13th Sunday after Pentecost – A (Proper 18) LSB #353
Text – Matthew 18:4
Whoever humbles himself [to become] like this child is the greatest in the reign of heaven.
LIKE THIS CHILD
A story is told about Mohammed Ali, the heavyweight boxing champ who, during his career, was not known for his humility. During one of his many flights, the airplane ran into bad weather, so the pilot warned the passengers that they were encountering moderate turbulence.
Experienced travelers know that the word moderate in contrast to light means, “If you believe in prayer, now’s time to practice.” The passengers were instructed to fasten their seat belts, & everyone complied except Mohammed Ali. The stewardess asked him to please follow the pilot’s direction. Ali’s response was, “Superman don’t need no belt." The stewardess, did not miss a beat, when she replied, “Superman don’t need no airplane.” The saying, “Pride comes before the fall” is basically a summary of a Bible verse in the book of Proverbs: “Pride goes before destruction, & a haughty spirit before a fall.” (Proverbs 16:18 ESV) Jesus’ disciples, like all of us, were susceptible to the same temptations:
“At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, ‘Who is the greatest in the reign of heaven?’” After all, the very Son of God had personally chosen each one of them to be His disciple. They might have been thinking, “We have some pretty impressive credentials!” Don’t people just love to hear how impressive they are? Haven’t you seen the Hollywood stars strutting across the stage to receive their reward? Have you seen a politician or two, at their victory speech, gushing about how they are going to change the world so that it’s a better place? If any of them actually believed in sin, it’s as if they were going to single handedly rid the world of Satan himself.
“At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, ‘Who is the greatest in the reign of
heaven?’” Talk about pride coming before the fall; those 12 followers of Jesus certainly are full of it. We should also consider that St. Matthew is writing this while looking back at himself as one of the men asking such a misguided question. Sadly, wondering who’s the greatest isn’t all that unusual, even among us today.
We may be aware enough not to ask the question, but there’re other ways we make our feelings & desires known. Trying to cut to the head of the line is a common one. Weaseling our way out of doing the menial chores is another. Feeling deprived when someone else deservedly gets credit for a job well-done is a sure sign that we expect to receive special treatment.
Questions like, “Who is the greatest?” come naturally to sinful creatures. For a sinful human being to humble himself is not at all natural, yet that is precisely the behavior which Jesus commends to us: “Whoever humbles himself [to become] like this child is the greatest in the reign of heaven.” This morning we’re going to focus on the phrase ‘like this child.’
To begin with, every Christian needs to understand that it is God’s will not to leave us where we’re at when He finds us. It is always our heavenly Father’s desire to improve our character. He sees growth in humility as a good thing. So, what does it mean to humble yourself [to become] ‘like this child?’
Answering that question gives us the key to understanding Jesus’ teaching in the entire 18th chapter of St. Matthew’s Gospel. In the ancient world there was no branch of government named Child Protective Services. Many of the Romans used to put their unwanted children outside the city walls, where, as evening arrived, the wild animals would eat them.
In Jesus’ day, children were completely helpless & totally dependent upon their parents for their survival. Because of the courts, along with all the rules & regulations of our society, children in our country are much more protected than they were in the land of Israel. To come up with someone who’s equivalent in helplessness & dependency today, Jesus would have to say: “Whoever humbles himself [to become] like this ‘unborn’ child is the greatest in the reign of heaven.” In the United States, a child in the womb has almost no rights whatsoever. Too many Americans they have no voice, no legal standing & are considered subhuman at best.
If we humble ourselves to become like that, then, Jesus says, we are the greatest in the reign of heaven. To our 21st century American ears that is a harshly shocking statement, which is exactly how Jesus meant it to be for the audience in His day.
If you want to be great, even in God’s kingdom, you must depend completely & totally on someone other than yourself to care & provide for you. To our sinful nature, that is absolute foolishness. It’s completely irrational. It’s like saying that Superman needs to wear his seat belt.
Have you ever thought about this? The wealthier a person becomes the more they isolate themselves from other people. They own larger & larger homes, finally ending up on an estate with fences & gates & security systems to keep other people away. Their goal is to become less & less dependent on others. That’s what they use their wealth for.
People strive to become great so they don’t have to depend on other people. Jesus says if you want to become great, you must depend on others more than anyone else. The apostle Paul explained our reaction to that in 1 Corinthians 2:
“The unbeliever does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him. And he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.” (1 Corinthians 2:14 NET) If Jesus’ teaching is causing you some anxiety, or to question whether or not you are a believer, remember that even God’s children struggle with unbelief.
Our sinful nature does not want to hear, it rebels against any of the words of God, but especially against the most pointed words. Remember, most Christians don’t mind taking up their pillow to follow Christ, but taking up their cross, now that’s another matter. Most Christians don’t really mind if Jesus comes to suffer & die on their behalf, but following in His footsteps with their own suffering & even death, that’s a bit more of a problem.
Our pride takes a hit as we come to grips with the fact that Jesus still rules in the world today through His foolishness & suffering. You see, it’s not just you & me as individuals that are called by God to be totally helpless & dependent. It is also the Church, the very body of Christ, that is following in the footsteps of the Infant Jesus, born in a manger, no crib for a bed.
In the reign of heaven, here on earth, there is no place whatsoever for self-sufficiency. Apart from Christ we can do nothing. Our sinful nature, our pride, will always struggle with the fact that the weakest & the most dependent Christians are seen by our heavenly Father as the greatest among us. If you think about it, those are the people Jesus ministered to while on earth.
Jesus lived a life that was totally dependent upon His Father’s care. He spent 40 days in the wilderness with nothing to eat & then was tempted by the devil to turn stones into bread. Jesus countered his temptation with the truth that, “…man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” (Deuteronomy 8:3 ESV)
Those words are well-known by many Christians, but listen again to the context leading up to them: “… [God] humbled you & let you hunger & fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that He might make you understand that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.”
To have true life is to be a child of God, & that life only exists as we are utterly dependent upon Christ & His provision for us. The moment we move to leave Jesus behind, in even the slightest way, is the moment that pride begins to orchestrate our downfall.
Now that we understand what true greatness entails we can begin to apply Jesus’ teaching
to our own lives & circumstances. First off, in receiving those who are young children, helpless & dependent, unable to earn their keep, we are told by Christ that we are receiving Him. So, if we want to know Jesus, one way to do that is to receive the little children. Our childcare center & elementary school are thus a direct connection for you & me to know Christ.
In addition, the members of our congregation whose health is poor & cannot make it here on Sunday mornings, they also qualify as the needy & dependent who are the greatest in the reign of heaven. There are plenty of ministry opportunities for us to reach out & care for them.
The text from Matthew moves on to the issue of temptation. With exaggerated language, Jesus makes the point how much better it is to live life crippled or lame or blind, conditions that none of us would naturally recognize as greatness, than to be thrown into the eternal fires of hell with a body that is whole & healthy & great in the eyes of the world.
Finally, if your brother sins against you, he is now needy & dependent upon your generosity to lead him back to repentance, & to life. You hold, for him, the keys to the reign of heaven in his heart. Go to him one on one, in order to win him back, rather than gossiping about his sin to everyone you meet.
If one sheep goes astray the man who has them will leave the 99 to seek & to find the lost one. According to Jesus Himself, the most important Christian in our fellowship in Christ is the one who is weakest, struggling the most, greatly in need of patience, nurture & forgiveness.
There are times & situations in which each of us can end up especially beaten down by sin, evil & Satan, finding ourselves in dire need. In that hour any of us can be one of the little ones who are the greatest. Thus we are to look at our brothers & sisters in Christ with new eyes, with the eyes of faith, because we may be seeing one who is greatest in the reign of heaven.
God doesn’t leave us where we’re at when He finds us. Our Lord seeks to break the will
to greatness in His disciples & bids them turn instead, to become like children in order to enter the kingdom of heaven. If we resist His efforts to transform us, we’re rejecting God’s will for us, which is heaven. If we shall not live by God’s Word of forgiveness, we shall die by it. Repentance & humility are gifts that come with forgiveness. To reject them is to reject true life.
Ultimately, the message we offer is about the One, who while being the greatest, gave up everything to become the Least. He came here to die on the cross in order to rescue & to save the lost. And where two or three are gathered in Jesus’ name, there He is among them. He is among us today, & you may even see Him in the face of a child. His promise is for you, & your children. His Word tells us that, & in a few minutes He’ll be offering you that promise again in His body & blood, given & shed for you for the remission of your sins. Amen.
Jesus came, the heavens adoring, came with peace from realms on high; Jesus came to win redemption, lowly came on earth to die; came in deep humility. Jesus comes again in mercy when our hearts are worn with care; Jesus comes again in answer to the earnest, heartfelt prayer; comes to save us from despair. Jesus comes to hearts rejoicing, bringing news of sins forgiven; Jesus comes with words of gladness, leading souls redeemed to heaven. Alleluia! Alleluia! Hope to all the world is given. Amen.
Pastor Dean R. Poellet