The disciples asked Jesus who was the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
To answer the disciples, Jesus called a little child to stand among them. He then said, “Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:2-4).
Children held little status during the time of Jesus’ life on earth. They weren’t valued as we value children today. They certainly weren’t the center of anything, idolized, coddled, or even held in much esteem. That is not to say that they were not loved in the eyes of God, or not loved by the family members. In spite of God’s love for children, children’s societal rank was just above the leper, the blind, and the crippled.
Jesus, however, valued greatly those in need more than ones who had no or little confessed need. He spent much time healing and comforting those who stated their needs. He also spent time toughly confronting who denied their need because of the value they placed on status. That “ladder climbing” status seeking seems to be what Jesus is confronting as the child stands in the midst of the adults.
Children were more like the lilies of the field that “did not labor or spin. Yet . . . not even Solomon in all of his splendor was dressed like one of these” (Mt 6: 28-29). The lilies were here today and gone tomorrow, and yet drank the water they received, reached for the sun they received, and bloomed as a natural expression. They “knew their need,” they “trusted,” and if they weren’t “touched in heart,” they would die.
Humility in a child was not something the child achieved. It was a condition that could not be avoided. If no one took care of them, they would not have life. Jesus refers to this humble condition of a child as greatness. That reference really does fit the definition of irony—the opposite experience than what would be expected. Their condition was neediness by birth and the status of a child didn’t change after birth, unless they could lose their humility as they became older by losing their neediness.
They trusted, expressed need, cried out for life, asked for help, hoped as natural as breathing, depended on others, waited to be seen and heard, lived in a state of powerlessness, surrender, and acceptance. Jesus refers to their condition of humility as greatness in the Kingdom over which he reigns.