Calling to Himself a child, [Jesus] put him in the midst of them and said: “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”
In His conversation with the Twelve, Jesus says some tough words, as well as words of great promise and comfort. That is the way that the Lord God speaks to you and all humanity. There are times when no mincing of words is allowed. Strewn throughout the speech of Jesus that you heard today are many unminced words, statements that pull no punches. He speaks authoritatively as the Son of God. It is good that He does so, for you need to hear both the clear statements of disapproval, as well as the even clearer statements of promise.
The very beginning of the conversation starts badly. You heard what the disciples asked Jesus: “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” It’s an interesting question to ask Jesus, the Son of the Living God. The answer seems painfully obvious, but it was as if the disciples were totally oblivious to it. Note the wording again: “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Most people would say: “Well, I suppose that Jesus is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” And yet, the Twelve ask the question about themselves. They have heard Jesus speak about this kingdom, and they want to know their rank in it, hoping to be the greatest.
But the response that Jesus gives teaches the Twelve. He doesn’t immediately say: “What sort of question is that? Obviously, I am the greatest.” Instead, Jesus teaches His disciples a lesson about how greatness works in the kingdom of heaven, how it differs much from how the world assigns rank. “Calling to Himself a child, He put him in the midst of them and said: ‘Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.’”
Note both what Jesus does and says, for both are necessary to learn the lesson that He teaches His disciples. “He put [the child] in the midst of them.” Children are on the lowest rung in society. What is their worth or value, in practical terms? They constantly need things done for them. They occupy parents’ time, attention, and effort. Their production level of beneficial things is minimal. And yet, Jesus uses a child as the visual example of “who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”
Not only does He use the child as the visual example, Jesus also makes a comment about the character of that child: “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” Being humble, being low on the totem pole, being like this child makes one “greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” That is how greatness is measured by the Lord God.
This response that Jesus gives the Twelve teaches them about humility. But it teaches them something even more than that. What Jesus describes by showing the disciples the child and talking about self-humiliation is more than just a warning against arrogance or some self-help advice not to take yourself too seriously. In fact, it’s really not about that at all. Jesus’ actions and words talk about Himself. They are a roundabout way of describing what He is.
Last Sunday you heard about the necessity of Jesus “to suffer many things, to be put to death, and to rise again” in order to fulfill His mission as the Redeemer of the world. This humiliation makes Jesus “the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” And last week you also heard that being a disciple of Jesus requires “denying yourself, picking up your cross, and following Him.” Again, humility is essential to what Jesus and His mission and discipleship are all about. Whoever wants to be “greatest in the kingdom of heaven” must “humble himself,” make himself nothing, but then receive what the Lord God has to offer: forgiveness, everlasting life, and salvation. Being like that child that Jesus placed in the midst of His disciples brings a divinely-given greatness, something that cannot be earned but can be thwarted by self-pride or arrogance.
This answer that Jesus gives to the disciples’ misguided question teaches that He is the greatest. But Jesus also shows the Twelve that His greatness isn’t something that He clings onto and hordes for Himself; rather, His greatness is also meant to be shared with those who “turn and become like children.” That phrase that Jesus uses has language about repentance and rebirth, which both include humbling oneself.
Repentance means more than just admitting guilt; it is a confession that you are under the law, under someone else’s command, namely the Lord God. Repentance humbles you, because it dismisses any sort of notion that you determine what is right for your own life and admits that you are flawed and in need of help for salvation. Rebirth is the gift that the Lord God bestows on His humbled people. But it also means that you start from Stage One. Whether you have been given the rebirth in Holy Baptism as a child—as you witnessed today with Lily and Luke—or as a young adult or as a senior citizen, your life as Christ’s disciple began at spiritual infancy. The Lord God gives you a new life: you are made newborn children of God who follow their Father and grow into maturity, becoming like Jesus and being made “great in the kingdom of heaven.”
That is the promise made by Jesus for His disciples. Throughout the conversation that He had with the Twelve, there were references to the privileged status that even the least in the kingdom of heaven has. Those who “turn and become like children” receive good things from the Eternal Father. The Lord God’s children have a protected status, especially in youth: “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of My Father who is in heaven.” Jesus talks about the grave concern that the Lord God has for His children: “Whoever receives one such child in My name receives Me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.”
This humble status that Jesus wants His people to have, that He wants you to have, is meant for good. The Lord God doesn’t use the humility as a punishment, but as a means to lead you to a greatness that is beyond what you could ever achieve or arrogate for yourself. He makes you a child, so that you can be led by Him. The Eternal Father wants you to be part of His household; but to be part of His household requires being reborn and made reliant on Him. Your Lord wants to teach you, to mold you, just as your parents taught and molded you and as you do likewise for your children. There is a legacy to be handed down to these who have actually been adopted by the Lord God: “to enter the kingdom of heaven.” That is the end goal that is in store for the disciples of Jesus.
All of this hinges on “turning and becoming like children.” All of it depends upon being redeemed by and incorporated into the One who “is greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” That end goal of “entering the kingdom of heaven” doesn’t come for those who are spiritually arrogant or want to make themselves great by their own efforts. Greatness here on earth really matters nothing in eternity. The pride-seeking question of the disciples was not commended at all; rather, such thinking would keep them from “entering the kingdom of heaven.”
What makes someone truly great, what brings salvation has nothing to do with you, but everything to do with Jesus and what He provides. He has the absolution, the total forgiveness, for the sins you have committed but repent of. Christ has the authority to give the life of the world to come to those whose earthly lives will draw to a close. Jesus has the righteousness that every human being lacks, but that He bestows to all who have been brought back into the fold, made right in the presence of God.
Jesus told His disciples: “If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of My Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.” That describes perfectly how Christ fulfilled the will of His Father that none of you should perish. It describes what has Jesus has already done.
And the most remarkable thing about all this is that Jesus accomplished it by being practicing what He preached. He became “greatest in the kingdom of heaven” by being the least on earth. Christ was like the child that He put in front of the Twelve. Being the obedient Son of the Living God, Jesus humbled Himself unto death, even death on the cross, doing His Father’s will. And that same Jesus was raised on the third day and given “authority over all things in heaven and earth.”
Thus it is Jesus “who is the greatest,” seated at the right hand of the Father for all eternity. And what He has for you is the same destiny, as “you turn and become like children.” For by being humble, repentant, and dependent children here on earth, you shall also be raised up by that Greatest One and numbered with His saints in glory everlasting.
T In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.