrary and opposed to the revelation of our Lord. Jesus clearly displays this in today’s text.
Here, the disciples asked Jesus who the greatest was. You might think that they were not at all listening to what our Lord had been saying. Just a bit before (Matthew 17:22), Jesus had again told the disciples what was soon to be coming—His betrayal, His death, and His resurrection. You would think that instead of asking, “Jesus, whose the greatest?” they might have been wondering what Jesus was talking about with regard to the weightier matters of death and resurrection.
Before jumping the gun and attacking the disciples for their lack of attention, we too must confess that we often have our minds on other things than what the Lord is saying. His Word, throughout the week, and even on Sunday in the Divine Service, is not always our top priority. And when we do hear it, we don’t always take it as it is.
Yet Jesus does not jump on His distracted disciple. Instead, He amazingly gives answer to their self-centered question. He answers them in a way that also causes us to stop and consider.
The greatest in the kingdom is not the ‘king of the hill’ or the ‘A student.’ The greatest in the kingdom is not the highest paid or the one who is most well known and praised for their personality, for their compassion, or for their ability to give everyone a sense of fulfillment. It is not the one who gets everyone motivated and going that is considered great in God’s eyes. No—the one who is the greatest in God’s Kingdom is the one who, as Jesus says, “turns and becomes like a child.”
Truly, I say to you, Jesus says, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
Becoming like children, however, does not mean in the sense of blindly trusting in anything, becoming gullible, or becoming immature. Nor does Jesus here mean becoming like children in the sense of serving one another.
When Jesus talks about turning, He is talking about turning from one’s independence from God to complete and total dependence on God. He’s talking about becoming what you by nature are not—fully loving, trusting, and fearing God above everything else. First Commandment stuff.
When Jesus talks about becoming like children, He is talking about becoming entirely dependent and fully trusting of God and His goodness. He means denying oneself the honor of self-reliance to holding on to God’s help in Christ alone.
When Jesus talks about becoming like children, He means abandoning the belief that we only need God a little bit or maybe even a little more, and instead, treasuring Christ and His Word and His promises.
It is they who do these things, who acknowledge that they have no goodness or merit in themselves, who look to God alone for help, who wait only on Him whom God considers great in His kingdom. And it His determination and Word that counts, not our own—neither yours nor mine, but God’s.
This might strike us as unsympathetic to our American upbringing and do-it-yourself I-can-do attitude. It is supposed to. Just as the disciples had argued about who the greatest was, thinking that it was a position to strive for and a title to possess, so we too want to achieve and become great in the sight of others. We want to be recognized for what we do. We want others to notice what we do, to complement us, and to make us feel good about ourselves.
The way of the Lord is different. He puts us in our place: not as independent, but as dependent upon Him; not as self-sufficient, but as reliant upon Him; not as looking down upon others, but as caring for others and showing compassion to those that the world neglects, judges, and casts aside.
The greatest in the kingdom are those who trust alone in the Lord Jesus for salvation. These are looked down upon and despised by the world, but loved by God. The greatest in God’s kingdom are they who humble themselves before God and receive His mercy and compassion, the very thing that they do not receive from the world.
These are the greatest in God’s kingdom, however, because they take God at His Word and repent of their sin. They do not despise preaching and His Word, but gladly hear and learn it. They look to Christ and find in Him means of salvation.
Through Isaiah the prophet, God says it this way, On this one will I look: On him who is poor and of a contrite spirit, And who trembles at My word (Isaiah 66:2).
The one who is the greatest in the Kingdom, Jesus says, is the one who confesses his sin, who recognizes his own ability to save himself, and who takes God at His Word.
In the eyes of the world, such a one would not be considered great. In the eyes of the world, greatness has to do with ability, fame, prominence, popularity, and reputation. It has to do with how we in the world look at you and how we look at ourselves through the world’s glasses.
In the eyes of God, things are different. In the eyes of God, greatness does not have to do with how others see you, how others define you, or how others characterize you. In the eyes of God, greatness has everything to do with how God sees you, and believing the way that God sees you, according to His Word. In this is true greatness, not because you have anything to contribute or add to your status before God, but because of what God, of His kindness, freely gives and declares to you, in Christ.
Just as the child is dependent on his or her parent for food, clothing, shelter, nurture, so are you dependent on God for your everything. And just as the child receives what is given, so you also receive what God gives to you. Of course, this does not meant that you will always be satisfied or content with what the Lord gives, just like the child who complains about not having this food or that toy. You still struggle with your selfishness and greediness. And on this side of heaven, with these you will continue to struggle.
As long as you are in the flesh, you will continue to fight against the tendency to want things your own way rather than God’s way. You will continue to wrestle with the will of God that is not your own. You will continue to wage war against your members that seek to usurp God’s Word and ways.
As God’s child, however, you will also recognize that these your tendencies to want things your own way and not God’s are not the way of the Lord. From these you will turn, and in turning, you will again become as children, waiting upon the Lord, depending on Him for life, trusting in Him for strength, and believing His Word. Then you will rejoice in having God’s favor in Christ. You will not continue to despise the promises of God. You will not continue to neglect His Word. You will not continue to look down and despise others. Instead, you will give thanks for the Word that the Lord speaks to you. You will praise Him for His forgiveness. And you will seek to please Him according to His own Word, in the way that He desires you to do, not comparing yourself to others, but seeing others the way that God sees them.
First, you will see yourself as God sees you, a poor miserable sinner, forgiven in Christ. And then, you will see others the way that God sees them. You will begin to see that it is not what I or the world say about another that really matters, but what God says. And what God says is the truth.
Therefore, if the one who turns from his self-centeredness and idolatry and humbles himself as a child is who God considers greatest in His kingdom, so will I also consider that one to be greatest. And if one of those little ones who believe in Him are so precious in God’s sight, so will they be precious in my sight.
This means that I will seek not to cause other Christians to doubt, despair, become concerned, or question the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ because of what I say or do. Instead, I will seek to build them up in the true doctrine with my words and by my actions. I will watch my own life closely and not try to hurt another that they lose sight of Christ and His forgiveness because of me.
Where I have hurt, I will seek forgiveness, first from God, and then from the one I have hurt. Where I am unsure, I will look to the Lord for certainty. Where I have fallen, I will seek the Lord’s strength.
All the while, because of God’s forgiveness of my sin and His love for me and for others, I will also seek to show that forgiveness and love that God has for me to others for whom Christ has died.
The greatest in the kingdom is not oneself. The Christian does not boastfully and unashamedly say, “I am the greatest in the kingdom.” Rather, in humility, they see themselves as not deserving anything from God, only what He deems to give them.
Yet instead of death, He gives life. Instead of everlasting fire in hell, He promises heaven. Instead of condemnation for your sins, He forgives you your sins.
Such is God’s compassion for sinners. Such is God’s compassion for you.
Because of God’s great love and compassion and mercy for you, you, as God’s child, you begin and continue to have the same love, compassion and mercy for others. The ‘little ones’ that the Lord does not neglect, you too do not neglect. Your concern will be God’s concern. Thus will you watch what you say, watch what you do, and seek to help others remain in God’s gracious care.
Should your brother sin, you will seek to warn him of his sin, not once, but continually. You will talk with him personally and not talk behind his back or damage his reputation. Because you have his best interest at heart and desire his repentance, you will keep from spreading the news and keep it to yourself.
Far from it being only the pastor’s job to go and speak with the one who is in the wrong, you will go, out of love for the one who is erring, for such things brothers and sisters in Christ do for one another. God’s family cares for one another. The one who is erring, the one who is sinning, even the one who doesn’t know that he is doing wrong, is to know that what he’s doing is wrong. God would have the sinner saved from his sin. But if that sinner doesn’t recognize his sin, how will he know that he needs saving?
If you don’t tell him, who will? How can there be repentance, a turning to the Lord, and humbling oneself like a child, unless the word gets out? And how can you have the same love for the erring brother or sister that God has if you don’t go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone? Indeed, if you don’t go, you can’t show that same love, because you do not have it.
God’s love goes out, bursting forth from one’s own heart to others. It does not seek it’s own, but the other’s well being. It is not self-serving, but sacrificial and self-giving. God’s people have such love, for they are God’s family, and have love towards one another. If one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it (1 Corinthians 12:26).
Being the greatest in the kingdom is not about independence, boastfulness, or making comparison. It is not about how we want to define greatness, but how God defines it. And it is not about becoming great, but recognizing yourself for what you are before God—in need Jesus.
All are in need of this Savior. No one is excluded from the necessity of God’s forgiveness and salvation. And yet, it is the neediest who need Him the most. And the greatest are those who so see themselves, and so see others. Amen.