1At 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.”
The values of God's Kingdom Culture are so counter-cultural at certain points that we can't seem to take them at face value. Case in point: humility as the mark of greatness in God's Kingdom. (Cf. "Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant" Matthew 20:26.) The difficulty in embracing Kingdom values, like humility, is that we know how the real world works. We know that greatness depends on talent, smarts, power, influence, and status. We know that great people do great things. So when we read about Jesus' definition of greatness -- humility, servanthood -- we hesitate a bit. We think perhaps Jesus is making a point about greatness, exaggerating something for the sake of making a point. Jesus surely isn't giving us the full definition. ("That Jesus! Always saying controversial things to get a rise out of religious people.")
But Jesus is absolutely sincere and serious about what He is saying. He does. on occasion, make use of hyperbole in His teaching, for example in verses 8 and 9 above. (It's a Jewish thing, the use of hyperbole. Exaggerating something to get a point across is not lying nor is it a sin. The use of hyperbole is simply a pedagogical tool.)
Jesus' comment about humility, however -- if we understand his plain meaning -- is a direct, non-ironic statement about greatness.
In these passages about "greatness in the kingdom of God/heaven," Jesus assumes that such desire to be great is a worthy aspiration. Nowhere does He suggest that such a desire is inappropriate. The question is only, What does it mean to be great?
Notice that Jesus' definition of greatness is not based on achievement. That is, there is nothing about what you've accomplished that defines whether you are great or not. Greatness, according to Jesus, is about the person, namely a certain virtue or trait that the person has. That trait is humility. Strange, right?
Well, let's consider two guys in a prison cell doing time for crimes of equal badness. In terms of what they've done, they are on par. Let's say they are now cellmates for quite a long time. One guy is selfish; the other guy is not. One guy thinks only about himself (his freedom and his comfort); the other guy thinks about his freedom and comfort, too, but is also sincerely concerned about his buddy (how he's doing emotionally and mentally). One guy is arrogant; the other guy is humble. Could we say one of the two prisoners is "greater" than the other? I think we can. The fact that they are physically confined to a prison cell means that nothing "great" is being accomplished in the way of making the world a better place. They are stuck here. Yet, their interactions with one another reveal something deeply true about themselves. The brief description of the two above reveal basically this: one guy is not loving, the other guy is loving. One guy is not a servant, the other guy is. One guy is not humble, the other guy is. Humility/Servanthood is a great-making trait because it is a component of love in relation to others. Humility is great because love is great. Love serves. Love is humble. Love is concerned about the other person.
And who, more than anyone, embodies this humility/servanthood?
(The Sunday School answer, which is the true answer -- Jesus!)
We are called to be like Jesus. God's Kingdom Culture is a school for Imitatio Christi -- Imitation of Christ. We are called to conform to the image of Christ in his love.
Let's pray: Lord Jesus, help us to follow you in your greatness, the greatness of humility and servanthood. In so doing we will tap into the very strength of your heart and the power of the Holy Spirit who is Love. In your name, amen.
[next week no devo. out of town]