By Pamela Lewis
A Reading from the Gospel of Matthew 18:1-14
1 At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 2He called a child, whom he put among them, 3and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.
6 “If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea. 7Woe to the world because of stumbling-blocks! Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the stumbling-block comes!
8 “If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life maimed or lame than to have two hands or two feet and to be thrown into the eternal fire. 9And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into the hell of fire.
10 “Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven. 12What do you think? If a shepherd 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? 13And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. 14So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.”
Toward the end of chapter 17, Jesus has explained to the apostles that he will be betrayed, killed, and rise again on the third day. They are “exceeding sorry” at this information, but soon afterwards they are engaged in debate as to who will be the “greatest” in the kingdom. The apostles and Jesus have differing understandings of the kingdom, how it will be set up, and who will inhabit it. While the apostles are envisioning a temporal kingdom, Jesus has something entirely different in mind.
Little is known about Jesus’ childhood, but it probably was similar to that of other children in his milieu, and those experiences informed his understanding of and sensitivity to their powerlessness and vulnerability. But he also recognized that their inherent innocence and trust were qualities that made them best suited for the kingdom. Jesus singles out children as the greatest in the kingdom of God for their trust, purity of heart, and humility. They are teachable, free of malice, and thrive when loved. Those who would seek to harm “little ones” are worthy of condemnation because they act contrary to the will of the Father.
Jesus’ proposal of a child as the pattern of conversion and true greatness stands as a powerful rebuke to the apostles who confuse the perishable with the eternal. Children, along with the poor, women, and the aged, were seen as “lesser” and not expected to be great. Yet, in God’s kingdom, they will be exalted. We, as did the apostles, also need constant reminding that God’s kingdom will be paradoxically different from the kingdoms we have established in this world. If children will be the greatest there, there will be eternal joy.
Pamela A. Lewis taught French for thirty years before retirement. A lifelong resident of Queens, N.Y., she attends Saint Thomas Church Fifth Avenue, and serves on various lay ministries. She writes for The Episcopal New Yorker, Episcopal Journal, and The Living Church.
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Daily Devotional Cycle of Prayer
Today we pray for:
Diocese of Fond du Lac and the Rt. Rev. Matthew Alan Gunter
Diocese of Fort Worth and the Rt. Rev. J. Scott Mayer
Holy Spirit Episcopal Church, Waco, Texas