At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
Then he called a little child over to sit among the disciples, and said, “I assure you that if you don’t turn your lives around and become like this little child, you will definitely not enter the kingdom of heaven. Those who humble themselves like this little child will be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever one such child in my name welcomes me.
“As for whoever causes these little ones who believe in me to trip and fall into sin, it would be better for them to have a huge stone hung around their necks and be drowned in the bottom of the lake. How terrible it is for the world because of the things that cause people to trip and fall into sin! Such things have to happen, but how terrible it is for the person who causes those things to happen! (Common English Bible)
How would you answer the disciples’ question of who is the greatest in God’s kingdom?
Jesus answered the question by essentially stating that the least among us are the greatest. To be little is to be big. The kingdom hinges on being humble, gentle, meek, and lowly.
That definitely isn’t the way Western society looks at greatness – even the Western Church typically devalues the importance of such virtues and spiritual qualities.
In particular, many Americans takes pride in their can-do spirit. They seem always on the lookout for those who are assertive and can get things done efficiently and quickly. The tragedy of this is that, even though intentions may be noble, such a spirit often ends in causing others to stumble over their prideful beliefs of being hardworking and right.
Methinks Jesus and Horton the elephant would get along well together. In Dr. Seuss’s book, Horton Hears a Who, Horton exalted the littlest of persons whom others could neither see nor hear.
“A person’s a person no matter how small” said Horton to the people completely unconcerned for all the residents of Who Ville, living on a clover. They were unconcerned because the Who’s were invisible to them.
Dr. Seuss chose to make Horton an elephant, a large creature able to hear with big ears and be attentive to the small. Largeness of heart comes from being attentive to the smallest ones among us – so small that the big people are unaware of them.
People who no one sees or notices, nonetheless matter to Jesus; and so, they should matter to us, too.
Jesus often mingled with the little people of his time – 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, and, if we have eyes to see and big ears to hear, lots of poor people who reside on the dark underbelly of society. They are around us, even if we fail to see or hear them.
The way to become great in the kingdom of God is to descend, not ascend, into greatness. The main enemy of any community is a desire to be prominent – it’s called “pride” and it will give us a terrible end if we hold onto it.
The disciples’ question is dripping with a desire for position and prestige. It’s a question meant to posture themselves into prominence and power. They want to know how to climb the ladder in God’s kingdom and be the important people.
I admire Christ’s grace for not throwing up his hands and going off on these guys: “What!? You’ve been with me how long and you ask me a stupid question like that? Where have you been? Have you learned nothing from me?”
But instead, Jesus calmly called a child to him and used them as an example of his answer: Unless you become like this little child you will have no future at all with God. The way to have what you want is through humility.
In Jesus’ day children had no status or rights. Ancient culture was not kid oriented and there was no such thing as a youth culture. Children were, for the most part, viewed as potential adults – weak, small, and unable to contribute much of anything until they grew up.
Christ’s disciples are to become like children, to become lowly; they are to give up their status and a desire to be important. They can only be big if they become small.
There’s another thing about the smallness of children that we ought to notice: Kids see what adults don’t. Whereas adults make distinctions between people on the basis of race, class, ethnicity, and gender, children see children and will play with just about anyone.
Only by getting on the same level as little people can we ever welcome Jesus; a person who is attentive to the lowly is attentive to Jesus.
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. Christ stands for those we may tend to overlook.
The proud person who seeks prominence is forever looking for greener pastures, to do things that will impress others and help them advance up the ladder of success. In such a frame of mind, the proud person pays no attention to who they step on along the way.
Christians, however, are to be different – giving socially insignificant people the time of day and treating them as important – because they are important to Jesus.
Here’s how Christ’s argument unfolds to the disciples:
- Humility. Those who become like little children enter God’s kingdom, because it is only accessed through humility.
- Attention. Those who pay attention and receive these little ones receive Jesus.
- Rejection. Those who reject these little ones reject Jesus, and by their lack of loving them cause them to sin.
- Consequences. Leeching the poor and needy, ignoring the insignificant around us, and devaluing the littlest ones is damnable behavior, according to Jesus.
A person’s a person no matter how small.
We need humility, to lower our sights in order to see and hear little people. No one is to be overlooked or to fall through the cracks under Christ’s rule and reign.
Loving Lord Jesus, you gave honor to the least, the forgotten, the overlooked, and the misunderstood and misjudged. You came to give first place to the last, those left behind and undervalued. You seek to provide a warm welcome to the lost, to the abandoned and the destitute.
Help us to be your ears to listen to their cries; your voice to speak love and acceptance; your feet to walk beside those in need; and your hands to clothe, feed and shelter them. Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer. Amen.