The disciples here are concerned with an issue of status, as they (too) were a product of a status–conscious culture. Religious leaders of that time frequently pointed to statesmen and heroes as their models. So the disciples asked Jesus, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
Jesus replied with an answer that must have shocked all there. Unless you become humble like children, Jesus said, you won’t even enter; much less have any status there. Children of that day, more so than today, were powerless, without status and unquestionably dependent upon their parents. Perhaps Jesus was hoping the disciples (and we) would get two points:
- Instead of worldly status, wealth, heroic and athletic performance, or scholarly pride, the kingdom’s status rating is the inverse. If we wish to enter the kingdom of heaven, we must become as children and imitate those of no status and those who realize that they are in fact dependent on God.
- Real disciples are like “little ones who believe” in Jesus, and they also notice, welcome and hold in high esteem the “nobodies,” those without status or social respect.
What a challenge! It is one thing to purposely and intensely aim for this and fail, over and over again, yet keep trying. But in the process if any attempt is made to deter children from believing in Jesus, it will be like a kiss of death. In Jesus’ day, the most horrifying form of death and most feared by Jews was drowning, even more than crucifixion. So, Jesus’ reply included a warning to anyone who might block or deflect a child’s belief in Jesus by reminding the disciples that they would be better off if they drowned with a heavy millstone around their neck.
There is another Bible verse that provides an exclamation point to Jesus’ lesson here. Jesus said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants.” – Luke 10:21 (NRSV)
During this holy and engaging season, as we meditate on God’s love and seek His guidance, we are reminded that we adults may never understand the mystery of God’s love and what else might have been revealed to infants. We once had a better understanding when we were infants, but the forces “of the world” and our slippage over the years have left us void of that infant knowledge. Stretching for humility and practicing relentlessly to place those of no worldly status at the top of our own status list may help us to better understand “who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”
C. Page Highfill