What Does It Mean to be Great?

Matthew 18:1-14

“What Does It Mean to be Great?”


            Little kids, especially babies, aren’t they just the most precious things you’ve ever seen?  I mean really, the cuteness radar just goes off the scale!  There are not many people who pass up the opportunity to hold a baby and just snuggle or cuddle up with it.  So innocent, so pure!  Besides, what parent has ever thought, “man, I sure do have an ugly baby?”  No!  Children are the most adorable thing ever!

            Even when they are in preschool or just starting out in school … they are the most innocent things!  Their minds are so pure!  They are excited about school, excited about seeing their friends, even if they do have to wear a mask.  With the whole having to wear a mask thing, they are even more excited to go outside, take it off, and play.  They are just so full of happy energy!  And even with some little ones … there is a little bit of love and romance found in the playground air.

            Oh and the things they say!  You just need to check out the Facebook page of any parent who has toddlers or kids in the younger grades to know that they can say some of the most absolute cutest and funniest things.

            And their smart too!  So insightful! Robert Fulghum wrote a book back in 1990 entitled, “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.”   Yeah, some of you are nodding your head.  You know what I’m talking about.  Listen to this little excerpt from that book.   

            “All I really need to know I learned in kindergarten. ALL I REALLY NEED TO KNOW about how to live and what to do and how to be I learned in kindergarten. Wisdom was not at the top of the graduate-school mountain, but there in the sandpile at Sunday School. These are the things I learned:

            Share everything.  Play fair.  Don’t hit people.  Put things back where you found them.  Clean up your own mess.  Don’t take things that aren’t yours.  Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.  Wash your hands before you eat.  Flush.  Warm cookies and cold milk are good for you.” So much truth to this.

            We have all these positive things which we can say about kids.  Kids teach us a lot about ourselves and they are viewed many times in a positive light.

            Not so much though in the Jewish context of the first century.  Not so much in the time when Jesus physically walked and talked on this earth.  You can look high and low in searching for something positive said about kids in the first century and no matter how hard you look …you won’t find it. 

            So when Jesus is asked by Peter, “who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”, I love how Jesus proceeds to teach without ever answering addressing Peter’s question.  Jesus looks around, calls a little child over to him, has this child stand next to him, and begins to teach what it means to be great.

            Understand, we may see this as being sweet and innocent of Jesus, but this is scandalous.  People would have started gossiping about this with their neighbor because the view of children for the first century listener is not like the innocent, perfect, and insightful view which we have of children.  Children in a Jewish context are seen as being willful, stubborn, foolish, unable to do anything for themselves, and lowly.  They have absolutely nothing to offer, nothing to contribute.  They are totally dependent on someone else. 

You could say they are a lot like sheep.  They’re as cute as can be, but we all know that sheep are pretty dumb at times.  Sheep tend to wander off and they naturally are getting themselves in trouble.  If you think about it … the Bible doesn’t tell us that we need to train up a child in how to be bad, they do that naturally.  Instead Proverbs tell us to “Train up a child in the way he should go; and when he is old, he will not depart from it” (Prov. 22:6).

            But notice, even though the sheep like to wander … Jesus says that the owner leaves the ninety-nine in a safe spot and goes to search for the one which is lost.  If he finds it, Jesus says, “the owner 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 be lost” (Matt. 18:13-14).  These little ones, this child standing with Jesus, they are extremely important to God.

            But let’s not get ahead of ourselves here and say that because we are a child of God that we are extremely important to God.  Right after Peter asks his ridiculous question of Jesus, notice what Jesus does.  Besides not directly answering Peter’s questions, Jesus calls to a child to come and stand next to him.  He does this unthinkable thing, directs everyone’s attention to the child and says that “Unless you become like little children, unless you become like this child right here next to me … you will never enter the kingdom heaven.  Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (18:3-4). 

            I can see the disciples standing there looking at Jesus wondering, “What in the world are you talking about Jesus?” Well, … he means that we need to be trusting, we need to be unpretentious.  We need to stop trying to impress others by our appearance, by our talents, or by the things we have.  We need to stop being judgmental of others.  We need to not pretend that we are better than who we really are.  We need to not pretend that we are better than that person over there.  We need to not pretend that we are, dare I say, better than God.

            Peter and the other disciples were having issues with this.  They thought that because they were Jesus’ disciples, because they had been chosen by him personally … they were better than the common person.  Jesus though, through the bringing of a little child into their midst, says that unless they humble themselves, unless you and I humble ourselves like this child and become completely dependent on God … they won’t enter the kingdom of heaven, we won’t enter the kingdom of God.

            Remember, children in Jesus’ day are seen as being willful, stubborn, foolish, unable to do anything for themselves, and lowly.  They have absolutely nothing to offer, nothing to contribute.  They are totally dependent on someone else.

Even today, the survival of any child … as much as Siri can do for us, as advanced as our kids are with technology … their survival requires their dependence on someone other than themselves, someone outside of themselves. 

For us today to really understand this … thinking about children in general doesn’t do it, especially in our American culture.  Our view of children in general is way too positive.  To understand this, if Jesus was here with us today in our culture, it would be as if Jesus took a severely handicapped down syndrome child and put them in our midst.  By some, this child would be viewed as useless, unable, the weakest, helpless, lowly, and insignificant.  The child would have nothing to offer … and yet Jesus says … become like this child.  This child would be totally dependent on their parents, their guardians for their whole life … and yet Jesus says … become like this child. 

Become totally dependent on God.  Like little children … you and I, we have nothing to offer.  There is nothing, quote unquote, “good” within us.  There is nothing which would naturally make God stop, turn and look at us.  Like little children … you and I, we need help.  We need someone other than ourselves, we need someone outside of ourselves to help us. 

And that someone is Jesus.   Without Jesus … we’d all be doomed and destined to a life, an eternal life of misery.  Think back to the beatitudes of Matthew chapter five.  The first beatitude … “blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (5:3).  Blessed are the ones who have nothing to offer God who already has everything.  To be like a child, to be like the precious one who Jesus is willing to pursue and bring back into the fold, to totally trust in God for absolutely everything, to be totally dependent on His love and grace to help us make it through the day, that … that is what it means to be great.  Amen.

The peace of God, which truly surpasses human understanding, guard your hearts and your mind in Christ Jesus our Lord, now and forever.  Amen.