May 6, 2024

JD Wilhelm
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

Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? The question of greatness is something that is frequently debated today in a variety of contexts. It happens in the realm of business, sports, and music. Greatness is often defined by net worth or share price, the number of championships a person wins, or how many records they sell. Our basic logic is to define greatness through competition and comparison. Throughout his life and ministry, Jesus fundamentally challenged how we define greatness in our world today. The disciples sought to understand the rules by which greatness was defined in the kingdom of heaven so they might be great in it. They ask, in effect, how they might climb to the top of the ladder. Jesus’ response instructs them on the strange distribution of power that defines the kingdom of heaven. Jesus’ purpose here is not to define a new structure for defining power that replaces the previous one. Instead, it is to express how the kingdom of heaven destroys our concepts of greatness as it empowers the childlike. Jesus’ response highlights the need for the disciples to change, which, by extension, includes us. We must turn from our desire for honor and greatness and become like children.

What does it mean to become childlike? Children are some of the most vulnerable in society. They don’t hold positions of power or influence. They are wholly dependent on their parents to meet their needs. Tommy Givens writes, “To disciples who myopically covet the largest possible share of Jesus’s kingly glory, disciples who have not even a mustard seed of faith, Jesus says they must become like children even to darken the door of the kingdom coming from heaven.” Greatness in the kingdom of heaven isn’t found in or emanates from impressive figures or institutions. It is found in the lowly, the dependent, and the vulnerable. This is an incredibly challenging concept for us today. What might it look like to embody this childlikeness in our lives?