Today we continue our series Upside Down: Life in the Kingdom looking at teachings of Jesus that seem so upside down from the world in which we live. Seem so opposite of what we are taught growing up in our world today (and also then as well).
Two weeks ago Matt, Laura and Eric helped us explore the way up is down and what humility as a follower of Jesus looks like. Last week we talked about this radical, subversive, countercultural call that Jesus wants his disciples to live out, the call to love our enemies, to do good to those who hate us, to bless those that curse us, and to pray for those who mistreat us.
This week we’ll be exploring a question that always seemed to be on the lips of the disciples….who is the greatest in the Kingdom? And as is the case in Jesus teaching, it isn’t what the disciples (or you and I) would think. It is again another upside down Kingdom answer that Jesus gives.
Let’s explore this question together and see how Jesus answers this question about greatness in the Kingdom. To do so let’s turn to Matthew 18:1-5.
“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. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”
So in this story we see the disciples coming to Jesus and asking him who is the greatest in the Kingdom of heaven. We know that this question was something that the disciples thought a lot about. We know that the argued about where to sit when they ate. They thought a lot about place, power and prestige. And they dialogued around who was greater than the others.
Something else that we also need to know is that Matthew talks a lot about the Kingdom of Heaven, which is just another way of saying Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is where the rule and reign of Jesus/heaven touch down on the earth. So let’s not think in the terms of Kingdom of Heaven meaning this place, where you go when you die, where Jesus is King. Let’s think of here and now and the not yet, where Jesus rules and reigns right here and right now, where heaven and earth overlap and interlock, but also at the eschaton when Jesus will fully rule and reign.
When the disciples asked Jesus this question they no doubt had a list of people that they thought would make the Greatest in the Kingdom list. Each of them thought that they would be on the list. But no doubt they had people who had done great things for the Jewish people (and by definition for God). People like Judas Maccabeus, who led the Maccabean Revolt against the Seleucid Empire (167–160 BCE). The Jewish feast of Hanukkah ("Dedication") commemorates the restoration of Jewish worship at the temple in Jerusalem in 164 BCE, after Judah Maccabee removed the Hellenistic statuary. And so they asked Jesus hoping that they would be on the list and that their own heroes (usually those who took up the sword to defeat the “evil” powers that be) would also be on the list. But Jesus, as he so often did, flipped the answer upside down, and answered the question in a way that none of the disciples would have ever thought to answer it in. Jesus took their list and threw it out the window.
After the disciples asked him the question of who was the greatest in the Kingdom, Jesus finds a child and brought that child in the middle of the conversation. He answered their question by showing them a child and saying, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” This was a radical, upside-down, countercultural way to answer the question, because no one thought that children would have been on the list. You see children in the ancient world were frequently seen as only half-human until they had reached puberty, perhaps for the worrying reason that until they were available as sexual partners- adults wouldn’t want to know about them. Children in the ancient world were property and were to be seen and not heard. According to commentator R.T. France, “A child was a person of no importance in Jewish society, subject to the authority of His elders, not taken seriously except as a responsibility, one to be looked after, not one to be looked up to.” Girls, especially bore the brunt of this. They suffered the most. Newborn girls were often simply thrown away- left to starve or be eaten by predators or sold for prostitution at an early age.
When we see the Greek word for child here in this text what we need to know that the word for child in the NT is neither masculine or feminine but neuter. A child wasn’t a He or She but an it. While there may be no way to figure out if this child was a boy or a girl, my best guess, and one that would be even more upside down and countercultural from the prevailing culture, would be that this child was a little girl. A girl would make with special clarity the point Jesus was wanting to get at. In the disciples minds a girl child would be the weakest, most vulnerable, and least significant human being in their mind. But to Jesus and in the Kingdom the weakest, most vulnerable, least significant human begin you can think of is the clearest possible signpost to what the Kingdom of God will be like. In God’s Kingdom, the future time when heaven rules of earth- won’t be about survival of the fittest. It won’t be the result of some long evolutionary process in which the strongest, fastest, the loudest, the angriest, people get to the front ahead of everyone else.
No, when the Kingdom rules and reigns in our lives now, and also when it comes into it’s fullness, it is the humble, the powerless, the marginalized, the poor and oppressed, the pushed aside who are great in the Kingdom. And in that day and age who more represented the humble, the powerless, the marginalized, the poor and oppressed and the pushed aside then children?
So Jesus calls his followers then and he calls his followers now to become like little children if they want to enter into his Kingdom. He is not saying that we are to have childish faith, where we scream to get our own way, where we whine and complain, and where we want to be all about us. No. We are to have childlike faith not childish faith.
But what does it look like to be great in the Kingdom like a little child? I have a few thoughts about what it means to be great in the Kingdom like a child.
First, I think about humility. Most children know that they don’t know it all. They realize they need to grow and learn and don’t have it all figured out. That is something those of us who are following Jesus need to remember with our theology. We don’t have it all figured out. Author Leonard Sweet puts it this way, “I warn students that at my very best, 80 percent of my theology is correct, 20 percent is wrong. The problem is, I'm not sure which is the 80 percent and which isn’t.” I’m not saying that we should keep an open hand with everything regarding God and our theology. For me, my core and what isn’t up for debate with me revolves around the person, mission and ministry of Jesus. His teachings, his life, his death and his resurrection and how we redeems all of creation, and sets it all right. That, for me is my center and I’m willing to explore how to grow deeper into my center but I’m not budging on that. But there are a ton of other things in my theology that I’m not 100 percent sure of, that I am willing to look at again, and explore some more. I am saying that if we think we have God in our box and we have him figured out, he will blow apart our box, squirm out of it, and end up somewhere else. And if we believe God is in our box, that God is a very very small God. So let’s hold our theology and belief about God with some humility especially in our interactions with those who are seeking and questioning. After all the opposite of faith is not doubt but certainty.
Closely connected to that is the idea that to be great in the Kingdom, and to approach faith like a little child, is to be inquisitive and approach faith with eyes wide open, like you are seeing it for the first time. If you have ever spent any time at all with young kids you know that one of their favorite words is why. Why is the sky blue? What is the grass green? Why do you have grey hair? Why do you have a mustache mommy? I think all too often we get tired of all the why questions, and then we transfer that thought to God and question whether God gets tired of why questions. But I really truly believe that one of the thing that Jesus was getting at by bringing a child into the disciple’s midst that day, was saying that if we are to be great in the Kingdom, we need to be inquisitive and ask God questions. We might be afraid of people’s questions and I’ve heard it before, “Why can’t you just believe?” and they frame it in such a way that they quote this text as a way to backup their thoughts about not asking questions…But that is really just childish faith and not childlike faith. But God is not afraid of our questions…so ask him. And I think a community of people who follow after this God should not be afraid of questions either. One of the dreams that I have for this community is to be the type of community who can have substantial conversations around things that matter most, and be open to questions, and doubt. So instead of being known as a people who are afraid of questions, let’s be like little kids and ask God and each other a bunch of questions and then let’s work together, let’s dialogue around these questions, and let’s be open to others asking questions as well. Maybe something that we could do quarterly is to have a night full of questions about faith. Maybe called Doubt Night or Elephant in the Room or A Night of Questions.
Lastly, what does it mean to be great in the Kingdom? Look at what Jesus says himself at the end of our Scripture text. Verse 5 says, “And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” Jesus is certainly calling for his disciples, the church, to welcome children into their midst. To move away from how society in that time saw children- seen and not heard, to seeing children who are following Jesus not as the church of tomorrow, but as the church of today as well. We are a family here church and part of our family are children (though we could definitely use more children). So are we welcoming children in his name? Are we helping the children we do have find, experience, and come to know Jesus? Or do we wish we could just see them but not hear them. How many of us never engage the children in our midst in conversation, pretending that they aren’t there. This is wrong. If you want to be great in the Kingdom of God, then welcome the children that we already have in our midst, and also those who may come in the future.
But it also goes beyond children. Jesus is also calling his disciples, his church, to be a people who embrace the broken, the hurting, the poor, the marginalized, and the outcast. He is calling his disciples not to run after the seats of power. He is calling his disciples not to fawn over the rich, powerful, beautiful, and the privileged. We are to discriminate based on power, money, and influence. We are to be open to all people, all walks and kinds of people. Rich, poor, white, black, American, European, Japanese, etc… And we are to welcome them in Jesus name, because according to Him, when we welcome them, we are welcoming him. Kind of sounds like the parable of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25 doesn’t it? How are we doing church in welcoming children and those who are like children (how they were seen in 1st Century?)
So let’s talk about a little further about what God may be saying to us as individuals and as a community about being great in the Kingdom, about being humble, about asking questions, and about welcoming others into our midst. Let’s see what God may have for us in our time of unpacking and discussion.