“At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’”
This question comes after Jesus has already told his disciples twice about the suffering and death that awaits him in Jerusalem (Matthew 16:21-23; 17:22-23), and after he has told them that following him entails denying themselves and taking up the cross (16:24-25).
It seems that Jesus’ message has not truly penetrated the minds and hearts of the disciples. Perhaps they have heard the part about the kingdom of heaven drawing near, but they have not understood what kind of kingdom this is, for they are preoccupied with questions of their status in this kingdom.
In response, Jesus offers a profound critique of their very question. He calls a child, places the child among them, and tells them that unless they change and become as little children, they will never even enter the kingdom (18:3; Matthew uses the strong double negative, ou mé). As long as they are concerned about their own status, they have missed the point completely.
A child in the ancient world was without status or rights, completely dependent on the good will of others to care for him or her. Notice that Jesus does not tell the disciples that they should have faith like a little child — as if they could conjure up this kind of faith on their own — but that they need to become like little children. Jesus further specifies what this means in the following verse: “Whoever humbles themselves like this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:4). It is giving up claims to power and status and knowing one’s total dependence on God that counts as greatness in the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus takes it one step further in saying, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me” (Matthew 18:5). Jesus humbles himself in identifying with a little child, one without power or status. This is neither the first time nor the last in Matthew’s Gospel that Jesus identifies with those who are powerless, needy, and marginal, and says that our response to such persons is, in effect, our response to him (10:40-42; 25:34-46).
Jesus then continues talking about “little ones” (hoi mikroi) in the figurative sense — those without power or status in the community of faith. With shocking imagery, he states the utter seriousness of causing the downfall (the Greek verb skandalizõ) of any of these “little ones who believe in me.” Indeed, he warns that “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” (Matthew 18:6).
Then it gets even more shocking, as Jesus starts talking about cutting off limbs and plucking out eyes. “If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble (skandalizõ), cut it out 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 (skandalizõ), tear it out and throw it away; it is better to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into the hell of fire” (Matthew 18,8-9; cf. 5:29-30).
The word translated as “hell” here is “Gehenna,” which refers to a valley outside Jerusalem that was used as a garbage dump. There the worms and the fire were continually fed by the refuse thrown out from the city — a vivid image for describing the destruction of evil.
Jesus uses hyperbole to make a dramatic point. Not only is it necessary to become a “little one” to enter the kingdom of heaven, but there is a dire warning for any who would lead “little ones” astray. Throughout Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus places a special burden on those who would be leaders in the community. Woe to those who, instead of embracing little ones, cause them to stumble or lose their faith!
Unfortunately, one can find numerous examples of the damage done by church leaders to “little ones” in the community by their abuse of power. Damage is multiplied by attempts to cover up abuses and protect the image of the church. Many people have been driven away from the church by such actions. Adding insult to injury, churches are often judgmental toward those who “fall away” or withdraw from church life.
Jesus states plainly that those in power who have caused the downfall of others will be held accountable. For those who would be leaders in the church, the warning is clear: extreme vigilance is necessary to guard against the possibility of leading little ones astray. Whatever might cause one’s own fall or the stumbling of others in the community — even if it is as important as a hand or foot or eye — must be thrown away.
This text is well chosen for Ash Wednesday, a day that focuses on self-examination and repentance, remembering that “we are dust, and to dust we shall return.” Indeed, we are all “little ones” before God, completely dependent upon God for the breath of life here and now and for the life to come.
Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent call us to repentance and renewal — to a drowning of the old self in the waters of baptism, with all the old self’s evil deeds and desires and potential for causing others to stumble, in order to be raised to new life from those same baptismal waters. This is dramatic imagery as well, but that which it symbolizes is much better than being drowned with a millstone in the depths of the sea!