The Word in the Wings
From the study: What is greatness in God's kingdom?
By: KAYA WEAVER
In Matthew 18, Jesus tells a parable about a shepherd with a flock of a hundred sheep. Leading up to this parable, Jesus is responding to his disciples’ question about who has the highest status in God’s kingdom. Jesus’s answer applies multiple layers of imagery to the disciples’ question and suggests a different framework for understanding how people relate to one another under God’s reign.
1 During that time, the disciples came to Jesus saying,
“So, who’s the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
The disciples want to know what determines status among people in God’s kingdom, and Jesus offers illustrations and reasoning in response to their query.
2 And summoning a child, he placed the child in their midst.
3 And he said, “Truly I say to you,
if you don’t turn and become like a child,
you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
4 So whoever humbles themselves like this child–
that one is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
Jesus doesn’t immediately supply a direct answer to the question posed. He begins with a concrete image: a child who obediently comes when called. In Jesus’s society, children are entirely dependent on their fathers or other providers for economic resources (New Interpreter’s Study Bible, p. 1778). Jesus highlights the child’s humility (v. 4) and also points out that his listeners must change in order to be like this child (v. 3).
Not only is childlike humility required for status in God’s kingdom, but only someone with such humility even has access to God’s kingdom. In addition to furnishing a surprising illustration of greatness in God’s kingdom, Jesus expands the scope of the question: if everyone in God’s kingdom has the humble status of a child, does it even matter which of them is greatest?
One more short line adds two more layers of meaning:
5 And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.
In addition to instructing his disciples to take on the status of children, Jesus also asks them to treat a humble child as if they have the status of Jesus, their master and teacher. In identifying the child as his representative, Jesus implies a comparison: his own respected status as teacher is embodied in the humility of a child, even as the child is elevated to the same honor one would offer the teacher.
6 But whoever causes one of these small ones who trusts in me to stumble,
they bring on themselves that a donkey’s millstone would be hung around their neck
and they would be drowned in the depths of the sea.
7 Woe to the world because of the stumbling blocks–
for there is pressure for the stumbling blocks to come–
much woe to the person through whom the stumbling block comes.
Jesus describes the alternative to extending welcome: subjecting oneself to death. This illustration considers an individual as a member of a community, bearing responsibility for steering others in the community towards life or death.
A subtle shift in vocabulary underscores the assertion Jesus is making about status in the kingdom of God: the humble child, who is “the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (v. 4), is identified as “small,” the very opposite of great. Yet Jesus’s discourse focuses on the value that should be ascribed to such a person: one who wants nothing to do with “these small ones” has nothing to do with life.
8 But if your hand or your foot causes you to stumble,
sever it and throw it away from you;
it is better for you to enter life crippled or lame
than having two hands or two feet to be thrown into eternal fire.
9 And if your eye causes you to stumble, remove it and throw it away from you;
it is better for you to enter life one-eyed
than having two eyes to be thrown into fiery Gehenna.
These two illustrations consider the members of an individual’s body and assert that problematic members should be excluded for the sake of the whole body’s overall commitment to the right path.
10 Watch out that you not scorn one of these small ones;
for I’m telling you that their messengers in the heavens see my heavenly father’s face through everything.
In the same way that an individual would sacrifice part of themselves to preserve the rest for life, rather than allow the part to bring the whole into death, so also an individual should consider themselves as part of a whole community and responsible for preserving that whole community for life, rather than bring the least part of it with them on the path to death.
12 What do you think?
If it should happen that some person has a hundred sheep,
and one of them is led astray,
won’t they leave the ninety-nine on the hillside
and go seek out the stray?
13 And if they find it, truly I say to you
that the joy over it will be greater
than over the ninety-nine that didn’t stray.
14 Thus it isn’t the will of your father in heaven
that one of these small ones should perish.”
For his final illustration, Jesus compares “these small ones” to sheep in a shepherd’s flock. The greatest thing in this parable is not any one of the sheep; even the shepherd isn’t called great, for all their heroic searching and rescuing. What Jesus calls “great” is “the joy” over the sheep that is returned.
What does the parable of the lost sheep tell Jesus’s disciples about status in God’s kingdom? The wandering sheep demonstrates the greatest need for the shepherd’s attention, which the shepherd gives. The shepherd finds the sheep, eliciting great joy.
In GPA’s ballet Heurisko: The Parable of the Lost Sheep, a shepherdess spends the day tending her flock and frolicking with them. When she counts her sheep at the end of the day, she realizes one is missing, goes out searching, and brings the lost sheep home. As Melody and I discussed the best way to portray the sequence of events choreographically, we considered the message of Jesus’s parable as relayed in Matthew’s Gospel. If the shepherdess is like Jesus and cares immensely for each of her sheep, how could she not notice right away that one sheep was wandering off?
Melody’s choreographic choices don’t portray the shepherdess as negligent or distracted; the shepherdess dancing with the sheep shows her intimate involvement in their daily lives. Because no sheep is greater than any other, she might not leave the flock right away to search for the wanderer. But for a shepherd like Jesus, no sheep is ever too far gone to seek out and bring back home. At the end of the day, the shepherdess can give her undivided attention to find and return the wandering sheep.
By asking, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Jesus’s disciples indicate a desire to achieve higher status when Jesus establishes God’s reign. But Jesus answers them with illustrations that turn conventional notions of status upside-down; to be the greatest, they must all become like the smallest. In other words, no one is greatest, and anyone who tries to make themselves greater than the rest excludes themselves from participation in the order God wants to establish. To be great in God’s kingdom is to be like a sheep: though vulnerable to wander or stumble, the shepherd cares enough to bring you back and rejoice that you have life.
Biblical quotations in this post are my own translation.
Secondary reference: The New Interpreter’s Study Bible (Abingdon Press, 2003).
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