Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? This question naturally follows what we discussed last week in Matthew’s Gospel when we compared the theology of glory with the theology of the cross. Sinful humanity wants to try to take credit for its salvation and glory in its achievements. Sinful humanity asks this question: “Who is the greatest?” Maybe the greatest is the one who is most pious, or who knows the most, or who does the most good for other people? Maybe the greatest is the one who offers the most to God and to others?
So, when the disciples ask Jesus, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” – these types of thoughts may have been on their mind.
And what would Jesus say? Would he point to one of the disciples in his midst and proclaim him as the greatest? Would it be Peter, James, or John – the three men who saw Jesus on the mount of transfiguration in the previous chapter of Matthew? Would it be Peter, since he attempted to come to Jesus out on the surface of the waters of the Sea of Galilee? Would it be one of the disciples who had left everything to follow Jesus and who would later die for their faith in him?
But, this question – “Who is the greatest” – is misplaced. It comes from the theology of glory. It wants to rank our standing before God according to our own works. In this line of thinking, the “greatest in the kingdom of heaven” would be the greatest because of what he’s done, and so gets the glory for achieving this status.
So, because the question is misplaced – because it comes from the false “theology of glory” – Jesus – as in many times in the Gospels – sidesteps the premise of the question. He does not accept the premise that one can earn the honor of being the greatest before God. Instead, he shows the disciples that it is God who calls us before Him. That is, we stand before God due to His grace, and not due to our merits.
Therefore, Jesus takes a child and puts him in the midst of them. In the midst of all these men with a claim to greatness, Jesus places a child and declares, “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 holds up this humble child as the example of who is the greatest in the kingdom. How odd this must have been to the disciples. But, this humble child is Jesus’ answer to their question of who is the greatest. Whoever turns – repents – and humbles himself like a child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, because he is brought into the presence of the holy Lord by the Lord himself.
And what great work did the child do to earn this honor? What great act of piety or contrition did he do? For which of his works did he earn God’s favor? What did he offer to God to earn this spot in the kingdom of heaven?
This is the genius of what Jesus does. By placing a child in their midst and pointing to the child as the example of who enters the kingdom of heaven, Jesus is showing the truth of God’s grace and love. For a child can offer nothing to God to earn this honor, because God already has everything – God created this child and all things. A child can do nothing to earn his spot in the kingdom of heaven before the holy Lord; and neither can we.
And yet, God in the flesh calls the child into his midst and into the midst of his disciples. God calls the child due to his grace and mercy. The child is in their midst, because Jesus says it’s ok. Jesus justifies those in his midst. Because Jesus the Christ, the Son of the living God, calls him, the child can enter into the presence of Christ and the gathered Church. No matter what anyone else may say, the child has every right to be here, because God Himself has called him as His own. God makes disciples of Christ.
And this goes for you too. You have been called into the Church by Christ himself. He justifies you in his midst and in the midst of his other disciples. You have not done anything to earn your place here, and yet Christ calls you here and says that you belong here, because his Word makes you the children of God. This is the theology of the cross; that you have been justified freely by Christ through his death and resurrection.
So, in Jesus calling the child you see two things: one, that Jesus is the one who does the calling; two, that this calling is due to his grace and mercy.
These two things come together most visibly in our own time when we baptize infants. For, when we baptize little babies, we acknowledge that they have sin that needs to be forgiven also. They may not have committed any actual sins yet, but they are born with the same taint of sin that we all have – the original sin of Adam and Eve in rebelling against God. We are all born into this rebellion, and so need God’s forgiveness that comes to us through Christ.
Yet, we also see something else in infant baptism – and adult baptism, for that matter. We see that God’s grace is exactly that: His grace. He freely forgives us due to Christ. He calls us as his own children into His midst through Baptism, freely forgiving us of our natural, inherited sin as well as of all the actual sins we have or will commit. We see that our justification comes from outside of ourselves; it comes from Christ.
Just as Christ died once to justify all those who came before him and after him, so too is our Baptism good for all time – one Lord, one faith, one Baptism. Our baptism is when God calls us into his midst as His child and kills and raises us in Christ’s own death and resurrection. We may have been baptized as infants or as adults, but we are all the same before God – as children who can offer Him nothing, for He already has all things as our Creator.
And yet He calls us into His midst and into the midst of His people and He says to us, “You are mine,” and He says to others, “This little one is now mine.”
So, whoever receives one such child in Christ’s name receives Christ, for Christ has placed his name on the child. And, as I said, we are all as children before God, bearing His name that He has given to us in Baptism. So, we receive and are received into the Church due to Christ’s calling and not due to anything we have done.
For the Lord is always calling sinners into His midst so that he may save them. And He doesn’t just stand far off and call so that they may journey to Him. No, He searches out the lost and brings them back to Him, just as a shepherd seeks out the lost sheep and brings it back on his shoulders to the rest of the flock. Our God is a God who acts – and He acts for us. He is “God for us.” And God rejoices with each sinner that He redeems.
He rejoices over you. God has redeemed you, and so there is great rejoicing here and in heaven. For the holy Lord has brought you into His midst and into the midst of His people – the Church. You have been set apart by God as His own. The Church is the collection of all those sinners whom God has made His children and gathered together around Christ. God has forged a new people – the Church – through the power of His Word. Though the Church is spread throughout the entire world and composed of people of different languages, different nationalities, and different colors, it is one nation in Christ – one Lord, one faith, one baptism.
(Image: Christ with children, By Carl Heinrich Bloch – http://www.the-athenaeum.org/art/detail.php?ID=49663, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25991809 )