Who Is the Greatest?

The greatest in God’s reign are those who know how little is under their control

palm covered in ash with a cross drawn on it
Photo by sterlsev from Getty Images Signature. Copyright sterlsev, used by permission.

February 22, 2023

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Commentary on Matthew 18:1-9

When the disciples ask, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Jesus redirects their attention from their own honor to the needs of the community, and especially of its most vulnerable members. Their question about greatness becomes the springboard for an entire chapter of teachings devoted to life in community.

Though Jesus has told his disciples repeatedly and clearly that he will be killed, they seem unable to absorb what he is saying. Instead, they focus on the glory of Jesus’ transfiguration and the power he displayed by healing the boy with epilepsy. If even a disciple with mustard seed-sized faith can heal and move mountains, then what amazing miracles will those with greater faith be capable of doing?  Unsurprisingly, they would rather dream about their future status than think about Jesus’ death and its implications for those who follow him.

When Jesus calls a child to come forward, he is both metaphorically and literally inviting a person from the margins to stand at the center of the community. Children in first-century Palestine had virtually no power, status, or control over their lives. They were vulnerable to disease and hunger. Many died before they reached adulthood. Yet, Jesus tells his disciples, the one who becomes humble like this child in their midst will be greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Furthermore, he warns them, unless they change—literally, “turn around”—and become like children, they will not even be able to enter the kingdom of heaven.

In our culture being humble typically implies not being boastful and, though one may have many accomplishments, not calling attention to them. The humility that Jesus demands is something else entirely. Like the child in the disciples’ midst, those who are humble have few options and little power. They live at the mercy of other people’s choices. They are the people whom Howard Thurman, in his classic book Jesus and the Disinherited, described as having their backs against the wall. Such humility is the very opposite of the status and power that the disciples crave.

Jesus places the most vulnerable and powerless members of the society at the very center of Christian community. Welcoming them means welcoming him. And mistreating them or causing them to sin? Any number of horrific fates would be better than the judgment earned by those who harm these little ones or cause them to fall.

The Greek root from which we derive our English words “scandal” and “scandalize” appears repeatedly in verses 6-9; the New Revised Standard Version translates it as “stumbling block” and “stumble” or “cause to stumble.” In Matthew 17:27, Jesus himself goes out of his way to avoid giving offense (Greek, “scandalizing” them). Though he does not feel bound to pay the temple tax, he miraculously provides a coin so that he will not trip up those who do.

When Jesus says in verse 7, “Occasions for stumbling are bound to come,” the word “bound to” does not mean that such occasions are destined by God, but that human experience has taught us that they are inevitable. Human beings simply treat one another in these ways, taking advantage of the weak in order to benefit themselves. Nevertheless, Jesus warns, woe to those who use their power without care for the powerless! Echoing his teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus urges his followers to take extreme measures, even harming themselves if it will prevent them from harming those whom society considers the last and the least (compare Matthew 5:29-30).

Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 18 provides practical examples of what it means for the Christian community to live as salt of the earth and light of the world. Laying aside power, loving and protecting those whom society ignores, searching for the lost sheep who have lost their way, forgiving, practicing mercy—this is the way of Jesus. This is the way of the cross.

Like Jesus’ disciples, we often fail to process Jesus’ teachings because our own concerns drown them out. We worry that our churches are too empty and that the Church in the U.S. has lost too much power. Yet Jesus’ words show that we are paying attention to the wrong things. The greatest in the kingdom of heaven are not those with the largest buildings, the highest Average Sunday Attendance, and the biggest budgets. The greatest in God’s reign are those who know how little is under their control, and who focus on loving and serving people in need instead of promoting themselves. Today, in this time and place, Jesus invites us to become like little children, trusting in God and following Jesus in the self-emptying way of love.


Holy God, your servants argued about who would be greatest in your kingdom. Help us to be confident in the love you have for us, so that we feel no need to compete for your attention. We pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.


Forgive our sins as we forgive   ELW 605, H82 674

Abide with me   ELW 629, H82 662, UMH 700, NCH 99


A Pentatonic Kyrie, Christopher Dalitz