Greatness in the Kingdom

In Matthew 18:10-14, the gospel writer carefully places a parable of Jesus in the context (18:1-35) of a question:

“Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”

Jesus calls over a prepubescent child and he has the small child stand among them. He instructs his disciples that they must change and become humble like children if they want to be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

Since children were mostly seen as ignorant and irrelevant in the first-century world of grown-ups, clearly Jesus is packing quite a punch with this illustration of what true kingdom prestige looks like.

Jesus’ disciples are not only challenged by his radical redefining of “greatness”, they are also warned of the terrible consequences waiting for those who choose to be stumbling blocks to these little ones (v.6).

And whatever else that might stifle or thwart kingdom rule in our lives, and the lives of others, should be swiftly removed (vv. 8-9).

It is not entirely clear what to make of verse 10: “See that you do not look down on one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.”

What does “their angels in heaven” mean? Should the reader conclude that all children have guardian angels? Or does this refer to the spirits of children in heaven? It may just be implying that these righteous “little ones” are forever precious in the sight of the eternal Father. God cherishes each child and they are great in the kingdom of heaven.

Verse 11 is omitted in most contemporary translations. It reads: “The Son of Man came to save what was lost.”

The verse is not found in the earliest manuscripts and it may have been included simply as an assimilation to Luke 19:10. It was probably inserted later for a smooth transition into the parable (vv. 12-14). Even though it is not found in the earliest manuscripts, it appears to be a phrase that Jesus often repeated on different occasions throughout his ministry.

Nothing is lost (no pun intended) with it being removed from the reading.

Jesus told a parable of the “lost sheep” in Luke 15:3-7 in response to the Pharisees disgust over how he ate with “sinners” and tax collectors. In the Lucan pericope, the “lost sheep” are those despised unclean folk with which Jesus dined. However, in Matthew 18:10-14, the lost sheep are the “little ones” that have gone astray (v.14).

It is likely that they have “wandered off” due to the actions of those who have misrepresented kingdom and place a stumbling block in front of them.

The shepherd leaves the ninety-nine sheep to find the one that has wandered off from the flock. At this point in the discourse, the “little ones” may include all those who are humble and simple in faith. Jesus is willing to seek out all those who have drifted in their faith for whatever reason.

Following this parable, Jesus continues to describe greatness in the kingdom of heaven. Just as Jesus is willing to seek out the sheep that have wandered off, he says that those who are great in the kingdom will do the same. They will even seek out those who have caused offense so that they might be reconciled to Christ and the church (vv. 15-20).

Who is the greatest in the kingdom?—Those who welcome children, rescue the lost, reconcile the offended, and forgive great debts (vv. 21-35).

This message is for all those who want to be disciples of Christ. Jesus, the shepherd, accepts those who are humble and “poor in spirit” as his own. And he rewards the simple faith of children.


About David D. Flowers

David received a B.A. in Religion from East Texas Baptist University and a M.T.S. in Biblical Studies from Houston Graduate School of Theology. David has over 20 years experience as a pastor and teacher in and outside the church. He currently pastors an Anabaptist congregation in Pennsylvania. View all posts by David D. Flowers

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