I wrote this as my chapel message this week. It went a lot better than the last one. The idea was struck by a recent sermon I heard and an old blog post from Tim Challies.
“46 An argument started among the disciples as to which of them would be the greatest. 47 Jesus, knowing their thoughts, took a little child and had him stand beside him. 48 Then he said to them, “Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. For it is the one who is least among you all who is the greatest.”
Jesus has just finished remarking that he is going to be handed over to the Romans and crucified. He is about to make himself least for the sake of his disciples. What do the disciples do upon hearing this? Luke tells us they did not understand what he was saying and they were too afraid to ask him what he meant.
And it’s quite clear that they hadn’t understood the words of Jesus from the next passage, there we read that the disciples were arguing among themselves over who was the greatest. Previously Jesus gave them the power to heal and cast out demons, as our Lord himself had been doing; then he told them to take up their cross and follow him; a little later they witnessed the transfiguration and saw the Messiah in his glory. Perhaps the powers granted to them had puffed them up and caused infighting among them. After seeing the Messiah in his glory and hearing the voice of the Father, they must have learned something about the one they were following, but perhaps they took it to mean something about themselves too. That there was something in themselves that made them worthy of being Christ’s disciples.
Regardless of the reason, it’s clear that pride was at work in the hearts of the disciples. The brothers began fighting among themselves and arguing about who was greatest. And what does Jesus say to all of this? How does he respond when he sees what is happening?
“Whoever receives this child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. For he who is least among you all is the one who is great.”
Receive the least. Be welcoming to everyone, show hospitality to all, even the little children who can’t repay you. Take care of the ones you would otherwise overlook. Ultimately the message of Jesus here is: stop fighting about who is the greatest and follow my example by becoming the least.
So what is the message for us? We did not witness the casting out of demons and we haven’t been granted – as far as I know – the power to heal or exorcise unclean spirits. I haven’t heard anyone arguing they should be appointed as Archbishop of CRTS.
Yet I think we all face the temptation to compare ourselves to one another. We each have different gifts and talents, and these can become sources of envy and competition.
Instead we should focus on the fact that we bear witness to the work of God in us. You and I are living testimonies of God’s mercy. We are living testimonies that God does indeed receive the little children.
And if one person thinks they are better than another, how do they go about showing that? I have no one else to compare myself to because I can’t speak to the sins of others.
There’s a saying from William Law, “We may justly condemn ourselves as the greatest sinners we know because we know more of the folly of our own heart than we do of other people’s.” And this rings true. No person can know the reasoning or motivation or cause of another person’s sin. In the Christian context, if one person thinks he is better than another, he does not truly realize the depths of his sinfulness.
We can’t see what is going on in another person’s mind or in their heart. We can’t see if they have wept over their sins and repented of them, or if their heart has been hardened. What we do know, at least in part, is the motivation for our own sins. We do know how quickly we fall to temptation, it’s much more difficult to speak of how long our brother or sister resisted before falling. We aren’t witnesses of all of our brother’s or sister’s sins, but we have witnessed each one of the sins we committed. With that perspective how can we dream of arguing who is the greatest?
And the beauty of the gospel is that Jesus died for the greatest of sinners. He died to cleanse us of our sins and of our evil. He redeemed us by his blood but it didn’t stop at redemption from sin.
He redeemed us by his blood so that we could be called children of God, brothers and sisters in Christ. Before we were Christians there may have been some worldly value in finding out who was the greatest, some temporary benefit. Now that we are in Christ we are all co-heirs with him, we all serve the same King. We all have the same objective. We’ve all been given the same chief end by the one who is indeed the Greatest.