Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven (St. Matthew 18:3-4).
Today, as we celebrate St. Michael and the heavenly army of God—the force which expelled Satan from heaven and will one day bring healing justice to a wounded and unjust world—as we celebrate that angelic army, we are confronted by the words of the only man worthy to lead this righteous host into its final battle. Jesus is the destroyer of evil because He is the God of love, but this end of evil and fear and pain we pray for every day begins in the hearts and lives of God’s people. Some questions stand before us, as we dream and live in the assured hope of a world without death: are we prepared to follow Christ into battle if the enemy, for now, is us; are we prepared to fight to the death if the enemy is the person time and sin have molded us into? What we learn today from the Destroyer of Death is that sin shapes us into our own worst enemies, an enemy who wants the best for himself and will do whatever it takes to get it. Life in a broken, sinful world where pleasure is god and death is our master has inevitably corrupted us, it has shaped our wants and desires in such a way that we are bent toward loving ourselves and our idols more than the Living God, and if we are not saved from this cruel indoctrination, we will die clutching those idols while the angels we celebrate today mourn over our graves. Today, we mark the defeat of Satan and the inevitable destruction of evil, but if we are destined on the last day to be standing among the victorious angelic host, side by side with the saints whose sacrificial love marked them as Christ’s, we must be born again—we must become children.
The most shocking part our Lord’s answer to today’s question from the apostles, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven,” is how far the Son of God’s answer is from the one which animates the lives of 21st century humans. If someone were to approach us and ask us who is the greatest person in the world, we would not plop some random kid on our lap; further, we would laugh at anyone who proposed that a little child was a living symbol of greatness. Do we laugh at Jesus? Maybe not out loud, but if we are honest, we either turn this answer from our Lord and Savior into a saccharine little devotional about connecting with our inner child, or we ignore it all together in favor of our respect and veneration of the powerful, the rich, and the famous. Make no mistake, the Creator of humanity is destroying the idea that greatness is measured by achievement or money or fame or power. Look at His example of greatness. What power does a little child have? None, he is entirely dependent upon his parents for survival, and he knows it. The fear which grips a child separated from his mom and dad is visceral and real because the child knows he has lost everything. This view of the world is not one of innocence; no, it is a pure and sober honesty. A little child has not yet been so entirely formed and shaped by an evil world that he actually believes his aging hands and fading strength can hold back the death tide as it washes over the sons of Adam. A little child has not yet developed the comforting illusion that he has real control over his ultimate destiny, and so he lives in the same humble dependency which marks the true follower of Christ. Embracing the ever-young humility of a little child means we must abandon the grownup lie, whispered into our ears by every false prophet, that the dying world’s definition of greatness will save us. Hell is filled with those who thought the temporary glory of the crowd was more important than greatness in the kingdom of heaven; Hell is filled with the very people humanity’s delusional culture elevates and celebrates.
Is Jesus asking too much of us? Are we willing to follow His life and death command that we turn and become as humble as this little child, that we become as dependent on God as a young child is to his parents? It is one thing to say, “Yes,” to that question; it is quite another thing entirely to seriously attack the parts of ourselves which seek false glory. But what does Jesus say, “And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire” (St. Matthew 18:8-9). Jesus is not commanding us to commit self-mutilation of our fleshly bodies; rather, He is using a hyperbolic figure of speech to help us understand the pain and loss we will suffer when we seriously attack the lies which separate us from God and the lived-out ministry of His Church. Smiling preachers love to talk about the “transformative love of Christ,” but they hate to talk about how much real transformation hurts. They run as fast as they can from the images our Lord uses to describe a life of discipline in the pursuit of holiness (images like carrying cruciform torture devices and gouging out eyeballs). They run from our Lord’s words because they would rather keep their audiences happy than relay the truth God became man to bring us. I get it. I really do, it frightens me every time I have to stand here and show just how far we are from the cross we have been commanded to carry, but there must be one place on this planet that isn’t trying to sell us something; there has to be one place that just doesn’t care if we are a satisfied customer because no one has ever loved us more than Jesus Christ, and He promises eternal fire as the ultimate justice for the damned, the ultimate justice for those who love the grownup lies of this world more than the ever-young truth He came to reveal in His humility and pain and glory.
And so, our Savior commands us to become little children and to receive little children, of all ages, as if our life and theirs depend on it. He says, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea” (St. Matthew 18:5-6). We should get a sense of the frightening seriousness of this command when we consider that the Prince of Peace is telling us it would be better if we drowned to death than if we led one of His precious ever-young followers astray. Those who live in death and for death will taste death now and forever. Of course, we can observe that Jesus was absolutely right about the need to protect those most vulnerable in our church and world. The first people to be ground under the wheels of progress are all those for whom society decides it has no use. New technological developments are moving us closer and closer to a world in which we simply exterminate the unwanted and the lowly: whether the down syndrome baby or unwanted fetus, the old and the sick put out of their misery like a horse with a broken leg, the homeless drug addict or prisoner who gets nothing but our scorn. Our fallen natural inclination is to eradicate the weak and dependent because they remind us or our own true helplessness against the tide of death. Jesus, however, so closely unites Himself with those afflicted by an evil world that He can tell us that lovingly helping them and receiving them into His church is the same as receiving Him. The Son of God, who was so soon to be murdered by an evil world knows what it means to be rejected by those who think themselves great and powerful.
Therefore, when we ignore these weak and helpless people, we lose a precious part of our God shaped humanity; we jettison a precious opportunity to live in the ever-young truth rather than the grownup lie. What could be more important than to care for an immortal human being? In those hard, hard moments, caring for the young or the sick or the unwanted, we are imitating the God whose boundless love saved us when we were spiritually young, spiritually sick and spiritually unwanted—the God who looked at our mess of a life and claimed us as His own. The God who looked at us and said, “You are mine; I will carry you from death to life.” There is no person born or unborn, washed or unwashed, stupid or cruel, who could appear as unloveable to us as we do to God. And yet, “So God loved the world, that He gave His only-begotten Son, to the end that all that believe in Him should no perish, but have everlasting life” (St. John 3:16). The Eternal Word became a child to show that His humble dependence on the Father is the only path through the sufferings of this world, through the pain of our death, and into the eternal glory of our resurrection. Those who depend on us remind us of our utter and complete dependence on God, and so they are the most valuable people in our lives; they are, in fact, the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
May God bless our lives by making others dependent upon us; may we be humbled and broken living in the sacrificial love of God, and in the end, may we be found worthy to join the angelic host in the last battle whose victory was secured on the cross by the only-begotten Child of God.