Thursday, November 19, 2009

Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?


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.

‘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. Woe 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!

‘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. And 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.

- Matthew 18:1-9

There are many incidents in the gospels where Jesus has pointed out to his apostles just what constitutes greatness in the kingdom. He has taught repeatedly that to truly be considered great, one must be servant of all. This teaches us the value of humility. As a Christian virtue, humility has been considered the most highly regarded traditionally, because without it, cultivation of other Christian virtues might be impossible. My study bible notes that humility "is the acknowledgment of divine grace and mercy, and the constant denial of man's achievement." Worldly power, then, and our notions of power that stem from a materialistic standpoint, are at odds with what defines "greatness" in this kingdom.

Jesus says, "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 not to "Lord it over others," as Jesus has pointed out elsewhere. Achievement in this kingdom is not a matter of hierarchy in a worldly sense. My study bible notes the attitude of children that represents the spiritual attitude for entering into the kingdom that Jesus is teaching: "humility, dependence, lowliness and simplicity." So what does it mean to cultivate such an attitude?

Jesus continues with a warning to his disciples: "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. Woe 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!" To be like a child is to follow, to be open. Jesus is warning the disciples about harming the humble and the lowly followers of the church, about haughty and arrogant attitudes toward power that lead to any form of abuse of this trust, and offense to the little ones. Scandals in the church may be many and inevitable, but this is a strict warning to those by whom they come. The abuse of power is not tolerated in the kingdom, especially because of the prized virtue of humility, and the value of these little ones in Christ's eyes. Jesus calls this humility the quality of the greatest in the kingdom, and he says that whoever welcomes the little ones in His name is welcoming Him.

And finally, the initial urging to change to become like the children, is brought together with the rest of the warning and teaching: "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. And 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." Jesus uses the extreme example of cutting off of body parts, of self-mutilation, to strike a note that is profound enough in this warning. He's teaching us about the reality of personal change mandated by membership in this kingdom. Those parts of us that persist in "Lording it over" others, in giving offense to the little ones, that resist teaching and openness to the Spirit, have to go. It is better, he says, to cut off the part of us that causes offense or stumbling than for our whole selves to be lost. We must not be afraid to cast out or give up those things that define our persona that just don't fit into the values of this kingdom. Excessive self-glorification would be one of those things, following fashions or crowds or maintaining relationships with people that encourage us to do or to be that which is not in accordance with this teaching on humility are examples of things we may wish to cut off from our lives. How does this teaching teach you? Can you think of examples of haughty or arrogant behavior that scandalizes, in which the "little ones" are caused to stumble? What is an abuse of power by spiritual authority? I think the attitude of humility must be primarily to that which we find in our prayer lives, an openness to God that we are willing to change what is within us that needs to go, that doesn't mesh with the values of that kingdom. Of ourselves, this may be impossible, but with God all things are possible. We need, however, to choose the humility, the openness of the child to find it in that central relationship in prayer. Are you willing to hear what you might need to change, to give up? With what attitude do we approach our prayer life, the Scriptures and what they offer to us, and our relationship to God? Do we accept these teachings, this grace and this help waiting to lead us? Are we open to learning something we don't already know, and to where it may lead us in terms of personal change?