Ps. 32:1-7; Ezekiel 33:7-9; Romans 13:1-10; Matthew 18:1-20.
Love, Owe no one anything, except to love each other; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law (v 8).
St. Paul posits two Kingdoms, both ruled by Christ through differing principles; the world by ordained surrogates: emperors, dictators, kings, princes, presidents, prime ministers and their political class. Then there is the reign of God in his church; never the twain meet, be confused or mixed.
The world bears the sword (Rom. 13:4b) to enforce its will; the church possesses God’s word, the sword of the Spirit, (Eph. 6:17; cf. Mt. 26:51, 52) that separates and charms by truth and grace.
Worldly authorities make laws for believers and unbelievers alike. Secular authorities, not abusive and operating under God’s providence are entitled to honor and obedience. St. Paul in today’s Epistle commends Christians to good citizenship.
These distinctions made, we engage the Apostles’ question of Jesus, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (Mt. 18:1). As contenders for “the title” the world discerns the answer competitively; according to demonstrated talents and aggrandizing spirits.
We recall Cassius Clay’s, raised and threatening fist taunting a prostrate Sonny Liston, “I am the greatest”. Something like the Clay-Liston competition was occurring among the Apostles. Fresh in their memory Jesus dubbed Simon, “Petros-Rocky” (16:18) for his witness.
But then Peter over-stepped, upbraiding Jesus when he predicted his Jerusalem Passion, as though God would not permit such “injustice” from the place of his dwelling with men.
Jesus called Peter “Satan!”, his adversary, commanding him to return to his brothers as a follower (v. 23). The incident suggested to the Apostles, their internecine “game of thrones” was afoot.
Jesus, a second time, announced his passion and resurrection integral to being “God’s Son and Christ” (17:22, 23). His Resurrection would declare the old temple and sacrifices obsolete. As Son and Christ, new Israel, Jesus and his followers were exempted from the old temple tax; “[S]omething greater than the temple is here” (Mt. 12:6).
Again, Jesus had to correct Peter; he had returned from Capernaum examined by the taxing authorities; they inquired, “Did Jesus [and his disciples] pay the annual temple tax? (Ex. 30:11-16; Neh. 10:32-33). Peter assured that they did.
Again, while Peter’s confession that Jesus is Son and Christ is correct, he was ignorant of the significance; nevertheless, Jesus would build his church’s faith on its proper understanding. At this stage of Jesus’ ministry there was little reason to antagonize; and so, for the moment directed his Apostles, to pay the tax and move on.
To fetch the required tax for himself and Peter, Jesus returned Peter to being, a fisher of fish. At the hook’s catch the proper coin was in its mouth. To the disciples Peter appeared as Jesus’ “el Segundo” in the “greatest” sweepstakes.
Now the Eleven wanted clarification, perhaps to overthrow Peter from his leading poll-position. The Apostles (Mt. 18:1) demanded a straight-forward answer, “[Which of them was] the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
It was stunning, by worldly criteria, that the Apostles did not offer-up Jesus as candidate for the honor. Still Jesus takes the occasion of their vanity to instruct heaven’s foundation for their teaching in the NT era.
His response was jaw-dropping; summoning a young child into their midst, Jesus said, “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” (18:3,4). In two sentences Jesus effected Peter’s return into apostolic communion. Peter was neither detached from their body nor superior to anyone of them; the same applied to the others.
God’s churchly reign is foreign to that of the world. But which of us, trained and practiced for survival in the ways of the world is able to attain a child’s, hardly voluntary, humility? Our sin nature, even as infants grasp harmony with our environment.
Our hearts beat as one with the world’s rules of survival, even as intent on destroying us. Protectively we respond to adversity; we seek alliances with self-aggrandizing princes, financial moguls, and politicians, each claiming, “I am the greatest”.
We love those we admire, those most like ourselves. Except for family members, the young and the aged are considered “least”; treated marginally, at best with benign tolerance and often neglect. As we “advance” in power, influence, money, and the desires of our flesh; often at other’s expense; we must acknowledge, it is who we are (Ps. 51:5).
God ordains secular rulers to restrain, within bounds, our impulses. As for the church, Jesus urges “conversion”; that before God, in sin, we are without intrinsic value, apart from his gracious bestowal of righteousness in Christ.
Conversion to sons and daughters intuitively gives us to comprehend our utter dependence; we are young children for every physical and spiritual need, our wants, desires; trusting in God for all things. This status renders us God’s “hidden treasure” in the world (Mt. 13:44).
Who then is the “greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” By placing the child at center of his nascent church, Jesus delivered a powerful visual of heaven’s over-arching principle, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 5:3).
From his Conception to Passion and Cross, Jesus was essence of a child’s total dependence, trust, and obedience toward his Father. Jesus, Son of Man, was voluntary bound for the sin of the world; was self-donated Son of God for the life of world, utterly impoverished to the point of Divine abandon, handing-over the HS (27:46, 50).
By the Spirit of Christ given the church in Holy Baptism, we by the gift of faith appropriate Jesus’ spiritual poverty for our child-like dependence in the Kingdom.
Saving faith is a child’s absolute dependent “love” of parent. As sons and daughters, we are heirs, exempt from God’s new Temple taxation, fully paid in Christ’s blood (Mt. 21:12ff.) mixed in Eucharist with our own.
God’s word daily warns against our remaining in Babylon, an affection for the things of world kingdoms. Baptism turns us in repentance from sin’s self-confident, self-protective “great” ways over-against others in the body of Christ (Ezek. 33:7-9). Child-like, we become open to Christ’s “likeness”.
Through Jesus’ self-donation we are strengthened in Eucharistic union, called to no other obligation than loving obedience toward God and communicate brothers and sisters.
In the kingdom of heaven, we are ministers of God in the world growing to maturity in word and Sacrament, bearing the sword of the Spirit without vanity. Amen.