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
Matthew 18 : 1-4
I’m often mocked, in my own house, for my support of Portsmouth Football Club. We have reached the heights of FA cup final and actually WON it twice. Not many clubs can say that, but – right now, we are in lowly League One. Which is just laughable to my children. Every time I try and talk about our occasional victories, I’m reminded that they don’t really “count” as a football team. Barely a footnote, regardless of past glories, in the arena of great or world class or special teams.
Endeavouring to be the greatest or the best is a pursuit that has no place in the Kingdom. Yet, the disciples want to know! Who is top dog, who is right up there? Why are they even asking this question? It is so easy to look with hindsight and think, “Bless the disciples, they didn’t get it.” Of course the Kingdom doesn’t work like that, there is no rank or special place to pursue – what are they doing?
Yet, here is the thing that I think is more crazy. The disciples question about the Kingdom isn’t “Are we in?” they assume so – instead it is about their status within it.
Peter, James and John would appear to be the front runners – right before they ask this question, having just been with Jesus on the mountain when Moses and Elijah rock up and they – of all Jesus followers – are the only ones to witness it. They think they are “in” but now Jesus introduces a rank outsider.
God is consistent. Think of David in the Old Testament, when Samuel turns up to anoint the next King of Israel, Jesse doesn’t even bother getting David in the line-up. It takes Samuel saying, “do you have any other sons?” What? It can’t be him . . . ?!
Have you ever wondered what happened to Samuel? He got old! I wonder if he went away having finally anointed David wondering how he missed it. Did he think, “When I was just a nobody servant of Eli in the temple God spoke to me and used me – how did I miss it here?” I needed the Lord to tell me, “I don’t look at outward things, but at the heart.” – I should have known, I should have remembered!
We might think that pursuing Kingdom greatness doesn’t impact us – we don’t think about it. Just happy to serve . . . well, as long as you notice what I have done!
What about work when we are overlooked for that deserved promotion, what about when someone else takes credit, what about when nobody notices what we have done for them?
Pride crouches nearby, ready to trip us all up. In Luke chapter 10 the disciples are chuffed, they’ve seen God’s Kingdom power at work, Jesus has sent out the seventy two and when they come back we read this . . .
The seventy-two returned with joy and said, “Lord, even the demons submit to us in Your name. So He told them, “I saw Satan fall like lightening from Heaven. Behold, I give you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy. Nothing will harm you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that you names are written in heaven.
Luke 10 : 17-20
OK Lord, so our names are written in heaven . . . but in what order?!
At that time Jesus rejoiced in the Holy spirit and declared, “I praise You, Father, Lord of Heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.
Luke 10 : 21
Jesus repeatedly takes the rank outsider in the culture of the day – a child, one with no status, no position, no power, and no voice – and says, receive the Kingdom like a child, change and become like a child.
The trap of greatness isn’t always about us thinking that we are great (or could be) – it is who we are looking to as examples of greatness . . .
Wow, so and so is great – they write books, they speak at conferences, they have written worship songs used all over the world.
I see the most remarkable people in the Kingdom every week, they don’t have a top ten podcast, they haven’t written a spiritual classic – it’s my joy and delight to hang out with the children in Rockin’ (kids club at church).
“Amen”. We usually say this at the end of our prayers – Hebrew for Amen literally means, “so be it.” In passages such as 1 Chronicles 16:36 this is how the term is used, at the end of a great prayer,
Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever. Cry out, “Save us, God our Saviour; gather us and deliver us from the nations, that we may give thanks to your holy name, and glory in your praise. Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, from everlasting to everlasting.
Then all the people said, “Amen” and “Praise the Lord.”
1 Chronicles 16 : 34-36
Placing the word amen at the end of a statement is a way of accepting, agreeing, or endorsing what came before.
Jesus, being Jesus, does something different. Jesus uses “Amen” before making a statement or giving a message more than 50 times in the gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. Leading off with amen not only implies that what follows is true but also that the person making the statement has firsthand knowledge and authority about it.
You need to be converted. That is what “change” means here. Literally in Greek, to “turn”. Jesus is saying you are heading in the wrong direction, you haven’t understood the Kingdom – you need to turn around and head in a fresh direction. Your role model for the direction you should now walk in? – A child.
Sometimes we don’t choose humility – we need to be humbled. Jesus has to cut across the puffed up arrogance of the “who is the greatest” question.
In Luke’s gospel Jesus says this,
Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me, welcomes the one who sent me. For the one who is least among you all is the greatest.
Luke 9 : 48
The Greek verb Jesus uses here for welcome “dechomai” was often used in the context of showing hospitality to guests. It carries with it the connotation of servanthood. What makes this teaching remarkable is that in the first century, taking care of children was a job fulfilled by members of the culture who were viewed as different, inferior, to the male disciples – women and slaves.
Jesus is saying in Luke’s gospel that the disciples need to take on the role of utmost humility. Later in Luke Jesus says, “the Kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”
Matthew brings these thoughts together in what Jesus says here – you need to change and become like children – not only, as Luke says, are children eligible to receive the Kingdom and valued within it – they are a model for you of what it means to receive it.
How do children model this? What is it that a child is telling us – simply by being one – of the Kingdom. Just a couple of things I’ve noticed, I’m sure there are more if we are paying attention!
- In little children especially there is a capacity for wonder and awe that means even the simplest things – taking a short walk together – becomes an epic adventure. Everything is incredible, “look at that” “look at this” . . .
- There is an insatiable curiosity, “how does this work?” “what does this do if I push this button or shove this in my mouth”.
- There is total trust . . . playing the trust game with my children when they were small, they would just say catch me – and start falling backwards like rigid planks. I’d just have to be there. At one point, it became a thing for them to launch themselves off the stairs, from the third or fourth step up, they would just cry, “daddy catch me!” and I’d have to get there as quick as I could before they just launched themselves expecting – knowing – i’d catch them!
- And, finally, children look and copy. They are fantastic imitators. Children see – children do. Isn’t that what it means to be an apprentice to Jesus? They might be copying us, but it is us who need to be copying them.
We need to not grasp for greatness, and need to not look in the wrong places for models of greatness.
When Jesus says “truly” we need to pay attention.
We need to change and become.
AND, here is a thing – for those of us who are parents / carers with children in our households – what does this look like? Are we only focused on teaching our children, telling our children what to do and how to do it, can we as adults in our own homes – sit in the presence of our own children and listen and learn from them? Might we humble ourselves and do that?
There is a lovely quote from Chesterton that I want to finish with, and it turns me back to that picture with Samuel – I don’t want to get old as an apprentice of Jesus!
Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. “Do it again” ” and the grown up person does it again until he / she is nearly dead. For grown up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite for infancy : for we have sinned and grown old and our Father is younger than we.
I want that “eternal appetite for infancy” – Jesus calls you and me, to change and become – to turn if we have been pursuing the Kingdom from a place of pride that values and seeks position and status – to that of a child.