With all the emphasis in our day on equality and fairness it is somewhat surprising that we still clamor for the great ones. We still want to know who is the best at a given task. There are still award shows hosted by the elites where we root for those who rise above the rest. The greatest ones are worthy of our praise. They are worthy of our time and energy. They are the ones we follow and do our part to help make them famous. Whether we are talking about actors or musicians, politicians, or authors, we love to love the greatest. In all aspects of our lives we strive to find the greatest or the best. Shoot, I will not order new bath towels from Amazon without first reading the reviews and seeing how highly they are rated and how often they have been rated. If I am going to spend my money, I want it to be for the best… at least the best I can get for under $15 and free shipping.
Think about it, in this age of internet exposure and hyper connectivity, many of our would-be heroes end up falling. Many who were considered to be the greatest by our society succumbed to some scandal, some travesty that tarnished their career, and so they fell from the warm glow of adoring fans. And what do we do? We go in search of the next hero, the next legend, the next to be considered the greatest. Perhaps part of this is our own secret desire to be the greatest ourselves. If the greatest can fall, that means another can rise to take their place. Perhaps you can rise to the top. Perhaps you can become the greatest in some defined area in your life, the greatest parent, the greatest child, the greatest teacher or nurse or auto mechanic.
We ought to relate quite well, then, to the disciples as they follow our Lord. They have been taking in all He has said and done: His teachings and parables and healings. They have witnessed the transfiguration and marveled at His declaration that He will die and rise again. So, they come to Him with a very specific question. They want to know who is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven. Not the greatest basketball player or the greatest author or the greatest teacher, but in the Kingdom of Heaven; a kingdom governed by the mercy of God, a kingdom not dependent upon the ways of this world. In that kingdom, where the Gospel is the currency, who is the greatest? Think about it, it is a profound question. Every measure of greatness we know of is about merit and talent. It is shaped by hard work and struggle. But in the Kingdom of Heaven, in the realm of God’s love and mercy, is there such a thing as the greatest? Does it even work there? It turns out it does.
Jesus takes a small child and places him in the midst of them and says, “Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven” (Matthew 18:4). Now, what makes this child the greatest? Is it the childlike faith, the willingness to believe? Is it the innocence, the purity of not being defiled by the sins of our age that makes him the greatest? Or perhaps, in the Kingdom of Heaven what makes this child the greatest is that the child has nothing to offer. The child is not a giver but a taker. The child does not contribute to the essentials but needs to be taken care of by others. In fact, this seems to be exactly what our Lord is getting at. It is the child’s need that makes him the greatest. If you take this into our church today it means the greatest here in our midst are not the ones who have the most to give or the most wisdom or the most experience. No, the greatest are those who are barely hanging on, those whose faith is shaky at best, those who do not have it all together, who are a hot-mess the whole time they are in church and do not think they belong in the first place. These are the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven.
And Jesus is just getting warmed up here. He goes on to talk about sinners in this Kingdom of Heaven. He says, “If your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the Hell of fire” (Matthew 18:9). Now that sounds pretty gruesome. It clearly shows how much our Lord despises sin. But I think the point He is driving home is that those in the Kingdom of Heaven will be those who are mutilated and marred by the reality of sin. The greatest is not the one who is whole and complete but the one who, like the little child, is most in need of the healing and forgiveness of God.
Following on the heels of this Jesus gives us a parable about a lost sheep. A man has a hundred sheep and when one goes missing, he leaves the 99 behind and goes after the one. The one, the lost one, is the greatest. This little lamb cannot save itself. It must be found by another. It must be rescued by the Good Shepherd. And the shepherd loves the greatest, treasures the greatest and celebrates when he finds it. So, in the Kingdom of Heaven we begin to see how the whole paradigm of the greatest gets turned over on its head. The celebrated and the sought after are the ones who are the weakest, the wayward, and the sinful.
As if this was not enough, our Lord makes it very clear to the Church how we ought to treat the greatest. He speaks about sin within the body of Christ, sin among your brothers and sisters gathered here. If your brother sins against you go and tell him his fault. Go and do what you can to restore your brother. What if he does not listen? Well, is this one not the greatest, the one you are about to lose? Are going to let the greatest just fall away? No, you are going to take some friends along with you. Bring a few more to try and restore your brother. And if he does not listen to that small group you brought over, if he still will not change his ways, he will not repent and believe the Good News, then you get serious. You gather the whole church together, the whole assembly of believers, and you stand on his front lawn and block his driveway. You do whatever it takes to restore him to the fold to not let him fall away. You love the little one. You celebrate the wounded sinner. You find the lost sheep and embrace your brother.
For this is the greatest.
At the center of the Kingdom of Heaven and the heart of our treatment of the greatest is forgiveness. Jesus says to us, “Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in Heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in Heaven” (Matthew 18:18). That is, your actions here in this age are the handing over of the gifts of God, and there are ramifications in eternity. If you forgive sins here, they are really forgiven. If you do not, if you bind them in their sin, if you let the little ones fall away, they are fallen. For the Kingdom of Heaven is not just some theoretical place. It is not an abstraction we think about when we are trying to find the bright side of things. No, it is real and tangible. It is where the Word is proclaimed, and the gifts are given. It is where the love of Christ reigns supreme. In fact, it is where Christ Himself promises to be.
This restoring of a little one, this finding of the lost sheep, this image of speaking forgiveness to those who are barely hanging on, doing whatever one can to bring them back, Jesus says, when this happens, He is right there in that moment. “Where two or three are gathered in My name,” He says, “there am I among them” (Matthew 18:20). He is there to honor the greatest, to forgive their sins, to celebrate their homecoming, and to heal their wounds. Truly, He loves the greatest, for He loves you.