Matthew 18:1-5, 10, 12-14
“Who is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?” So the disciples ask Jesus. There is some evidence that people were quite exercised by this question at the time that Matthew’s Gospel was written. The Essene Community, a kind of monastic Jewish community which left us the Dead Sea Scrolls, held ceremonies and meals where the seating order was very important; they had a complex hierarchy in which where you sat prefigured the place you would have in the Kingdom of God, and no-one was to sit above or below their allotted place.
Now that’s all rather competitive. If someone is the greatest, then someone else is less great, and you have a pecking order defined by people constantly comparing themselves with others. And that of course is a recipe for envy, rivalry, and even violence if social controls break down.
But Jesus showed them a child and said, this is the greatest. The point is not the innocence or simplicity of children, but their littleness. Children at the time were social nobodies, non-entities. They were not present at great functions or ceremonies, and no-one thought what their position might be in the Kingdom of Heaven. So Jesus’ answer subverts the question. Children in that world were not part of the rivalrous hierarchy that asked, “who is the greatest”. So the Kingdom of Heaven is not structured according to that question, either.
So what is the Kingdom like? Jesus tells us it is like a man owning a hundred sheep who leaves ninety-nine undefended on the hillside to search for one that has strayed. That is an extravagant, reckless thing to do. The sheep owner doesn’t count what he’s got, doesn’t compare himself to others, doesn’t ask who is the greatest. For him, finding the one sheep that has strayed is more important than owning a hundred sheep.
That is not the logic of this world, which would have written off the loss of one sheep, because after all ninety-nine is nearly a hundred, you would still own nearly as much, you would still be in a good position to ask “who is the greatest”. It is the logic of a kingdom which is ruled not by rivalry but by love. Generous love that doesn’t count the cost but spends itself and risks all for the sake of one straying sheep.
As the Church we are always called to bear witness to that self-giving, generous love. We are to live according to the values of God’s kingdom in the midst of a world of rivalry, envy and violence. We perhaps are rather aware of that contrast today.
I’m not going to try any amateur analysis of the violence that has erupted in our city and in other places in the last few days. But it is possible to say that the question, “who is the greatest?”, lurks behind many conflicts, wars and acts of violence. Envy and rivalry can create a sense of exclusion, of marginalisation, and violence often follows.
Now there can be no justification for the criminal violence we have seen on our streets. But part of the way that the Church bears witness to God’s Kingdom is by having a prophetic role. The Church is to be attentive to the scriptures and to what is going on in the world – both the movements of God’s spirit and the movements of human rivalry and sin. By so doing, the Church continues the ministry of Christ in discerning the signs of the times and pointing to their solution, to God’s Kingdom of justice, love and peace.
The prophets of old didn’t often have anything very comforting to say to their earthly cities. The prophet Amos, in a scorching denunciation of the luxurious society of his times, said “Woe to those who are at ease in Zion!”. Woe, because the problem with those who are at ease in Zion is that often they’ve stopped noticing those who are not, and fail to see the simmering tensions beneath the surface. Jesus, in his day, wept over Jerusalem, and foretold its destruction, because it refused know the ways that made for peace.
But the hope we stand for is not founded on human strength or rivalry, on asking who is the greatest. Our hope is in God’s extravagantly generous love, the love that seeks us out when we are straying, the love that draws us beyond our rivalrous desires and gives us a place in his Kingdom of justice, love and peace. To that Kingdom, in this world, in this city, we bear witness, today and every day.