Matthew 18:1-20 (Pentecost 15A)
St. John, Galveston 9/10/23
Rev. Alan Taylor

+ In Nomine Jesu +

Grace to you and peace, from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

In last week’s message from Matthew 16, Simon Peter was influenced or lead by the things of men rather than the things of God. He tried to keep Jesus from going to the cross, vowing that he would protect him, that he would save Him. “Get behind Me, Satan (Jesus said), for you don’t have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.” Peter couldn’t figure out how anything good could come from Jesus’ suffering and death.

The things of God and the things of men are often so very different. God does things in the world humbly and oftentimes without any sense of good associated with them. Jesus, as He said, would “draw all men to Himself,” but it would be by Him being lifted up on a cross, an instrument of torture and shame.

I mentioned in last week’s sermon that we would pursue the contrast between the things of God and the things of men for the next three Sundays as we reflect on the Gospel reading for the day. Today we’re going to look specifically at the first four verses of Matthew 18. It’s about greatness in the Kingdom of God.

“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.””

We’re going spend the bulk our time reflecting on the things of God, because that’s where we’re edified. But I’d like begin with a few quotations I found that speak of greatness from a human perspective. I’m not going to tell you who each quote is from, because I want you to reflect on the thought rather than on the person. So, here’s the first one. “Don't wait for the world to recognize your greatness, live it and let the world catch up to you.” Or, how about this one. “Greatness lives within each and every one of us but we are too busy looking at what we aren't to ever work out what we can be.” And finally, “Greatness comes by doing a few small and smart things each and every day. Comes from taking little steps, consistently. Comes from a making a few small chips against everything in your professional and personal life that is ordinary, so that a day eventually arrives when all that's left is The Extraordinary.”

Ignoring the fact that these quotes sound like they all came off of Hallmark cards, they are all similar and instructive in that they associate greatness with effort. This is pretty much in line with the thoughts of men regarding greatness. Greatness is achieved, it’s earned, it’s won.

Greatness though, isn’t self awarded. Few but Mohammed Ali could get away claiming “I am the greatest.” The greatest greatness, if I may, is declared by others. Still, it is based on hard work and achievement. A man might have a “World’s Greatest Dad” mug on his desk, but he doesn’t go out and buy it for himself.

The disciples asked Jesus who was the greatest in the Kingdom of God. No doubt they were thinking of greatness according to the ways of men. Essentially they were asking, which of us has earned the top seat in the Kingdom? Would it be Matthew, or John, or Mark, or maybe someone else altogether? “Who is the greatest in the Kingdom of God?”

Jesus called a child to Himself and put him in the midst of the disciples. “Truly, (He said), 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 holding up a child as an example of greatness in the Kingdom of heaven is completely contrary to the ways of men, because the child would not have accomplished anything in such a short life, much less anything that would have earned him such an honor in the Kingdom of heaven.

When Jesus used a child a model of greatness in the Kingdom of heaven, He left us wondering what it is about a child that makes him such a model. As we consider that question, we need to be careful less we go down the wrong path in understanding what Jesus is saying to us. Certainly, He doesn’t hold the child up as a model of greatness because of their supposed sinlessness. No, the Scriptures tell us elsewhere that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” Nor does He hold the child up as a model of greatness because of their exemplary faith, or trust. Rather, Jesus is proclaiming that the greatest in the reign of heaven is the one who is, in fact, in a condition of lowly powerlessness and who willingly acknowledges his own emptiness and utter inability in spiritual things.

Several weeks ago, I mentioned in a sermon that Luther had a piece of paper wadded up in his pocket when he died. The little slip of paper had written on it, “before God we are all beggars.” I’ve thought about that note many times in light of the Gospel. On the one hand, it seems negative and even demeaning. I mean, in Christ, we are all sons and daughters of God, and heirs of the Kingdom. We are rich, because “Christ, who was rich made Himself poor that we through His poverty might be rich.” So, we’re rich in Christ, not beggars. On the other hand, we truly are beggars, in the sense that we are absolutely dependent on our God for everything. Our whole lives are about GRACE.

Jesus told a parable one time about a man who had been beaten, and robbed, and left for dead on the side of the road. A number of people passed him by and did nothing to help him. Some, I suppose, feared for their own lives. Others were afraid that they might break a religious law by touching someone who was already dead. Whatever their reasons were, they passed him by.

A Samaritan came along and helped the man. Can you imagine? It was a Samaritan, one of the most hated and despised groups of people, that helped the man. The man literally had nothing to give. He was helpless in every sense of the word. And yet, the Samaritan bound up his wounds and he took him to an inn and left him there so that he could recover from his wounds. As He departed, the Samaritan paid the innkeeper and told him, “whatever is charged to him, charge it to Me.”  

“Whatever is charged to him, charge it to Me.” The parable isn’t calling you and me to be like the Good Samaritan, although it’s good that we strive to be so, when and where we can. Rather, the parable is about our relationship to God under the Gospel of grace. You and I are man beaten and left for dead on the side of the road. We have nothing to offer and nothing to give that anyone might care for us. Jesus is the Good Samaritan who tends to our wounds and who binds us up with forgiveness and mercy. He’s the One who says His Father, “whatever is charged to you, charge it to Me.”

“Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” It’s a call to utter helplessness, that you might receive the fullness of God’s grace and mercy in Christ Jesus.    

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +