Reading Time: 3 mins

Gospel: Matthew 18:1-20 (Pentecost 15: Series A)

Reading Time: 3 mins

"Greatest" according to the mind of God does not come from accomplishment or advancement or accolade. To be the greatest is to become the least.

In a sermon called “The Tiger,” Frederick Buechner describes a basic human dilemma. Human beings have been crafted by God. We have been made in His image. Among other things, this means we have been designed to think, speak, and act in certain ways. But here is the dilemma: We do not... not completely, at least. More often than not, we operate by the wisdom of the world. We think, speak, and act in decidedly unhuman ways. Buechner describes his own malfunction: “I adjust myself to the world. I make its standards my standards, its wisdom my wisdom, its goals my goals. And my world adjusts me to itself—where it cannot break me in, it breaks me off and breaks me up” (printed in The Magnificent Defeat, 1966, page 94).

Buechner’s description reminds me of Jesus’ assessment of Peter’s thinking in last week’s Gospel reading. After calling him Satan, Jesus rebuked Peter for adjusting himself to the world’s standards. “You are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man” (Matthew 16:23). Unfortunately, Peter is not unique. All of us (preachers included) set our minds on the things of this world more often and more deeply than we would like to admit. Rather than listening to our heavenly Father, who has instilled in us a “longing for paradise” (again, Buechner), we continually exchange the truths of God for a lie and content ourselves with unhuman being.

Last week I suggested a series of sermons on the Gospel readings during September to explore this tragic reality more deeply and precisely. The idea is that each sermon would examine the Gospel reading for how it exposes a way in which we operate by the mind of man. Last week the topic was “suffering,” especially the suffering of Jesus. This week, thanks to the ill-advised question of the disciples, the subject is “greatness” (the following weeks we will examine forgiveness and justice; please see the upcoming reflections).

“Who is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?” (Matthew 18:1). It was not an innocent question. It revealed something wrong with their thinking. Some questions are like that. You can tell by how it is phrased that something is amiss. “Why should I have to do the dishes?” or “How can we get out of the family reunion this year?” or “When do I get to be the weaker brother?” or “Should we call down fire from Heaven to destroy them?” You only ask such questions when there is something amiss lurking beneath the surface. So, the disciples opened their mouths and revealed their minds were not set on the things of God (at least in Mark 9:33-36 and Luke 9:46-49 they were smart enough not to ask!). And this was not the only time in Matthew’s Gospel when this kind of thinking took place. A few chapters later, James, John, and their mother showed a similar lack of shame (Matthew 20:20-28).

“Who is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?”  It was not an innocent question. It revealed something wrong with their thinking.

The mind of man revealed in this question is the persistent human striving after greatness, and the recognition which goes with it. So, we think up the greatest starting line-up in the history of the game. We host annual awards to name the greatest actors, singers, and writers. We call ourselves (and think of ourselves as) the greatest nation on earth, and we search for leaders who will keep it this way or make us great again. It happens in our personal lives, too. Students strive to sit at the top of the class. Workers fight for promotions to move up the ladder. This thinking even sneaks into the Church. Leaders of big congregations begin to think they are greater than the struggling congregation on the other side of town. Leaders of the struggling congregation begin to think their faithfulness is greater precisely because they are small. The saying is true: All comparisons are odious, especially when the point of comparison is how great you are!

To this human way of thinking, Jesus inserts a child. Do you want to be great? Then become like a child. This was no elevation of the innocence of children, and it was not a false notion of child-like trust. Children in those days had no standing, no position, and no honor. They were nobodies, and that is the point. “Greatest” according to the mind of God does not come from accomplishment or advancement or accolade. To be the greatest is to become the least. Philippians 2:6-9 fits well here. “Have this mind,” Paul says. Then he describes the one who emptied Himself, humbled Himself, gave Himself to death, even death on a cross. This is the mind of Jesus, whose mind “is yours in Christ Jesus.” He is the one who laid aside His outer garments and His glory and washed their dirty feet. It was a foretaste of the humility to come.

The promise you get to proclaim in this sermon is that Jesus, the only proper human object of the adjective “greatest,” made Himself nothing for His disciples, for your hearers, and for you. His strength in weakness is our salvation and our hope. It is also our call and our privilege. After promising the great gifts of God to your hearers in the name of the crucified and risen Lord, invite them to set their minds on His conception of greatness... and send them to wash feet around them, too.

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Additional Resources:

Craft of Preaching-Check out our previous articles on Matthew 18:1-20.

Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Matthew 18:1-20.

Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Matthew 18:1-20.

Lectionary Kick-Start-Check out this fantastic podcast from Craft of Preaching authors Peter Nafzger and David Schmitt as they dig into the texts for this Sunday!

Lectionary Podcast-Dr. John Nordling of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through Matthew 18:1-20.