Have you ever wondered, if someone is bald, what hair color do they list on their driver’s license? If you woke up to be the only person left on earth, what will do? Why do banks have branches, if money doesn’t grow on trees? Since tomatoes are considered a fruit, is ketchup a smoothie? Why is it called the first birthday when really it’s the second? Why is it called rush hour when it’s the slowest time in traffic?
I will admit, these are some weird questions to ask. I found a website and actually saw a video just yesterday which has a lot more of these, but I’ll spare you. But let’s say someone really did come up to you and asked you one of these kinds of questions … you’d probably look at them with this really puzzled face and say something like, “what kind of question is that?” Those are not really good questions to ask.
We have one of those not so good questions to ask in our gospel reading this morning. “at that time the disciples came up to Jesus and asked”. Here we go … ready for it? “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (Matthew 18:1). I don’t know if Jesus would actually do this, but I imagine Him giving the disciples a look of befuddlement and be like, “what kind of question is that?”
Thing is … that little question, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” is not an innocent little question. It is a question which really reveals that something is wrong the disciple’s thinking. Some questions are like that.
As parents, we hear them all the time. And when hear them, we can tell by how the question is asked that someone is not right. How many times have we heard from our kids, “Why should I have to do the dishes?” or “Why do we need to do the laundry?” or “Why do Ineed to clean my room again?”
Parents or adults in general, we aren’t off the hook either. How many times have you asked, “How can I or we get out of going to the family reunion?” or “How come I can’t just sleep in?” Or if you’re the disciples of Jesus, “Should we call down fire from Heaven to destroy them?”
You only ask such a question when something lurking is in the background, if there is something lying just below the surface. So, the disciples, when they open their mouths and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”, they revealed that their minds were not set on the things of God, but instead on the things of man. And this was not the first time, nor would it be the last time that this kind of thinking took place.
We heard it in last week’s Gospel reading. Jesus was talking to the disciples about how He must go to Jerusalem, suffer at the hands of sinful men, be killed, and raised to life three days later. Peter takes Jesus aside and is like, “Are you nuts Lord? What kind of statement is that? This will never happen to you! Not on my watch!” Jesus then turns to Peter and says, “Get behind me, Satan! … You do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men” (Matthew 16:22-23). We can also see this in a couple chapters after our reading when the mother of James and John essentially tell Jesus to grant her sons the ability to sit at His right and left hand in the eternal kingdom (Matthew 20:21). “What kind of question is that?”
So what does the question the disciples ask Jesus reveal? It reveals that they are thinking of earthly things. The question reveals the all too common persistence of humans striving after greatness and the recognition which goes with it. In the last 2,000 years, not much has changed.
We think up and get involved with the greatest starting line-up in the history of the game. How many shows are there where a host annually hands an award to the greatest singers, actors, writers, movie directors, or athletes We call ourselves and think of ourselves as the greatest nation on earth. We search for leaders who will keep it this way or make us great again.
This happens in our personal lives as well. Students strive to sit at the top of their class. Our athletes want to win the championship; they want to be the most valuable player on the team. Youth, and even some adults, want to have the best Instagram picture or the best TikTok video. They want to have more followers than anyone else. Workers fight for promotions to move up the ladder.
This thinking even sneaks into the Church. Church leaders of big congregations begin to think they are greater than the struggling congregation on the other side town or out in the country. Leaders of the struggling congregation begin to think their faithfulness is greater simply because they are small. The saying is true: All comparisons are repulsive and extremely destructive, especially when the point of comparison is how great you are!
To this human way of thinking of greatness … Jesus inserts a child. Do you want to be great? Then become like a child.
Now we need to understand something here … what we think of as a child today is different in how a child was thought of back in the time of Jesus. This was no elevation of the innocence of children. This was not a false notion of child-like trust. Besides, even the notion that children are innocent is just ridiculous. Children are not innocent. They get into everything. There is a reason why we have to child-proof our homes when those little ones figure out how to crawl or scoot across the floor.
And even though I would toss my kids up in the air and catch them, they didn’t trust me. I remember swimming in the lake in Missouri and the kids were on the boat dock. They had their life jackets on so they weren’t going to drown. I knew that. So I was like, come on, jump, you can do it. I’ll catch you. I promise! They’re like, “Are you nuts? Do you take me for some kind of fool? That water’s deep. You can’t even stand up.” Okay, they didn’t actually say that, but you could tell by their body language.
Children in the days of Jesus, they had no standing, no position, and no honor. They didn’t rule the house and have their parents drive them to school, soccer practice, piano lessons, McDonalds. Children in the days of Jesus … they were nobodies. And that’s the point.
“Who is the greatest?” According to the mind of God, the greatest does not come from accomplishment or advancement or accolades. To be the greatest … that is to become the least.
Philippians 2 fits in really well here. “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped.” Even though Jesus is God, He didn’t want to be compared to God. “Did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness” Jesus, the lord of Lords and king of Kings, was born in a stinky, messy manger. His bed was a feeding trough, not a royal crib. “And being found in the appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross!” Jesus died the death of the lowest kind of criminal there was. Jesus goes from being glorified by angels and arch angels and all the company of heaven, to having blood matted in His hair and dried on skin, having dirt covering His body, and dying on a wretched tree. He did that for you, so that you wouldn’t have to suffer the consequences of your sins. Jesus suffered and died so that you can be counted as a child of our Heavenly Father.
But there’s more. “Therefore God exalted Him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name” (2:5-9). God raised Jesus from the depths of hell, from the depths of the grave, to live and reign on high.
“Have this mind about you” Paul says. Jesus emptied Himself of everything, humbled Himself, gave Himself to death, even death on a cross. This is the mind of Jesus, whose mind “is yours in Christ Jesus.”
“Who is the greatest in the kingdom of God?” “What kind of question is that?” An extremely important one because the greatest … that is the One who makes Himself nothing for His disciples, for you, for me. The strength of Christ in weakness is our salvation and our hope. It is also our call and our privilege. So, I invite you to set your mind on Jesus’ conception of greatness and humble yourself as you live your life for others and to God’s honor and glory. Amen.
The peace of God, which surpasses all human understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our greatest Lord and Savior, now and forever. Amen.