Matthew 18:1-4 (NIV) At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
He called a little child and had him stand among them. And he said: “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”
Even though the disciples generally got along, and were in many ways much like family, there was an almost continual jockeying for position. Even though Jesus had been quite clear that arrest and execution were waiting for Him in Jerusalem, the disciples chose not to believe it. They sensed a swell of support for Jesus, and heard the growing speculation that He might even be the Messiah. And it got their own dreams growing.
So with the prospect of Jesus taking over the government in Jerusalem right on the horizon, each was trying to make the case for high positions for themselves in the new administration. This conversation among the disciples about who was greatest lasted all the way through the Last Supper (cf. Luke 22:24ff), but at this point, it broke out into the open, with the disciples coming to Jesus and asking point blank, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” They weren’t looking for a philosophical or theological answer here. Their desire was much more pragmatic: when they got to Jerusalem and Jesus took over, who were the best candidates among them for the top spots?
Again, Jesus was dismayed. Had they really not heard what He had so pointedly told them several times now? He had not been able to break them out of their preconceptions that the kingdom of heaven was merely a restored and re-empowered Jewish nation. And because of that preconception, all that He had tried to teach them was being interpreted through that filter.
Jesu’s final response to their question was not designed to be a homely homily about the innocence of children, but a slap in their faces, a dash of cold water to take their breath away, and to get them to see things with clearer eyes.
They were used to Jesus’ object lessons, so when he called the child over and positioned him in the center of the group, they waited patiently. Then came the bombshell: “Unless you all change and become like little children, you will never even enter the kingdom of heaven.”
The group was dead silent. Instead of choosing the greatest of them for the tops spots (and they had all been trying to be the greatest), Jesus had just told each and every one of them that, far from being the best and brightest of the kingdom (since they were His top twelve disciples), that none of them were even IN the kingdom. And that, unless they changed significantly, they would never be able to get into it!
Yes, He had their attention now! Unless they humbled themselves like a child, they couldn’t be part of Jesus’ kingdom. And the most humble of them would end up being the one who was declared the greatest.
The lesson sounded clear enough, but they had no idea how to implement it. Children by their nature live for the moment, completely and contentedly relying on their parents to provide for their needs whenever they arose. By nature, they tend to hold all things loosely, and follow instructions in order to please their parents. And, even though they have hopes and dreams for the future, they are not usually terribly competitive and cutthroat in the pursuit of their goals. A two- or three-year-old would rarely even think to ask if they are first in their parents’ affections. (Of course, like anything, there are parents who instill competitiveness in and among their children, but that is not how children are by nature.)
Again, the statement was clear; the lesson was pointed. But how could a person who wanted the top spot make themselves humble enough to not want the top spot so that they would get the top spot? It seems so contradictory. And it wasn’t until Pentecost, when all of their hearts were transformed by the coming of the Holy Spirit that they could see how it was truly possible.
Father, this makes me wonder how many of us today are totally sure that we are not only in Your kingdom, but are one of the top dogs, while at the same time demonstrating actions and attitudes that are the complete opposite of the humility of a child. Help me to always see myself clearly as You see me, and if I need it, slap me with the truth so that I can humble myself before You like a little child, and be a part of Your kingdom forever. Amen.