How often do we try to be great? How much of our thought life is composed of thoughts that have to do with how we can advance our earthly purposes? Thoughts that are really centered around our ego rather than God’s call on our lives? In Matthew 18, Jesus takes our earthly way of thinking about greatness and flips it upside down.
When the disciples were arguing about who would be the greatest in God’s kingdom, Jesus brought to them a child. In those days, children were not thought of as highly as they are today. This was a symbol of someone who was lowly. It is important to note that this does not mean childish, but rather trusting, humble, and sincere. Jesus says in verse 4, “Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” So, being lowly in spirit, serving and putting others above yourself, is greatness in the heavenly kingdom. Jesus was the perfect example of this as it says in Mark 10 that “The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
He adds to what it means to be humble by warning us against stumbling into sin. In this passage, we find exaggerations of how we are to respond to sin. Jesus says, “If your hand or foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away.” This pattern continues with similar statements made to evoke a response in the audience. Was He saying to really cut off your hand? NO. Jesus was using hyperbole here, exaggerated statements that are not to be taken literally. He is working to create a response in the hearers that will cause them to remember what He is saying. Jesus is making these statements to show that we need to take every precaution we can to keep ourselves from stumbling. That might mean staying away from specific places or music or shows. We are to work to protect our hearts and work toward taking on the lowly position of a child.
Jesus warns us that not only should we ensure that we do not stumble, but we also need to take drastic steps to ensure that we do not cause a child to stumble. The disciples are told to welcome the children into His presence. In verses 4 and 5 we are urged to “take the lowly position of a child.” In verse 6, Jesus uses a dramatic statement to essentially say that it would have been better to die than to cause these little ones to stumble. Then He says in verse 10, “See that you do not despise one of these little ones.” We are to welcome children into God’s presence, AND we are to teach them God’s wisdom to keep them from stumbling.
To continue this trend in making bold statements to teach about humility, Jesus tells Peter in verse 22 that we are to not only forgive a person 7 times, but 77 times. In that day, rabbis taught that a person only had to forgive a person up to 3 times for an offense. So Peter felt like he was gracious when he said to forgive 7 times. But again, Jesus turns the earthly thinking pattern upside down by saying that we should forgive others 77 times.
In order to drive the point home, He shares a parable of a servant who owed a massive debt to a king. This servant begs for the forgiveness of the debt and the king grants it to him. However, after that, he went out and found someone who owed him a smaller amount than what was just forgiven. He demanded that the man pay him back right then. When the man did not, he had him thrown in prison. He refused to show the same forgiveness he was given. How often do we do that? The king responded by throwing that man in jail as he was infuriated at the lack of forgiveness this debtor showed his fellow man. Jesus finishes this parable in verse 35 with saying, “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” True humility is extending forgiveness because we have received the ultimate forgiveness of our sins.
Jesus makes dramatic statements and hyperbole in order to drive each of His points home. To be the greatest in the kingdom, be like a child. He says to cut off ligaments if they cause us to stumble to demonstrate the necessity of taking dramatic steps to protect our minds, hearts, and bodies from sin. He says he will leave 99 sheep to go after the one. Peter asks Him how many times we should forgive and Jesus responds with 77 times. Let’s work toward being truly humble in spirit as we become more like Christ.