Matthew 18:1–4 (NET)
1 At that time the disciples came to Jesus saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 2 He called a child, had him stand among them, 3 and said, “I tell you the truth, unless you turn around and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven! 4 Whoever then humbles himself like this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
As his time on earth was nearing its end, Jesus began focusing more attention on the specifics of kingdom life, and how disciples are to live in community with one another and in influential peace with the world around them. Jesus’ teaching here begins with a foundation, and what follows in chapters 18 and 19 is built on that foundation. I want to take a few posts to talk about Jesus’ vision for community life, and I’ll begin today with the verses above so to give us a foundation for this discussion.
The disciples are learning and growing. Even when they still get it wrong we can see growth in them, but here we see that their way of thinking is still confused. They don’t really yet grasp what it is that Jesus is teaching them. The disciples want to know how to succeed in the Kingdom of God. They understand that the Kingdom of God plays by different rules than the kingdom of this world, but they don’t know what success means in that kingdom. Now, we could look at this and see that the disciples are clearly still thinking the way the world thinks. That is, they are ambitious, and they want to have greatness by the standard of this world. This is certainly true, but we must also look back to Matthew 11 to see where some of the confusion might come from.
Matthew 11:11 (NET)
11 “I tell you the truth, among those born of women, no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he is.
Jesus has praised his cousin, John the Baptist, with the highest praise possible. Seriously, Jesus has told his disciples that there has never been a man born of a woman who is greater than John, yet the greatness among men is nothing compared to the condition of the citizen of God’s kingdom. In that kingdom even John will seem like a small and ordinary man. So, we begin to see from where the disciples’ confusion comes, and instead of simply telling them the answer they seek, Jesus calls a boy and places him before the men as a picture of what Kingdom citizenship looks like.
Jesus tells his people they must be like the child standing before them if they have any hope of understanding the way his kingdom functions. The child is not innocent in an absolute sense, and the Bible is pretty clear that all people are sinful, so this child likeness isn’t about being more innocent. No, what children are is vulnerable. They are week, and can not carry out their own protection and the furthering of their own goals without the aid of their parents. In a very real sense, children are helpless.
I have three children, and though they may try to dictate how the family operates, in a healthy family, the child does not run the show. If one of my girls stood up one day and declared her will, and insisted that the rest of us comply, we just tell her to be quiet and sit down. Of course, we would have to stop laughing first. A child can not enter the work force and make business deals. They can not build bridges or start million dollar corporations without help. Why? Because they lack the knowledge, experience, training, and physical presence, for anyone to actually take them seriously. They are easily fooled, manipulated, and abused. They need protectors and benefactors. A child without these is certainly doomed for a difficult if not tragically grief filled life.
Because of this vulnerability, children have a certain way they must operate in the world. A vulnerable child must act humbly because she knows her inherent weakness, knows the limits of her abilities, and trust in her parents to provide care for her. The disciple must always remember that she is dependent totally on God’s grace and mercy. We keep our eyes on Jesus, because it is only from him that we find the strength to overcome this world, and to do battle with the doubts that plague us. When Peter took his eyes off Jesus, he failed to walk on water, and he sunk (Mt 14:22-36). The disciples failed to heal a sick boy because they had forgotten that their power comes from Jesus alone (Mt. 17:14-23).
A vulnerable child is trusting. All children inherently trust their parents, and this is why abuse by parents is such a travesty. Yes, being vulnerable and humble opens up the disciple to being abused, but as Jesus so rightly pointed out to his disciples, the student can not expect better treatment than the master. The follower of Christ will likely find abuse, if he is truly seeking to follow Jesus. This is the way of the cross, and suffering is part of it. But through it, the disciple knows is promised of the Father’s love and ultimate protection, and he knows that justice will one day be fulfilled, and we can know that God is fully aware of our struggles, and each disciple is observed by the protective face of the Father (Mt. 18:10).
Related to humility, a child can not demand its way through the world, but must be winsome. My girls boss each other around all the time, and when one of them doesn’t fall in line with the demands of the other, I’m sure to hear about it. The reason children can boss one another is because one of them likely has some sort of power over the other. Maybe the older one is physically stronger, or perhaps the younger one can play the “I’ll tell Dad” card. The baby of the family only needs to cry loudly, fear of getting into trouble grips the older two, and the baby gets what she wants. You see, among their (near) equals, the child can exert a sort of “power over” on their siblings.1 They get their way because they have a measure of power. However, when the child wins influence through “power over” methods they may have created compliance, but they have not built the sort of compliance that lasts. They may win the fight, but that fight only leads to another and another and another. The cycle will not stop.
However, the child that effectively gets the result he is looking for learns to be a winsome. He learns to speak kindly and politely. He learns to ask instead of demand. He learns to obey even when he doesn’t want to, knowing that he is earning the right to heard, and when the humble and winsome child speaks, people will listen. Those opponents won to Christ like this will be true disciples, and they break the cycle of conflict.
The effective disciple learns to practice a “power under” sort of influence. Instead of striving to win the fight and dominating those in opposition, the winsome servant brings himself under his opponents, and in doing so, he serves in the name of Jesus, earning the right to speak, and becomes effective as an instrument of God to draw the hearts of all men to the rightful king, Jesus. This is precisely why I’ve withdrawn from the Culture Wars. The way of Christ is not the way of power. Say we win the war, and we get everything we want in these legal and constitutional battles, what have we gained? Certainly, we would have gained security for Christians. We would’ve made it easier to live as Christians in the United States because our laws would favor Christian values, but in the end, we would only have created a nation of people who comply because there is a “power over” threat bearing down on them. We will have become the older sibling who wins every fight because we are bigger and stronger, but one day the little brother grows up, and there is a price to be paid for our “power over” tactics.
Don’t mistake this as a retreat from the problems of society. No, this is no retreat. Jesus never retreated. Never. Not once. This is an attack, but it is an attack on the way this world operates. Some Christians may look at me and say, “You’re afraid to take a stand.” To which I say I am taking the stand that fighting the world’s problems the world’s way is futile. Engage in the problems on this world, and in our political system, but if we think our problems are all about laws, government, and economics, we are fools. Our nation suffers from a soul sickness, and the cure is a big ole’ dose of Jesus as seen through those of us who claim his as Lord and King. The only way to bring that cure to the people is to serve them.
We see in Jesus’ teaching the foundation for a new way of being in the world, and with one another. It is the way of childlike humility and vulnerability. It is the way of the cross, it is the way of suffering, it is the way that, knowing full well we will likely receive persecution, goes forward knowing that this is the only way the world is truly changed, and the only way people see grace and mercy of Jesus working through us. It won’t be easy. Someone will take advantage of us, and we will likely receive abuse of some sort, but since when is this a surprise? You probably think I’m a fool, and in some way, you would be right. But God uses foolishness all the time, and the way of the cross is foolishness to those who are lost, but to those who are being saved, it is the power of God.
1 I borrow this idea from Greg Boyd’s “The Myth of a Christian Nation.” Even if you ultimately disagree with Boyd’s conclusions, every American Christian needs to read this book.