Who is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven? What sort of question is that for any followers of Jesus to ask? Of course I am sure that the disciples understood that our Lord Jesus Christ is the Lord of he Kingdom of Heaven, but they meant to ask ‘which of us is most important?’ The had their eyes on each other. Who seemed closest to Jesus?
Who did he talk to? Was there any way of working out in which order of importance Jesus thought of them? It would be easy to criticise the disciples and assume that such attitudes were only found among them, and that we were free from the need to compare ourselves with others, but unfortunately that is not quite the case. Indeed, it seems that our modern world demands that we compare ourselves with others at every turn.
We are taught by the television, and magazines and the constant advertising that surrounds us that to be successful, to be great, we must wear the right clothes, we must have the right phone, we must drive a new car, we must have all manner of household appliances, we must have a large flat screen TV, we must look like this, we must avoid looking like that. We see it especially in young people who can become obsessed with finding their place in the league table of greatness at school, but it is an obsession, a delusion, which can and does affect all of us. Even intelligent adults can fall prey to the need to compare themselves with others, to envy the achievements of others, to wish that we had better qualifications, more chance of promotion, were noticed by the senior management.
For the Christian, this way of thinking is dangerous and damaging, because it leads us to imagine that our value is found in how others think of us, rather than in the person we actually are, and how God himself thinks of us. We could easily spend our whole lives seeking to be noticed by others, and to impress others, but to be valued in such a way is a most fragile kind of worth. We can see politicians who have spent their whole lives trying to achieve such importance, and yet very quickly their term of office is over, and they are all too soon forgotten. Who was the Minister of Transport in 2007? I have no idea. I wonder if very many people would have any idea? Yet perhaps that was the ultimate position in terms of worldly greatness which that politician achieved.
Once we start seeking to be validated by the impression we make on other people then we find ourselves constantly chasing a shadow. One minute people are impressed by this, and the next minute they are impressed by something completely different. We place ourselves in danger of becoming X-Factor contestants, constantly trying to please the crowd. Nor does the Church escape this danger. It is possible for a priest to seek to become popular, and use all manner of worldly marketing gimmicks to do so. It is possible for those who work with young Christians to avoid saying or doing anything that might make them seem less cool in front of those they should be shepherding. It is possible for ordinary Church members to put on a show in Church so that everyone thinks they are wonderful, while inside their hearts they are struggling with many problems, or even have no faith at all.
We all desire to be great, to be important, to be noticed. And the disciples did not escape this temptation. But our Lord teaches them that it is by humility that we enter the Kingdom of Heaven, and become of any consequence before God. Humility is the antidote to pride, and many of the Fathers of the Church have insisted that before all else we should seek to be humble.
The word humble comes originally from the Latin word for earth, and has a sense of being lowly, or not being exalted. Our Lord Jesus humbled himself and became man, while remaining God. Indeed the scripture says,
And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: Php 2:8-9
He humbled himself and became obedient. Obedient even to the cross. This is our model of humility, and of life lived in the Kingdom of Heaven. It is not a matter of seeking our own importance, but of seeking to be obedient, obedient to the will of God. It is through obedience to the will of God as man, that the name of Jesus has been highly exalted. And so it is for each of us. The value of our life is not found in the external things which will soon pass away, but in obedience to the will of God, which allows the Kingdom of God, the rule and the reign of God, to fill our hearts.
We can consider the first deacons in the Church, which are described for us in the book of Acts. These were among the chief men of the Church, dependable and reliable, yet they took as their ministry waiting at tables during the fellowship meal which shared after the Liturgy. They brought food and drink to people, and cleared the tables, and they were among the most important members of the Church.
And among those Christians I know around the world it is those who quietly get on with humble, obedient service who are most inspiring, because they are living the Christian life most fully. Our value is not found in what others think of us, but in what God thinks of us. As it says elsewhere in the Scriptures..
Are not five sparrows sold for two farthings, and not one of them is forgotten before God? But even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not therefore: ye are of more value than many sparrows. Luke 12:6
Why then do we worry what others think of us? Why do we worry about a place in the world, when a place in the Kingdom is ready for us, if we enter the Kingdom with humility? What does God think of us? That is what matters. He loves us dearly, ‘For God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten Son into the world’. He loves us more than we can imagine, as it is written,
Eph 3:17 That Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith; that ye, being rooted and grounded in love, May be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height; And to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fulness of God.
Nor is the Kingdom of God far from us, or difficult to find, Our Lord himself says, ‘The Kingdom of God is within you’. This is a lasting Kingdom that will not fail. If we rely on our possessions to make us feel valued, these will wear away. If we rely on our beauty, this will fail and we will grow old. If we rely on our intelligence, this also will not last for ever. If we rely on the approval of others, that also is fickle and unreliable.
But the Kingdom of God is eternal. To find a place in that Kingdom, surrounded by the love of God, provides us with the worth and value that sustains us in this life, and into eternity. We need nothing more, and nothing else can satisfy. Seek first the Kingdom of God and all these things that you need will be added to you. It is through humble obedience to the will of God that we enter this Kingdom.
Scriptures – Matthew 18
1 In that hour the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who then is greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?” 2 Jesus called a little child to himself, and set him in the middle of them 3 and said, “Most certainly I tell you, unless you turn and become as little children, you will in no way enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. 4 Whoever therefore humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven. 5 Whoever receives one such little child in my name receives me, 6 but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to stumble, it would be better for him if a huge millstone were hung around his neck and that he were sunk in the depths of the sea. 7 “Woe to the world because of occasions of stumbling! For it must be that the occasions come, but woe to that person through whom the occasion comes! 8 If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and cast it from you. It is better for you to enter into life maimed or crippled, rather than having two hands or two feet to be cast into the eternal fire. 9 If your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out and cast it from you. It is better for you to enter into life with one eye, rather than having two eyes to be cast into the Gehenna* of fire. 10 See that you don’t despise one of these little ones, for I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven. 11 For the Son of Man came to save that which was lost. 12 “What do you think? If a man has one hundred sheep, and one of them goes astray, doesn’t he leave the ninetynine, go to the mountains, and seek that which has gone astray? 13 If he finds it, most certainly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine which have not gone astray. 14 Even so it is not the will of your Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish. 15 “If your brother sins against you, go, show him his fault between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained back your brother. 16 But if he doesn’t listen, take one or two more with you, that at the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. 17 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the assembly. If he refuses to hear the assembly also, let him be to you as a Gentile or a tax collector. 18 Most certainly I tell you, whatever things you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven, and whatever things you release on earth will have been released in heaven. 19 Again, assuredly I tell you, that if two of you will agree on earth concerning anything that they will ask, it will be done for them by my Father who is in heaven. 20 For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the middle of them.” 21 Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Until seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “I don’t tell you until seven times, but, until seventy times seven. 23 Therefore the Kingdom of Heaven is like a certain king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 When he had begun to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. 25 But because he couldn’t pay, his lord commanded him to be sold, with his wife, his children, and all that he had, and payment to be made. 26 The servant therefore fell down and knelt before him, saying, ‘Lord, have patience with me, and I will repay you all!’ 27 The lord of that servant, being moved with compassion, released him and forgave him the debt. 28 “But that servant went out and found one of his fellow servants who owed him one hundred denarii, and he grabbed him and took him by the throat, saying, ‘Pay me what you owe!’ 29 “So his fellow servant fell down at his feet and begged him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will repay you!’ 30 He would not, but went and cast him into prison until he should pay back that which was due. 31 So when his fellow servants saw what was done, they were exceedingly sorry, and came and told their lord all that was done. 32 Then his lord called him in and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me. 33 Shouldn’t you also have had mercy on your fellow servant, even as I had mercy on you?’ 34 His lord was angry, and delivered him to the tormentors until he should pay all that was due to him. 35 So my heavenly Father will also do to you, if you don’t each forgive your brother from your hearts for his misdeeds.”
From the Fathers
John Chrysostom (349-407 A.D.)
He is not saying this about human limbs. Far from it. This is said about friends, about relatives, whom we regard in the rank of necessary limbs. Jesus also said this earlier, and now he says it again. For nothing is so harmful as bad company. For what relationship cannot do, often friendship can do, both for harm and for benefit. So he orders us with great emphasis to cut off those who are harmful to us, implying that these are people who supply temptations to sin.
Do you see how he checks the future damage from temptations? First he predicts that they will happen, so that no one should be lazy, but everyone should be awake expecting them. Then he predicts that the evils will be very great. For Jesus did not simply say, “Woe to the world for temptations to sin,” but showed their great damage. For when he says, “But woe to that man by whom temptation comes,” he indicates a great punishment. He does not only mention this, but he increases the fear by adding a comparison.
And he supplies incontrovertible reasoning. If they remain your friends, you will not benefit them and you will destroy yourself. If you cut them off, at least you will preserve your own salvation.
Then, not content with this, he shows us the way by which we can escape temptations to sin. What is that? The wicked, he says, even if they are very friendly to you, cut them off from your friendship. Therefore if someone’s friendship harms you, cut him off from you. For if at times we cut off our limbs when they are incurable and are doing damage to our other members, how much more should we do this in the case of friends.
[We often think of this Gospel being about strictness with ourselves and being willing to resist the motions of our physical body when faced with temptation. In this commentary, St John Chrysostom helpfully places the idea of cutting off causes of temptation in the area of relationships. Where a relationship leads us into sin, and is a source of continuing temptation to think and speak and act in a way that leads us away from God we must cut it off, without rudeness or hostility. But our salvation is deeply affecetd by our friendships, for good and bad.]
St Isaiah the Solitary continues to instruct us when he says,
Once you have begun to seek God with true devotion and with all your heart, then you cannot possibly imagine that you already conform to His will. So long as your conscience reproves you for anything that you have done contrary to nature, you are not yet free: the reproof means that you are still under trial and have not yet been acquitted. But if you find when you are praying that nothing at all accuses you of evil, then you are free and by God’s will have entered into His peace.
We often ignore our conscience, or assume it has no active spiritual function. But it is that aspect of us which is always seeking to turn our heart towards God, if we work to respond to it, and keep it active. On the path of Discipleship we need to listen to our conscience more not less, and through attention to its impulses we need to use it always as a guide to our thoughts and behaviour. When we silence it then it will become inactive and will no longer point us towards God. But while we respond with repentance and obedience it will become more active and more trustworthy on the way of salvation.
1. Be sure to pray the Lord’s Prayer in the morning and evening, with warmth and attention.
2. Prayerfully read Psalm 1 in the morning. This is part of the traditional Coptic Orthodox prayers of the morning.
3. Pray the Jesus Prayer in the morning and evening. Prayerfully repeat the words of the prayer to 25 times in the morning or evening.
4. Read the Gospel again carefully, and listen for the words that come alive by the grace of the Holy Spirit. Write this in your notebook and reflect on them through the day.
5. Do not forget to pray for those on your intercession list in the morning and evening, with warmth of heart and attention.
6. Pray Psalm 134 again in the evening. Which phrase sticks out most to you this evening.
7. Reflect on the activity of your conscience through the day. Were you aware of times when it was trying to call your attention to something?
As part of the process of Baptism in the Orthodox Church there are anointings with oil. Oil is always a symbol of the activity of the Holy Spirit. But more than that, when oil is blessed for a holy purpose we believe that the Holy Spirit does indeed give grace and power to oil so that it accomplishes what is asked of it.
In the Coptic Orthodox baptism the one who is to be baptised will be anointed with oil before they enter the waters. This pre-baptismal anointing with holy oil is to exorcise or cleanse the person from any influence of Satan and his demonic powers. Orthodoxy certainly believes in the reality of these disobedient and evil spiritual beings, created by God for good, but turned to evil by their own pride.
This breaking the power of Satan before baptism expresses the belief that in baptism, and the anointing and laying on of hands afterwards, the person becomes filled with the Holy Spirit, God himself, and is given grace to live by this new divine principle and energy, rather than being deceived and led astray by any evil spirit. This anointing is a definite statement of what God is doing, in driving away all evil influence.