Scripture: At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And calling to him 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. 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.” Matthew 18:1-6 ESV
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Observation: Recapping yesterday’s Daily Focus (click here to read it), Matthew, the former tax collector for the Romans, tells us that as they traveled back to their home base in Capernaum, where the collectors of the two-drachma temple tax approach Peter and question whether his rabbi pays the tax. Jesus hears their conversation and poses a rhetorical question regarding whether kings tax their children. Peter correctly answers, No. Jesus adds that the sons are free. But to avoid offense, he commands Peter to go to the Sea of Galilee, cast his hook, draw the first fish to bite the bait from the water, retrieve the shekel from its mouth, and then take it to the tax collectors as payment for the two of them.
In the next scene (of which there is no specific time marker or location), Matthew records an embarrassing moment for the disciples as they argue over who’s the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Albeit Matthew tones it down, Mark tells us the disciples disputed along the way and, when challenged by Jesus, fell silent (9:33-38, click here to read). And Luke writes that Jesus first discerned their rival thoughts before confronting them (9:46-48, click here to read). Nevertheless, Jesus Graciously illustrates the essential attitude of achieving honor as a kingdom worker by calling a child to him and explaining that unless they exhibit the humility of a child, they will miss entering the kingdom of heaven, let alone establishing their rank as one of the greatest.
Lastly, Jesus commends those who care for the young in the faith, for they minister to him as such. But, if they cause any to sin, they would be better off dead—yikes.
Takeaway: The principle Jesus teaches at this moment with his disciples echoes from the Beatitudes when Jesus first said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (5:3 ESV). And it adds to his later teaching when he told the disciples, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will” (11:25-26 ESV). In all three instances, childlike faith and humility are in view. There’s no room for leaning on their understanding or seeking self-promotion. Moreover, in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus cautions his disciples not to think too highly of themselves because they are only doing their duty: “So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty'” (17:10 ESV). Thankfully, for our benefit, they will mature with a childlike faith that exhibits trust, humility, and a servant’s attitude when they go and make disciples of all nations.
And the word of encouragement regarding the young in faith aligns with his earlier teaching in Matthew’s Gospel about caring for his workers: “And whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward” (10:42 ESV). But the abuse or neglect of the vulnerable is a warning Jesus will later revisit (25:41-46, click here to read). And his disciples will communicate a similar warning to the fledgling churches they oversee. For example, Paul, writing to the church in Corinth, cautions them not to exercise their liberties (as they mature in their understanding of their freedom in Christ) at the expense of causing the young in the faith to stumble: “But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak” (1 Corinthians 8:9 ESV).
So what’s our takeaway? If we want to be the Father and Son’s honored kingdom workers, like Jesus’ first disciples, we need to walk closely with Christ through his Holy Spirit’s guidance to avoid the pitfall of thinking too highly or lowly of ourselves. Either extreme is overthinking ourselves. Instead, if we want to live and serve well in the kingdom of God, we must remain teachable and think beyond ourselves to the needs of others. And, as with Jesus’ first disciples, his Holy Spirit will call us out and deepen our understanding of his grace when we misstep.
Prayer: Father God, we thank you for your Son, our humble Suffering Servant who thought beyond himself and embraced his cross to save us from our sin-marred egos. And we thank you for your Holy Spirit, who exposes our blind spots with your Son’s truth and grace and surrounds us with a godly community of believers who will support, encourage, and hold us accountable. So would you please help us to remain humble and teachable and think beyond ourselves to the needs of others so that we might be your honored kingdom workers? Amen.
Rev. Gordon Green, M.Div., M.A. Counseling