Matthew 18:1-5

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”

We are so accustomed to seeing paintings of Jesus with children that we hardly notice a scene like this. It’s been rendered into all manner of “art,” including just about everything from Rockwell-esque paintings to the velvet-Jesuses you might find at a roadside truck stop. Perhaps there’s something comforting about Jesus as the benevolent, even adoring benefactor of children. Or maybe a child is just the thing to balance out all the talk about going to Jerusalem and dying that surrounds this scene. Or maybe we just like pictures of kids. Whatever the reason, there’s something about these snapshots of Jesus and children we just can’t get enough of.

But consider: the conversation wasn’t about those in need of protection or care, and it wasn’t about how cute kids are, and it definitely wasn’t a crash course in parenting. Jesus was talking about greatness. Jesus doesn’t start the conversation, we should note, the disciples do. They come to him with a question about this kingdom of God he’s been preaching and teaching about. Specifically, they want to know is greatest in the kingdom or, more likely, who will be the greatest in the kingdom.

It’s not that unusual of a question when you think about it. In any new setting or situation – and the kingdom Jesus proclaims is the very definition of new – we want to gain a sense of our place, our standing, our status. We feel more comfortable when we know the rules of the environment and have figured out the pecking order. Even if we don’t like the pecking order or think it’s unfair, we still feel better knowing it, as we might then at least look out for ourselves or even advance according to its rules. And so the disciples ask Jesus about the rules of this kingdom and what it takes to be great.

In response, he draws a child to him. And before we get all sentimental, we should remember that in the first century children had no particular economic or societal value. That doesn’t mean that parents didn’t love their children; of course they did. It’s more the simple recognition that for most of the world’s history children were an economic liability until they could work and generate income. As a result, they have no standing in the ancient world, no material value, and no power. And so this child represents the vulnerability and need and utter dependence of all children of that day.

And that is what Jesus says will count for greatness in the kingdom. Not military power, or physical might, or athletic prowess, or great beauty, or immense wealth, or societal standing and fame, or any of the other things they or we are likely to equate with greatness. But rather vulnerability and need and dependence.

This isn’t new, mind you. We’ve noticed that from the beginning of Matthew’s story, Jesus he seems to favor those who can admit their need and ask for help. But here he states it most plainly: greatest constitutes those who recognize their need for God and for each other. Period.

Prayer: Dear God, help us to admit our vulnerability and need so that, rather than striving for greatness according to the world’s standards, we might turn to you and those around us for the love and acceptance we all crave. And let us then meet the needs of others and see them as great in your kingdom. In Jesus’ name, Amen.