Text: Matthew 18:1-20
Date: Pentecost XII + Proper 18 + 9/4/11
First, I suppose I ought to explain the sermon title. For it sounds quite boastful, don’t you think? Who among us would even consider much less talk about our own greatness? Yet that’s what Jesus’ disciples do in our text today. The last two chapters of Matthew’s Gospel have been treated with the sermon titles, “When Faith is Great,” then “When Confession is Great,” followed last Sunday by “When Faith and Confession are Not So Great,” which brings us to today’s topic, “When I Am Great.” It is great, after all, to be told by Jesus, “Blessed are you” for your God-given, Spirit-charged miracle of faith and confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. Add to that the experience of the three insiders of the Transfiguration in chapter 17 and you can almost hear the Mac Davis song in the background:
Oh Lord it’s hard to be humble
when you’re perfect in every way.
I can’t wait to look in the mirror
cause I get better looking each day.
To know me is to love me
I must be a hell of a man.
Oh Lord it’s hard to be humble
but I’m doing the best that I can.
Now guess whom I am describing. He stands for hope for the future. But he is ignorant, unfit to rule, cannot choose between good and evil, is not able to count, cannot defend himself, is readily deceived, and lacks wisdom. ‘Hardly sounds like greatness, does it? And so that you know whom I am talking about, and whom I’m not talking about, it is from a list summarizing how the Bible describes a child. “The disciples came to Jesus, saying, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ And calling to him a child, he put [it] 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.”
Now so that we don’t get the wrong idea, especially in our culture where children are inappropriately elevated to near saintly status for their supposed innocence, I recall making an “evangelism” call speaking with a woman as her infant child lay in a crib next to her. We happened to be discussing how we all are sinners by nature, from the beginning of our lives. The woman objected, saying, “Oh, you can’t mean that my little baby there is a sinner!” And all the while the baby was crying loudly and making quite a ruckus and racket that made it hard to have a conversation. I was amused at her objection. No, children are sinners as much as any adult. They just haven’t had the time like we have to figure out all the ways one can express that sinful nature.
So Jesus throws the spotlight on a child, not as if the child is sinless or innocent, but because children are lowly, needy, inferior, physically weak and dependent totally upon others. The central idea for discipleship is becoming totally dependent on God for everything. That is, Jesus is saying that the greatest among those under the reign and rule of God in His kingdom is precisely the one who is powerless and who confesses and acknowledges before God and everyone else his own emptiness and inability in spiritual things.
While this goes against the normal human and sinful ego, it is, if you think about it, quite a freeing thing! Sure we’d like to take some credit for joining Jesus’ campaign or demonstrating a certain “Christian” personality, character or reputation. But only when we finally admit (and here are those otherwise offensive words again) that “I am a poor, miserable sinner” and cannot free myself from my sin, when we have totally emptied ourselves of ourselves, only then can God come and fill us with His deliverance and mercy.
Now, of course, simply denying the reality doesn’t change it. “All have sinned and come short of the glory of God” whether they admit it or not. All are needy and dependent on God all of the time, whether they admit it or not. It’s just that between our helpless birth and our equally helpless death we foolishly take credit for life and health and daily bread and everything else that is, after all, but gift of God. True repentance sees through all that, despairs of self and confesses your helplessness and need for God.
It has almost always been the practice of the Christian Church to baptize infants and then teach them in the years following what their baptism means. With adults the process is reversed, instruction leading to baptism. Of course instruction and learning never ends after that in this life. So the issue is not as much “can a child know enough to be baptized” as it is “can an adult humble himself enough (literally “be humiliated” enough) for faith to begin and take hold?”
Now next to seeing ourselves as more and more dependent on God, we are also to see others from this point of view. “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me.” Therefore Jesus continues with even greater seriousness about the need for us to preserve and find others. The “one such child” and “little ones” He speaks of are fellow disciples, the fellow baptized of the household of God, brothers and sisters in Christ. We are to be careful, first of all, that we do not damage the faith of another (18:6). Neither are we to “despise,” look down on or otherwise show contempt toward a seemingly less important or weaker disciple. Not only that, but we are also called to have concern for a fellow disciple who has fallen away or wandered from the fellowship (the “koinonia” or “life together” as we will talk about in our Bible study beginning today, “Witness, Mercy, Life Together”) and is the real concern of the otherwise oft quoted “Matthew 18” verses 15-20 commonly called “church discipline.” These words and this “procedure” is much more in the vein of loving and caring mercy than it is in the legalistic “shape up or ship out” attitude we run into or may have even participated in in the church today.
It was, after all, the worldly, “things of men,” comparing and judging attitude that was truly at the heart of the disciples’ question about greatness in the first place. And who hasn’t seen this “spirit” demonstrate its destructive nature in everything from gossip about another woman’s Easter hat to a brother exploding and walking out of a voters meeting because he doesn’t feel like he’s been heard or he just isn’t getting his way? Jesus says, “it is necessary,” inevitable that these sort of temptations happen. But that in no way excuses them.
The greatest in the kingdom are the most needy, the weakest, and even those in danger. I’d like to point out only one detail in the final section that could take up hours of commentary. And that is the observation of comparing Matthew 18 with Matthew 5. Very simply, our passage today speaks of “If your brother sins against you,” that is, your brother is the guilty one. Matthew 5, on the other hand, speaks of “your brother [having] something against you,” that is, you are the guilty one. Both passages, however, say that it is your responsibility to “go. First be reconciled to your brother,” or, “go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone” in order to “gain” or be reconciled to your brother. So whether you are the guilty one (Matthew 5) or the innocent one (Matthew 18) doesn’t matter. It is your responsibility to work for reconciliation and forgiveness for the sake of your koinonia, your fellowship or life together. And when both are Christians, that should mean that both of you are working for this end.
There is so much here for helpful instruction for the Christian’s life and relationship with others and the world. But it is all in the context of Him who is truly the greatest:who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil 2:6-11)
That summary takes us back. Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Mt 16:24).
 Jeffrey A. Gibbs, “Matthew 11:2—20:34,” p. 892.