Greatness Turned On Its Head
Then he said to them, “Anyone who welcomes a little child like this on my behalf welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me also welcomes my Father who sent me. Whoever is the least among you is the greatest.”
In Luke 9:44, Jesus once again predicted his betrayal “into the hands of his enemies.” And, once again, his disciples didn’t understand what he meant. Then, according to Luke, they began to argue about which of them was the greatest, a sadly ironic response to Jesus’ prediction of his own betrayal and implied death.
In this case, Jesus did not lament his disciples’ lack of faith, as he had done a few verses earlier (9:41). Rather, he used this occasion to teach something profound and unexpected about the kingdom of God. Bringing a little child to his side, Jesus said, “Anyone who welcomes a little child like this on my behalf welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me also welcomes my Father who sent me. Whoever is the least among you is the greatest” (9:48).
In the world of Jesus, children were valued as gifts from God and as heirs of the family name and property. But they were not, in themselves, people of importance. Nor would people of importance bother with children. Great people paid attention to great, grown up things. So when Jesus told his disciples that welcoming a child was equivalent to welcoming him, and that welcoming him was equivalent to welcoming his Father, they were surely surprised, perhaps even chagrined. They wanted to be great. They didn’t want to mess around with untidy, unimportant children.
Then Jesus closed with a powerful punch line: “Whoever is the least among you is the greatest” (9:48). In a few words, he turned greatness on its head. If you want to be great, be great in humility. If you want to be a leader, be a servant. If you want to have God in your life, reach out to someone who doesn’t count for much in the social pecking order, someone like a child.
I have been challenged by this passage in Luke for over two decades. When I served as a parish pastor, I found it easy to show favor to people who were influential and successful in the eyes of the world. I wanted to hang out with great people so that I might also be great. Yet, the words and actions of Jesus summoned me to a different course of action. I tried hard to be the pastor, not just of the adults in the church, but also of the children. I sought to welcome them by listening to them, caring for them, and taking them seriously. In a similar way, I was guided by the Lord to care equally for all people in the church, not only those who were “somebodies.” I’m not saying I always succeeded in following the countercultural, counterintuitive way of Jesus. But I did try in my own wavering way.
This passage from Luke challenges us to take a long look at how we value people and how we act toward them. Whether we’re pastors or parents, bosses or teachers, colleagues or friends, Jesus urges us to welcome all people, no matter their status. He calls us to be great in serving others, knowing that when we do, Jesus receives our service as if it were for him.
QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER REFLECTION: Do you ever find yourself seeking to be great? What kind of greatness do you desire? In what ways might you have the opportunity to welcome children and others of low status today? How might this passage impact your behavior at work or in the classroom, in your neighborhood or even in your family?
PRAYER: Dear Lord, forgive me for all the times I am just like your disciples, seeking my own greatness, position, and glory. Forgive me for the times I have ignored children and others of low status so that I could pay attention to those who were “really important.”
Change my heart, Lord, so that I might welcome all people, regardless of their circumstance or position. May I learn to be great in serving others for your sake. Help me to live the upside down values of your kingdom in every facet of my life.
All glory be to you, Lord, the serving Son of Man. Amen.