Greatness in the kingdom of heaven is becoming like a humble and subordinate child. Greatness in the Kingdom of God is serving the insignificant little ones in our world.
Through this lesson, students should:
Understand what greatness in the kingdom of heaven is.
Understand what Jesus means by saying we must become like children.
Be challenged to discover how we become like little children.
Catching Up on the Story
The section in which we find Matthew 18 begins in verse 22 of chapter 7. There, Jesus announces again that he will be betrayed into human hands to be killed. He tells his disciples that Jesus' death won't be the end, for on the third day, Jesus will rise from the day. Unsurprisingly, this causes Jesus' disciples great distress!
Jesus and his disciples have made their way from Galilee to Capernaum, where the following verses occur. Apparently, Peter is out by himself or with some of the other disciples when temple tax collectors confront him. Peter defends his master's record of paying the temple tax. Upon arriving home (we aren't told where exactly home is), Jesus brings up Peter's earlier encounter. We get the sense that Jesus doesn't believe that they should have to pay the temple tax, yet to avoid offending the religious leaders, Peter is instructed to go and catch a fish. In the fish's mouth, Peter will find a coin with which he will pay the tax for himself and Jesus.
Jesus is concerned with the faith of those who challenged Peter. He wishes that Peter and the others not be a cause for stumbling for the temple tax collectors.
Who's the Greatest?
One of the things we often forget is that the gospel challenges our cultural assumptions. For some reason, and especially here in America, we've grown accustomed to believing that there is something inherently Christian about our culture. This assumption makes it particularly hard to read the gospels with any amount of sincerity. One of the most profound things about Jesus is that his gospel challenges all cultures and their assumptions. There is not one culture that is exempt, not even his own.
Chapter 18 begins with the disciples asking a question of Jesus: "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" Remember, "kingdom of heaven" and "kingdom of God" are synonymous. This question would have been completely normal in Jesus' honor-shame culture. In Jesus' setting, everything you did either brought you and your family honor or shame. At the very least, you built your life around avoiding things that would bring shame into your life. The more honor you could build, the greater your stature would be considered among your peers and in the community.
While we don't live in an honor-shame culture like Jesus', we know a thing or two about honor and shame, though we apply it more to our celebrities than anything else; the more we honor someone, the harder they fall when, inevitably, we discover they've done something shameful.
The disciples ask this question partly because Jesus keeps reminding them that he'll soon die. The question of succession is surely in their minds. Surely, the greatest one of Jesus' followers will take over the mantle of leadership that Jesus has established. The question is a procedural one, then, albeit with some selfish motives. I suppose you don't ask this type of question without thinking that you're in the running for the gig.
While the question is appropriate for Jesus' context, Jesus' answer is shocking. Perhaps it isn't to us because of our familiarity with this passage. From our earliest days, we find this passage colorfully illustrated in our children's bibles. But for the disciples, it would have almost been scandalous.
In response to the question, Jesus calls a child and puts the child in the center of their gathering, saying, "Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." What in the world?!
I can imagine the quizzical look on the disciple's faces, "What now? Change to become like children?" Yes.
Here Jesus goes, challenging our cultural assumptions again. Children were nothing. Literally, they were about as low on the socio-economic totem pole as one could get. Ancient cultures didn't value children like we do.
At this point, we normally draw some conclusions regarding the part of a child's nature we should seek to assume. Almost every Sunday school lesson or sermon I've ever heard has pointed to the innocence of children. Maybe it's been a while since you've had children, but they are anything but innocent. They might be innocent for the first hour after birth, but from there on out, it's selfish screaming for their needs to be met, "Feed me, now!" or, "I've pooed myself, and it is uncomfortable. Change my diaper, now!" That's what they would say if they could talk.
So, what in the world does Jesus mean? Partly, Jesus means that his disciples must change their understanding of greatness. They must give it up. Children know how small and insignificant they are. Greatness isn't amassing honor and prestige within the community. Greatness is becoming small and insignificant. It's not making a name for yourself. Instead, it's about becoming humble, as verse four makes explicit.
What children are by nature, in Jesus' context, is lowly and subordinate. They are the masters of nothing except for their play, to which they give themselves fully. It is to humility and subordination that Jesus calls his disciples. He's not just talking to the twelve but to us as well.
Since Jesus is talking to his disciples, who have already been radically changed due to their connection with Jesus, Jesus is talking about a continued commitment to humility and subordination. Here's the catch: This isn't anything that Jesus hasn't already done. Jesus has already humbled himself by becoming human. Jesus will completely humble himself by giving up his life.
To be sure, Jesus isn't mincing words here. He says, "…unless you become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." The "never" in the original language is emphatic (Hahn). Jesus is placing the greatest possible emphasis on this teaching about the value of children: becoming like children and serving children.
Not only must we become humble, but in our humility, we must seek to serve those who are like children in our world. Yes, this means caring for children, but it also means caring for anyone else who is vulnerable and of no account in this world. For Jesus says, "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name" (lit., "out of devotion to me") welcomes Jesus himself.
Temptation and Sheep
But Jesus isn't done speaking. Even though there might be a section divider in your bible, the red letters continue unbroken.
Not only are we to seek to continually humble ourselves, but we're to take care that we do not lead any "little ones" astray. Given the context, "little ones" have to be those of little account in this world, including those who are vulnerable or growing in the faith. We have a responsibility to others to not lead them astray through our teaching or actions.
With vivid rhetorical flourish, Jesus states that it would be more advantageous for us to have a large millstone strung around our neck and subsequently thrown into the sea! Jesus goes full-on mob boss on us!
To be sure, Jesus is using a bit of hyperbole here, but the point is clear. While we follow Christ because he has called us and brought us life and salvation, we are not Christians solely for ourselves. We are responsible for leading people in faithfulness and not leading them astray. Of course, we're not perfect. We'll stumble at times, and we'll lead others to stumble as well. That's what Jesus addresses beginning in verse 8: We must take serious steps to mitigate the damage we do to others.
"If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away; it is better (to your advantage) for you to enter life maimed or lame than to have two hands and feet and be thrown into the eternal fire." The same can be said for your eye; gouge it out if it causes you to sin! Again, Jesus is using hyperbole here. I'm not so sure Jesus wants us to chop off our limbs or go around half-blind, but the point is clear enough. We must take significant and unwavering steps to ensure we aren't leading others astray.
Often, we apply these verses to our personal sins. While it's a good idea to be proactive about our personal sins, the context here makes it clear that Jesus is speaking about our responsibility to the little ones, those of no account, the children of our world. If we find that the way we live or do church or whatever is leading those who don't know better away from a relationship with Christ, we better reevaluate how we do things. If we don't, the end won't be pretty for us.
As if Jesus' comments about cutting limbs off weren't serious enough, he tells a parable that shows just how important the little ones are. They're so important that their angels are always in the presence of God. At the time, it was common to believe everyone had an angle interceding for them. The more important or the more holy you were, the closer to God your angle would be. Jesus turns that notion on its head. It is the ones who have no importance in this life whose angels are always before God.
Verse 12 begins with, "What do you think?" Again, Jesus is going to challenge the normal way things are done. There's a shepherd who has 100 sheep, and one of them goes astray. Actually, "goes astray" sounds like they just wandered off. The force of the original language is actually "has been led astray." Someone has actively drawn this sheep away from the flock for nefarious purposes.
So, the shepherd leaves the ninety-nine to search for the one lost sheep. When he finds it, the shepherd will rejoice over finding that single sheep with more gusto than he does those who remain.
It's not that Jesus is not committed to or happy about those who have remained; he is. Rather, Jesus is highlighting the importance of those who are little, insignificant, and of no account.
We began asking who is the greatest in God's kingdom, fully expecting to receive an answer concerning faithfulness, obedience, and good social standing. Instead, Jesus tells us that the children, the little and insignificant ones, are the greatest. And if we want to have a place, not just a good place, but any place at all, we must be like those little insignificant ones and welcome them with care and hospitality.
If we don't, watch out! It won't end well for us! Jesus encourages us to take drastic measures so that through our lives and actions, we don't lead any of the little ones astray, for the little one is more important than all those who seem to be important now.
Some question needs to be asked: Who are the little ones? How do we become like them? How do we welcome them? How do we keep ourselves from leading them astray? How do we make them as important to us as they are to God?
Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly. Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.
Why do the disciples ask Jesus about who will be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?
What are the characteristics of a child that Jesus finds worthy of emulation?
Jesus' world didn't value children like we do today. How might that make Jesus' admonition to welcome children more important?
Assuming Jesus isn't just talking about children here, how else might fit in the category of humble and insignificant?
Why does Jesus paint a pretty stark picture of what will happen to those who cause a little one to stumble?
A lot of times, we view verses 8-9 as addressing our personal sins. The context, however, ties it to Jesus' words about causing a little one to stumble. How does that change your understanding of what Jesus advises regarding causing little ones to stumble?
Based on its context, the parable of the lost sheep has to do with someone intentionally leading a little sheep astray. Does that change what you've always thought about this passage?
Considering the whole passage, how important do you think Jesus thinks these little ones are?
Who might be the little ones in the world today? How do we become like them? How do we welcome them?
Hahn, Roger L. Matthew: A Commentary for Bible Students. Indianapolis, IN: Wesleyan Publishing House, 2007.