At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
He called a little child to him and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.
“If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble! Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come! If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell.
“See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.
“What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish. (New International Version)
Jesus sees, honors, and protects little people.
Horton the elephant spoke to people completely unconcerned for all the residents of Who Ville that lived on a clover. Dr. Seuss chose to make Horton an elephant, a large creature able to hear with big ears and be attentive to the small. Bigness can only come from becoming small.
Little people, the ones others fail to notice, matter to Jesus. And so, they ought to matter to us, too. Since Jesus sees and hears them, we should, too.
Jesus often mingled with little people – children, women who had no rights, social misfits like lepers, the chronically ill, religious outsiders, tax collectors, and prostitutes.
Our world is filled with similar people – angry adolescents, unwanted babies, forgotten old people, the mentally ill, moral failures, immigrants and refugees. If we have eyes to see and big ears to hear, we will notice the poor whom no one else hears. They are around us, even if they are invisible to us.
We’re all just little people before God. So, let’s be humble enough to see the little people around us.
Who’s the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?
That question drips with a desire to position and posture oneself in a place of prominence and power. In other words, the questions really is, “How do I climb the ladder in God’s kingdom to be the most important person?”
In response, Jesus graciously and calmly called a child to him and answered that unless we become like a little child, we have no future with God. There’s only one way to have what you want, and it’s through humility.
Children had no status or rights in the ancient world. Ancient culture was not remotely youth or kid oriented. Kids were generally viewed as just potential adults. They were seen as weak, small, and unable to contribute much of anything until they grew up.
Disciples of Jesus are to become like children, that is, lowly. Followers of Christ must give up their status and desire to be important. They can only be big if they become small.
Only by getting on the same level as little people can we ever welcome Jesus.
Why become like a little child?
Because a person who is attentive to the lowly is actually attentive to Jesus himself.
We are not to welcome people because they are great, wise, rich, powerful, good-looking, and just like you and me – but because they are noticed by Jesus.
The proud person who seeks prominence is always looking for greener pastures and things to do that will impress people who will help advance them up the ladder of success. They do not care who gets stepped on along the way.
The Christian, however, is to give all people, including the little ones and the marginal ones, the time of day and treat them as important.
How does one become humble and avoid sin?
Those who receive these little ones receive Jesus; those who reject these little ones reject Jesus, and by their lack of loving them cause them to sin. This, according to Jesus, is damnable behavior, and, so, must be dealt with in a radical manner because hell is worth avoiding at any cost.
So then, the proud person must hack off part of themselves because it is better to be maimed for the rest of your life than enter hell. This is just one reason why a lot of folks stopped following Jesus.
Yet, Jesus insists that if, for example, your pursuit of money consumes you and you hold onto it and avoid the poor, give it away! If you hold onto your time like a clock miser and let it become your “precious” then you must get rid of it, you must give it away! It is better for you to have nothing than to have plenty of time and money and be thrown into hell fire!
In short, we should seek the lost.
Instead of waiting for them to show up, or to seek us out, we must go get them.
The lost matter to God.
Those who are on the fence and are half-hearted in their devotion to Jesus and the mission of the church, matter to God. So are the spiritually indifferent and the not very committed.
The temptation for spiritually serious persons is to look down on these lukewarm people. Jesus knew how easy it is to berate and despise such persons in our hearts:
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14, NIV)
If we are willing to humble ourselves, we can learn the hard practice of not hating others for what we hate in ourselves.
We hate it when we are lax in our devotion to Christ; fail to accomplish what we want; miss opportunities to do good; and neglect to pray, give, or serve. So, when we see this as a pattern in someone else’s life, we may easily despise them in our hearts.
Turns out that many serious Christians must be converted as well – to seeing God’s heart for these despised little people.
What should be done about lost people?
Human reasoning might say, “Ah, let that one go; we have 99.” But God’s reasoning is, “I really care for that one.” Jesus wants to convert us to the statistically unimportant.
If a person does not contribute to the life of the flock, do we care?
The parable contained within today’s Gospel lesson has become so familiar that it no longer shocks us. What kind of shepherd would be so stupid to abandon the entire flock and expose them to the dangers of wild animals and the harsh environment in order to search, maybe even unsuccessfully for one stinky, messed up, knurly, ugly, eats-too-much, sheep?
And then, what’s more, when finding such a sheep, that shepherd rejoices more about this one sheep found than over the more dependable and attractive members of the flock?
Only such a “foolish” shepherd can represent God’s concern for each one straying child.
Our Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little people should be lost. Therefore, we are to seek the lost.
Antonio Stradivarius (1644-1737) was an Italian violin maker. His violins are now the most prized violins ever made because of the rich and resonating sound they produce. The unique sound of a Stradivarius violin cannot be duplicated.
Surprisingly, these prized violins were not made from treasured pieces of wood, but instead were carved from discarded lumber. Stradivarius, who was very poor and could not afford fine materials like his contemporaries, got much of his wood from the dirty harbors where he lived. He would take those waterlogged pieces of wood to his shop, clean them up, and from those pieces of trashed lumber, he created instruments of rare beauty.
It has since been discovered that while the wood floated in those dirty harbors, microbes went into the wood and ate out the center of those cells. This left just the fibrous infrastructure of the wood that created resonating chambers for the music. From wood that nobody wanted, Stradivarius produced violins that everybody wants.
God has a plan. It is a plan to build a benevolent realm using not just the big and important, but the lowly and despised.
May we all participate with the Lord and humble ourselves for kingdom purposes.