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.
Jesus is telling a bunch of ambitious, self-promoting men who were hungry for power and significance in his kingdom that to actually get into the kingdom they must become relatively insignificant people. Imagine how insignificant and unimpressive a little boy must’ve appeared before a bunch of grown men.
A Word to Significance-Craving Evangelicals
True greatness then, according to Jesus, is found in being rather unimpressive.
This is certainly not what the disciples would’ve had in mind. And it’s something we, too, often forget. A passage like this calls into question a tendency among evangelicals who seem to crave affirmation and be allergic to insignificance. Throughout the last 200 years, American evangelicals, in particular, have demonstrated a relentless pursuit of public honor. In varying cycles, they have pursued relevance and significance in academics, politics, and the broader cultural moment. And so often what we regrettably see is a compromise of core kingdom values and teaching in exchange for a moment of affirmation and applause. As evangelicals, we would be better served to look at the child and embrace our insignificance rather than clamor for the significance, power, and fame that comes from another kingdom. The brief applause of men gets drowned out by the eternal favor of God.
This allergy also shows itself in the everyday life of the church. This unbiblical thinking is everywhere from power-hungry pastors who oppress parishioners to consumeristic church members who resist service. When we live as Christians we live out of an identity. We live to make much of Christ not to be made much of by others. We come in clinging to Christ’s significance while repudiating our own. Humility is to characterize our churches and us. The gospel comes with an apron for humble service. Is your life marked by humble service to God and others? What job in the kingdom is beneath you? Would others characterize you as humble? Why or why not? You might consider asking those close to you this week. Inspect your life for footprints and fingerprints of pride.
We need to consider how different this teaching is. A completely different set of priorities shapes Jesus’s value system. He is not impressed by so much of what moves the needle in our world today. And, if we are honest, he is probably not impressed with a lot of what we think is so great today. God does not value those who aim to find their significance in themselves and their things. Rather, Jesus commends those who are insignificant in the world’s eyes and significant in his. We need to take stock of what and who we value as well as who we are trying to be, lest we find ourselves and our ambitions at odds with the kingdom.