Cross Fourth Sunday

Who is great in heaven? Matthew 18:1-9

INTRODUCTION

The values of the world and the values Jesus presented were different. The disciples of Jesus were thinking in the line of the world until they were filled with the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. In response to their question on “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” the reply of Jesus was that they must humble themselves like a child. Jesus promised that childlike would be received as the representative of Jesus. He warned those who would misguide disciples to commit sin would be severely punished. He also asked to cut away whatever prompts to sin, to assure eternal life.

BIBLE TEXT

The Greatest in the Kingdom
(1) At that time the disciples approached Jesus and said, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (2) He called a child over, placed it in their midst, (3) and said, “Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. (4) Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. (5) And whoever receives one child such as this in my name receives me.

Temptations to Sin.
(6) “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. (7) Woe to the world because of things that cause sin! Such things must come, but woe to the one through whom they come! (8) If your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter into life maimed or crippled than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into eternal fire. (9) And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter into life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into fiery Gehenna.

INTERPRETATION

The Greatest in the Kingdom

(1) At that time the disciples approached Jesus and said, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”

At that time
This phrase connects with the previous events that led to the question on who would be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. They were:

1. Peter’s confession on the divine origin of Jesus followed by Jesus giving him prominence in his church (Matthew 16:13-20).

2. The first prediction of the passion of Jesus followed by Peter’s objection (Matthew 16:21-23).

3. The expectation to carry the cross by the disciples of Jesus and its reward later in the Kingdom of Jesus (Matthew 16:24-28).

4. The transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain witnessed by Peter, James and John (Matthew 17:1-8).

5. Jesus telling the disciples that John the Baptist was the second coming of Elijah to prepare the way for the Messiah (Matthew 17:9-13).

6. The failure of the disciples in healing the boy with a demon (Matthew 17:14-21).

7. The second prediction of the passion of Jesus (Matthew 17:22-23).

8. Payment of temple tax by Jesus asking Peter to catch a fish with a hook to pay the tax for Peter and Jesus (Matthew 17:24-27).

All these involved themes of sufferings of Jesus to take place, establishment of the kingdom, prominence to some of the apostles. These led to the questioning of Jesus by the disciples to find out who would be prominent among them in his kingdom of heaven.

“Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
This was a question haunting the disciples of Jesus during his public ministry. They even had arguments on the topic that came to the attention of Jesus (Luke 9: 46-48). There were several reasons for these.

1. Zebedee’s sons, along with their mother had asked permission to sit on the right and left of Jesus in his kingdom which made others indignant of the two (Matthew 20:24).

2. When Simon told Jesus, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” at Caesarea Philippi, Jesus renamed him Peter and told him: “you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:18-19). Thus, Peter was made prime minister of the kingdom of Jesus. 

3. Jesus showed favoritism to three of his apostles: Simon Peter, James, and John. Only they could witness the transfiguration on the mountain. At the same time, others failed to heal a boy with demon (Matthew 17:14-21).

4. Jesus allowed only Peter to get a miraculous catch of fish to pay his tax along with that of Jesus. Others were avoided in this respect.

Competition for prominence was going on among the disciples. They were thinking of a new heavenly kingdom that Jesus would establish in Jerusalem. However, they were confused when they repeatedly heard from Jesus that he must “go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly from the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised.” (Matthew 16:21). So, the disciples wanted to hear more about the victorious stage than to discuss on the suffering that might happen prior to it.

(2) He called a child over, placed it in their midst,

According to Mark 9:33, Jesus was teaching inside a house when Jesus taught this lesson. Since the preaching was held in Capernaum, it must be at the house of Peter. It was natural that children come along with parents when they came to see Jesus. It could be a child of Peter or one of the children that came with parents from outside. There is an Eastern tradition that this boy was the later martyr St. Ignatius of Antioch, also known as Theophorus (God Bearer). Mark describes the affection Jesus showed to the child by saying: “putting his arms around it” (Mark 9:36).

Jesus made use of demonstrations and examples from ordinary life situations to teach spiritual lessons so that they could be memorable for the listeners. So, use of a child as an example for spiritual childhood was one of the teaching techniques Jesus used.

(3) and said, “Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.

Amen, I say to you
Amen means acceptance or affirmation. In the Bible it was used at the end of a prayer, blessing, curse or statement expressing one’s endorsement or truthfulness of what was said. Jesus used the Hebrew word, “Amen” at the beginning of a statement to affirm the truthfulness of what he was going to say. Jesus was the only one who knew all the truth because he came down from heaven and he was one with the Father.

unless you turn and become like children
Children have characteristics different from the adults. They are innocent, humble, content with little things, not anxious about the future, when helpless or in doubt they turn to their parents believing that the parents are omniscient and omnipotent, they trust their parents, exchange love with their parents, they do what the parents tell them, they will not keep up rivalry for long, they are open for new ideologies, and they are not position seeking.

The adult Christians must keep up these qualities of children in their relationship with God, who is a parent to them. When Jesus said to the disciples that they must turn or convert and become like children, he meant that they must change their lives of sinfulness to lives of innocence and obedience according to the parental guidance of God.

Jesus did not select his apostles from the elite group of Jews because they were not like God’s children. He told about them to the crowds and his disciples: “The scribes and the Pharisees have taken their seat on the chair of Moses. Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you, but do not follow their example. For they preach but they do not practice.” (Matthew 23:1-3). Since they were unwilling to comply with the genuine teaching of Jesus, he selected those who had the heart and mind of children.

Jesus fulfilled what God had promised through Prophet Ezekiel: “I will sprinkle clean water over you to make you clean; from all your impurities and from all your idols I will cleanse you. I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you so that you walk in my statutes, observe my ordinances, and keep them.” (Ezekiel 36:25-27).

kingdom of heaven.
Kingdom of heaven or Kingdom of God refers to the rule of the Almighty without any border. During the Old Testament times, Israel was the kingdom of God. Jesus reestablished the Kingdom of God with the church and Jesus as its head. The church is only a foretaste of God’s kingdom that will happen later in its fullness when the time of redemption is over and when the time of judgement will arrive with the second coming of Christ. This kingdom will be governed by God, eternal, peaceful, free from any struggle, and will be open only for the faithful children of God.

you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.
According to Jesus, entry into the kingdom of heaven is restricted to those who are willing to covert to acquire the qualities of children in respect to their relationship with God. That was why John the Baptist and Jesus preached message of repentance to become members of the Kingdom of God. Those who follow the worldly values like the Scribes and Pharisees would not have access to the kingdom of heaven, that is contrary to their belief and expectation.

(4) Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

Whoever humbles himself
Though there are many good qualities in a child compared to an adult, Jesus highlighted humility as the most important among them. This is to be understood also in the background of the competition among the disciples on who was the greatest among them. Jesus, who humbled himself to come down from heaven and become servant of humans, showed himself as a role model.

like this child
Jesus pointed to the child whom he was holding as the model of humility. Children are not competing for prominence, though parents might encourage them later to become winners in studies, sports, games, or cultural programs defeating others in competitions. In Christian leadership or ministry, winning over other humans is not the goal. The goal of the disciples of Jesus is to win over the evil by self-sacrifice, humiliation, failure, and material loss.

the greatest in the kingdom of heaven
This is an indication that there will be hierarchy in heaven like great, grater, and greatest. There will be compensation for humbling oneself for the service of God and humanity through the church that Jesus has established. God raised Jesus from the dead after his humiliation, extreme torture, and death. He seated Jesus at his right hand. So also, we who are the disciples of Jesus, would be raised and rewarded in heaven according to how well we relate to God and His people in this world.

(5) And whoever receives one child such as this in my name receives me.

one child such as this
Children belong to God and are entrusted to parents to bring them up as God’s own. So, when parents and others take care of children they are involved in the service of God. When children, who are orphaned, sick, or disabled, are taken care of by others, they are also doing the service pleasing to God. Jesus loved and cared for children. He cured sick children like curing an official’s son in Galilee (John 4:46-54) and healing a child with epilepsy (Matthew 17:14-16). Jesus even raised the dead children like a widow’s only son in Nain (Luke 7: 11-17) and Jairus’ twelve-year-old daughter (Luke 8:40-56).

Though Jesus was holding a child as a model, he specified that service to a childlike person is also valuable for God and promised greatest position in heaven. Who are the childlike?

1. They can be adults who deserve help from others for their necessities like hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, ill, or prisoner (Matthew 25:35-36) regardless of whether they came to that stage because of their fault or not.

2. People born or turned out in a later stage with physical, mental or spiritual disabilities can be considered as childlike. For example: elderly, blind, deaf and mute, lame, mentally ill, physically or mentally disabled, addicted, distressed with crisis in life, depressed, or in grief at the death of dear person.

3. The childlike can also be a disciple of Jesus who gave up everything for the church and involved in the missionary work of Jesus.

whoever receives
Reception of childlike means action to help the person in need.

1. At the final judgement Jesus would say: “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.” (Matthew 25:35-36). So, mere welcoming and sympathy is not enough for the heavenly reward. Our piety should be expressed in charitable action.

2. Jesus himself made use of his time and resources to help the people with physical, mental or spiritual disabilities. He did miracles for them like healing the sick, casting out demons, forgiving sins, feeding the hungry, and raising the dead. When we make use of our little resources to help such people, Jesus would work miracles through us because we are reaching out to them on behalf of Jesus.

3. When teaching about discipleship Jesus said: “Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me. Whoever receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever receives a righteous man because he is righteous will receive a righteous man’s reward. And whoever gives only a cup of cold water to one of these little ones to drink because he is a disciple—amen, I say to you, he will surely not lose his reward.” (Matthew 10:40-42). During his public ministry, Jesus and his apostles were fully engaged in evangelization. They were financially supported by women disciples of Jesus as given in Luke 8:2-3: “some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities, Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, Susanna, and many others who provided for them out of their resources.”

in my name
The reception of a child or childlike adult should not be merely out of sympathy or for fame but seeing God in them. Each person created in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:27) is dear to God and a child of God. We help the child or childlike as our sibling because we share the same Father in heaven. So, there should be a high motive in our service for humanity based on our love of God. Then God who seek mercy rather than sacrifice (Hosea 6:6, Matthew 9:13) would reward us.

receives me
At the final judgement, the King will say: “Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:40). When we serve the helpless on behalf of Jesus, we are serving Jesus. Denial of such service will lead us to punishment from God at the final judgement: “‘Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.’ And these will go off to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” (Matthew 25:45-46). Let us remember the proverb: “Those who oppress the poor insult their Maker, but helping the poor honors him.” (Proverbs 14:31).

Temptations to Sin.

(6) “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.

one of these little ones who believe in me
Misguiding children to deviate from God is sin. However, here Jesus shifts his focus from children to his believers who become like children to follow him. In Mathew 10:42, Jesus uses the little ones for his disciples: “whoever gives only a cup of cold water to one of these little ones to drink because he is a disciple—amen, I say to you, he will surely not lose his reward.” So, the little ones can be a believer in Christ or even the selected leaders of the community. A believer or even an apostle is vulnerable as it happened in the case of Judas Iscariot who was tempted by the chief priests to betray Jesus for 30 silver coins. (Matthew 26:15).

to sin
The one who leads others to sin is committing double sin. He is losing himself and making others lose entry to the Kingdom of God. Lucifer means “Morning Star,” was once a mighty angel became proud of his beauty and splendor corrupted his wisdom (Ezekiel 28:17) and became known as Satan, meaning “adversary” through his self-generated pride. This Satan tempted the first parents to commit sin taking the form of a serpent. He continues his role as adversary until the second coming of Christ. Instead of taking the form of a serpent, the Satan through humans can influence the innocent believers and church leaders to commit sin.

The primary sin in the Bible is to break away from God by losing faith or abandoning the church established and ruled by Jesus through his human representatives. In his explanation of the parable of the sower, Jesus presented the possible adversaries who would destroy the word of God from the faithful. They are the evil one, tribulation or persecution, worldly anxiety and the lure of riches (Matthew 13:18-23). There are many who fell from faith because of these hurdles and there are many others who resisted these and became holy. Bad examples through scandalous living like King Herod Antipas, misguiding people with wrong teachings like the religious leaders during Jesus’ public ministry, and people offering money to commit sin like chief priests who made Judas Iscariot to sin and those who led the poor women to adultery rather than helping them are examples of misguiding the little ones to sin in the Bible.

it would be better for him
The existence of the one who make others commit sin would cause many others to commit sin. Death penalty of such a person would be better for him to stop the continuation of his destruction of the little ones from their faith and eternal salvation.

to have a great millstone hung around his neck
The millstone was used in Biblical times to grind grain. It consisted of a stationary base stone and a runner stone that would be turned on the top either by humans or by animals. Humans use small millstone as given in Luke 17:35 where “two women grinding meal together.” The great millstone stands for large runner stone moved usually by an ass. If such a great millstone is hung around the neck of a person and drowned in the depths of the sea, that person would die, and his body would not be available for burial rites.

to be drowned in the depths of the sea.
Drowning to the depths of the sea with great millstone hung around the neck shows the severe punishment for a heinous crime. Unlike other capital punishments, the seriousness of this was the denial of burial rites of the assassinated. Though this type of punishment was implemented among the gentile nations like Romans, Greeks and Syrians, it was not common among the Jews or are not given in the Mosaic Law. Since the gentiles might have implemented this in Galilee, Jesus used it to show the seriousness of the offense in misleading others to sin.

(7) Woe to the world because of things that cause sin! Such things must come, but woe to the one through whom they come!

Woe to the world
Depending on the context, “woe” is used as an emotional response or as a judgement. In this context, Jesus expressed the great distress the world has because of the thing that cause sin.

things that cause sin!
Satan is the primary source of evil and temptation. He will make use of sinners to lead the innocent believers also to commit sin. That causes destruction to more people. Jesus was expressing his emotion on what has been going on regarding the influence of the evil spirit in the world.

Such things must come
Sin and temptations to sin are inevitable in this world until the second coming of Christ. Satan and his team are active in this world leading people to focus on worldly happiness than eternal joy. People would prefer wider road and not the narrow one. God permits the temptations to measure our faithfulness to Him as he did in the case of Abraham, Job, and Jesus. However, God provides also the grace to overcome them.

but woe to the one through whom they come!
In this context, “woe” means “alas” or “oh no” as a part of a punishment or condemnation from God. Severe punishment is sure for those who lead others to commit sin. It is more serious than one’s own sin. We are responsible to help others to keep their faith, morals and sanctity. If we do the opposite, it will lead us to severe destruction.

(8) If your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter into life maimed or crippled than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into eternal fire. (9) And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter into life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into fiery Gehenna.

If your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off / And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out
From the theme of tempting others to commit sin, Jesus now turns to the human organs that become instrumental for one to commit sin. The same message is given in Matthew 5:29-30 as part of the Sermon on the Mount. The hand, foot or eye becomes cause of sin when it is used to commit sin. However, this is to be applied to other dear elements that we value in life and cause us to sin like bad friends, bad habits, reading materials, visuals, social media and others. If any of them cause us to sin they must be cut off and that sacrifice would give us good result at the end.

throw it away
If you cut of the tempting elements and leave them in your proximity, you can be tempted to use them. If someone who gave up alcohol keeps it at home might be tempted to use it later. The same can be the case with other items like cigarettes, drugs, bad friends, or bad media.

to enter into life
This is contrasted to “thrown into eternal fire” or “thrown into fiery Gehenna.” Entery into eternal life with perfection is implied here. Cutting of the organs like hand, foot, or eye is a hyperbolic expression and is not to be taken in a literal sense. If we give up that which offers temporal happiness in this world for a righteous life, we will inherit a perfect and eternal life.

thrown into eternal fire / thrown into fiery Gehenna
“Eternal fire” and “fiery Gehenna” are metaphorical presentation of eternal punishment for the sinners. Literal meaning of Gehenna is "the valley of the sons of Hinnom." Though unknown today, Hinnom must be the name of someone lived in ancient Israel.

Gehenna is a deep and narrow valley at the south of Jerusalem that was famous for idolatrous worship of Molech where children were sacrificed (2 Chronicles 28:3). Pagan worship and child sacrifice were strictly forbidden for Jews though some of them, including King Ahaz (2 Chronicles 28:1-3), sacrificed their children as burnt offering to the false god (Jeremiah 19:4). So, this valley was cursed. King Josiah later stopped the sacrifices here (2 Kings 23:10).

Later Gehenna became a place of waste disposal that were burnt including the dead bodies of animals and criminals. Because of the dumped refuse of the city, it was also a place of worms and maggots. Since the fire kept burning there all the time, this place became a symbol of everlasting destruction of sinners in the life after death.

Hyperbole

Bible uses hyperbole which is an exaggerated expression for emphasis. Hyperbole was used mostly by the Eastern people to add vividness  and power to the matter. We see this in Semitic languages like Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic. So, hyperboles are not supposed to be taken literally. Jesus at times used hyperbole in his teaching. When he said, “if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away” (Matthew 18:9), he did not want us to blind ourselves. Instead, he makes it clear that we should take aggressive action to stop committing sins.

MESSAGE

1. The disciples learnt from Jesus that they must humble themselves like children to become the greatest in heaven. In fact, they achieved it. Let us also humble ourselves as children of God and follow the model of the apostles who dedicated their lives for Jesus and his church.

2. Children are innocent, humble, content with little things, not anxious about the future, when helpless or in doubt they turn to their parents believing that the parents are omniscient and omnipotent, they trust their parents, exchange love with their parents, they do what the parents tell them, they will not keep up rivalry for long, they are open for new ideologies, and they are not position seeking. Let us also be like children in front of God with these characteristics.

3. The childlike disciples of Jesus are representatives of Jesus because Jesus said, “whoever receives one child such as this in my name receives me.” Let us respect children and the childlike who need our assistance and find Jesus in them.

4. Jesus warned severe punishment for those who cause believers to sin. Let us avoid being scandalous to others.

5. Jesus said that things that cause sin is to be expected in the world; but woe to the one through whom they come! Judas Iscariot ignored all such warnings and betrayed Jesus. Let us be careful not to become betrayers of Jesus and his representatives in the church.

6. Jesus asked us in an exaggerated language to cut off whatever leads us to sin to avoid eternal fire and to enter life. Though we cannot cut off our bodily organs, we can avoid other elements like alcoholism, drug abuse, immoral behaviors, gossip, enmity, and so on.