18 At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 2 And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them 3 and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
5 “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, 6 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.
7 “Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation comes! And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. 9 And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the fhell3 of fire.
10 “See that you do not despise gone of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven. What do you think? 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? 13 And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. 14 So lit is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.
15 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. 16 But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 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 be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed6 in heaven. 19 Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” (Matthew 18:1-20)
“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.”
Jesus loved little children. Let me rephrase that Jesus loves little children. Jesus died for little children. It’s why he wants them to be baptized. It’s why he wants them to be raised up in the faith they are given in baptism. It’s why the church always has such concern for little children, because we are the body of Christ, here to do his work in this place, at this time. So we have Sunday school started today. We love it.
But I think we idealize children from time to time, and we let that get in the way of understanding what Christ has to say here. Children are not innocent. Most parents can tell you this of their own children, but they lose sight of this when it comes to the concept of children. Children need to be instructed in the faith because children are just as much prone to sin, to selfishness, to guile and so forth as adults. There probably isn’t a one of us in here who can’t tell of the embarrassment they caused their parents at the grocery store when mom told us we couldn’t have the candy bar, so we just stuck it in our pockets and walked out, only to be brought back in by our mom’s and having to return it to the grocer who let us off the hook because as children our good looks could let us get away with anything. But we knew it was wrong, that’s why we were so secretive about it. So it is that Jesus is not pointing to any virtue in children when he says we must become like one if we are to enter into the kingdom of heaven.
Children, there was no difference between a child and slave, except that if the child wasn’t sold as a slave the child would eventually be free. Children were told to do things that no one else wanted to do, and they took orders from everyone. They didn’t have time to think about being great, greater or greatest. That was the point. Children weren’t great. Jesus is telling the disciples to stop their stupid game. They aren’t serving God, they aren’t making themselves great in the kingdom of God. They are making themselves great in the kingdom of men, and in their own eyes. They become haughty. And God humble the haughty. He despises the haughty, the self-righteous. But he loves the humble.
The game is still played. This game that the disciples played. The who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. The real problem with it is it is self-defeating. It shows who the person really being loved is, and it is not your neighbor. That’s the hard thing with this game, trying to earn rewards in the kingdom of heaven, to be better than the person next to us and be recognized for it, by our neighbors or by God.
This isn’t to say that we should shun any recognition for good works. Life is full of paradoxes, and one of them is sometimes the humble have to receive thanks for the good they do.
The question is, what’s the motive? Good works done for selfish reasons are not good in anyone’s eyes. Now thankfully for us, motives can’t be seen by us. They can be suspected from time to time, but they cannot be seen. They can be seen by God. And so we have this conundrum. How do we do them? How do we do good works? How do we serve God in a God pleasing way? Well, we become like little children, and stop worrying about ourselves. We recognize ourselves to be unworthy servants who have never gone above and beyond what God has demanded us with his law of love.
Love is not selfish, arrogant or rude. Love is selfless. Love is not concerned about itself, but about the person it loves. So love does not take care of the poor in hopes for reward either temporal or eternal.
See this was a thing in medieval society before the reformation. The poor were needed and the needed to remain poor, so that the rich would have a way of earning their salvation! So you did just enough to help them stay poor so you could have some way of getting yourself out of your jam. You weren’t helping them, but yourself. This is one of those things that got Luther to see the whole hypocrisy surrounding the Medieval Catholic system of salvation. He began to see that good works done in such a manner were not good.
So it is that when people are told that they increase their sanctification by works, or that they receive extra rewards in heaven for their works the motivations appealed to ruin the chances for good works. Their sanctification isn’t increased by such efforts, it is decreased! Christians taught such things are actually robbed of their good works by the very people admonishing them to do good works.
So it is that out of his selfless love, Jesus Christ makes us all into children, children of the heavenly Father. He purchases us out of the kingdom of the law, the kingdom of death, the kingdom of the devil that promises rewards and punishments, offers us the carrot and beats us with the stick. He does this by dying for us on the cross. He purchases us not with gold or silver but with his holy precious blood and innocent suffering and death. He pays the price for all out sins. He washes us clean and makes us white as snow. And he does it so that there is nothing left for us to worry about. And I mean nothing! He totally levels it for us. And this is how we become children in his kingdom.
This isn’t to say that while we live in this world he won’t discipline us from time to time, and reward us from time to time. The law is still at work in this world and in our lives. But death can no longer claim us, and we are freed from worry, from anxiety, from having to wonder if we have done enough, or playing some game with other about who is doing what, who is better than who. We live in his grace. We live in his love. We love in his love. And from that love and for that love we love others that they might know the love of Christ, who with no hope of reward, who with no care for glory suffered and died even for those who despise him, who reject him, and who still find themselves playing games to see who is greatest in the kingdom of God.
Now the peace of God that surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.