The Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Love of God, and the Fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.
Matthew 18:1 At that time the disciples came to Jesus and said, “Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 2 And He called a child to Himself and set him before them, 3 and said, “Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5 And whoever receives one such child in My name receives Me; 6 but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. 7 “Woe to the world because of its stumbling blocks! For it is inevitable that stumbling blocks come; but woe to that man through whom the stumbling block comes! 8 “If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it from you; it is better for you to enter life crippled or lame, than to have two hands or two feet and be cast into the eternal fire. 9 If your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out and throw it from you. It is better for you to enter life with one eye, than to have two eyes and be cast into the fiery hell. 10 “See that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that their angels in heaven continually see the face of My Father who is in heaven. 11 For the Son of Man has come to save that which was lost. 12 “What do you think? If any man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go and search for the one that is straying? 13 If it turns out that he finds it, truly I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine which have not gone astray. 14 So it is not the will of your Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones perish. 15 “If your brother sins, go and show him his fault in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother. 16 But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18 Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven. 19 “Again I say to you, that if two of you agree on earth about anything that they may ask, it shall be done for them by My Father who is in heaven. 20 For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.” (NASB)
The assigned Gospel reading this morning contains a variety of topics and all seemingly in response to a rather stupid question posed to Jesus by His disciples. “Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
From that question Jesus teaches us the nature of Christian faith by using a child as an example of greatness in the kingdom of heaven, the serious nature of sin, the generosity of God’s forgiveness, the love God has for His little ones, and the serious consequences of leading His little ones astray, and the office and authority of ministry to forgive and retain sins.
Of all these topics and examples Jesus sets before us in this text the one topic that seems to underlie most of the Lord’s teaching in Matthew 18 is the topic of Christ’s the need to protect His children from sin and its consequences.
As I said, this whole discourse began when the disciples asked Jesus “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” In the preceding verses, Jesus taught them that the time of His suffering, death, and resurrection would soon be upon them. And what are they talking about? Who is the greatest and once again Jesus shows just how patient and kind He is toward us when we just don’t get it.
Jesus is about to yield to political power that will be used to wrongly judge and kill Him. The disciples are interested in collecting power. Since the fall into sin, people have been interested in power. Adam and Eve wanted to be like God knowing good and evil. Cain was jealous and angry that his brother Abel was held in higher esteem by the Lord God so he killed his brother Abel.
Even in more doctrinally faithful church bodies and synods like the one to which we once belonged, lust for political power and power over rostered members very often supercedes the truth, kindness, empathy, and compassion. It isn’t just the professional church bureaucrats guilty of this. At the congregational level, we often find ourselves trying to miro-managing one thing after another, often with the best intentions and in so doing, we forget that the purpose of all we do is to advance the Word and Sacrament ministry and the confession of Christ of the congregation.
In Jesus’s response to the question, “who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” Jesus lays waste any notion that we can work our way to the top or that our desire and ability to control the fate of the church in any given place.
2 “And He called a child to Himself and set him before them, 3 and said, ‘Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.’” Jesus did not pick as an example of true Christian greatness any of the disciples. He did not call to His side the women who frequently traveled with Him. Jesus called a child and teaches that the one who is humble like a child is the greatest in the Kingdom.
The disciples are focused on who is greatest in the kingdom. Jesus teaches that the real question, the question for everyone is who enters the kingdom of heaven.
The question then follows, as Christians what is it about a child that we are suppose to emulate? What is Jesus instructing us to be? After all, children are not as pure as the wind driven snow. We don’t have to teach them to be selfish and ego centric. They come out of the womb that way. They don’t care if mom is tried and hasn’t have a decent night’s sleep in weeks. When they are hungry, they want to be fed. When they are soiled and uncomfortable they want to be cleaned up and dry. When they want to be held, they want your attention.
As they grow and learn to talk, they say things like “no!” when they should say yes. They say things like “mine” when someone else takes an interest in something they believe is under their control. Children are physically weak. They are subject to the will of adults and they are constantly running around with runny noises.
Children haven’t developed the ability to think rationally. They are by nature rather ignorant and their ignorance has to be taught out of them. They are gullible and easily deceived. And when it comes to running things, neither church or state would fair well if both institutions were run by children. They’d be broke and entangled in petty bickering, absent the rule of law, and based entirely on who can get what and how much can be given away (Oh wait . . . you know what I am thinking).
In themselves, children have no inherent qualification to enter the Kingdom of Heaven, nor can they do anything that makes them worthy of the that kingdom. Instead of possessing great power, children are totally dependent on others for their very existence.
So did Jesus call a child to Himself to highlight these very human characteristics? I think not. Children are totally dependent. They bring no power to any situation. Jesus is teaching us to realize that when it comes to entering the kingdom of heaven, the church, we are totally dependent on His work and His Word.
We possess nothing of power or position with regard to the Kingdom of Heaven. St. Paul said it this way in 1 Corinthians 1:25 “The foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. 26 For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; 27 but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong.”
Like children, who are totally dependent on others for their very existence, we are totally dependent for our entrance into and continued existence in the Kingdom of heaven. For example, parents who bring their children to the baptismal font to be baptized. A member or pastor who invites a person to come to church or brings a word of comfort to one who is suffering.
Like children who are totally dependent on the family for food, shelter, and protection, for life itself, so we too are dependent on Christ, God’s Word, Baptism, preaching, and the Lord’s Supper for our place in the kingdom of heaven.
Here Jesus teaches us that the church is an agency of rescue. The church is an agency of rescue from sin, death, and the power of the devil. The church is a hospital not a spiritual fitness gymnasium or a good deed manufacturing plant with degrees, rewards, and places of honor.
Instead of being worried about being the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, the disciples then, and all Christians now, ought to focus on entering the kingdom of heaven by way of Christ’s work on the cross and His work in the church by way of the means of grace.
Thus the one who is helpless is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. This is the opposite of everything that is learned and done in the world. This world talks about empowering, or gaining power. Those with power are the greatest.
But the one who is the most helpless is the one who comes under God’s protection. “5 And whoever receives one such child in My name receives Me; 6 but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a heavy millstone hung around his neck, and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. 7 “Woe to the world because of its stumbling blocks! For it is inevitable that stumbling blocks come; but woe to that man through whom the stumbling block comes!” (Matthew 18:5–7)
Even the verses that deal with church discipline are about the helpless … the helpless one who has fallen into sin. All that Jesus says here is for the sake of the weak, the children of God. Just as a parent takes the threats of fire, traffic, gravity, sharpness, poison, and everything else that threatens the physical well being of a child seriously, so God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit take the sins that threaten the spiritual well-being seriously. So Jesus instructs us how to deal with sin.
1 John 5:16 “If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask and God will for him give life to those who commit sin not leading to death. There is a sin leading to death . . . 17 All unrighteousness is sin, and there is a sin not leading to death.”
When we were at our most helpless, when we were dead in trespasses and sin, the Lord treated us as the greatest in the kingdom. He took on our weakness and died that we might live. He rose that we might have eternal life with Him forever. It is He who takes the most helpless and makes them the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
God himself became helpless, humble, and lowly. He “emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. 8 Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
The one who needs no one’s help became not only a little child, but also a suffering, dying grown-up. He humbled himself even to death on the cross to secure God’s grace for these little ones.
This sinful world seeks greatness through power. Jesus Himself said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them.” (Matthew 20:25) That is the way of the world … get power and use it to control others.
But those who suffer these attacks for the sake of Christ, these are the little ones who are the greatest. Jesus said, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me.” (Matthew 18:5) In this way, the Holy Spirit works through the church to bear one another’s burdens.
Jesus Christ comes to us as the one who suffered, died on the cross, and rose from the dead. He comes to us in His Word. He also comes to us in the sacrament as He Himself gives us of His own body and blood in and with the bread and wine. We are His little ones – His precious children.
May the Peace that surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.