Several years ago a man I’ll call Ray, attended our church. Ray had a friend named Bart. Bart was a 3-inch plastic pilot who flew a Lego spacecraft. His co-pilot was a white Lego cat. Ray, Bart, and the cat were inseparable. Whenever I saw Ray, I’d greet him and he’d then remind me, “Say Hi to Bart.” I’d obligingly greet Bart the Pilot but never the cat, because everyone knows that plastic Lego cats cannot speak. Anyway, Bart the pilot often surprised me at how technically savvy he could be.
“How are you Ray?”
“I’m fine, but Bart had some trouble this morning.”
“Tell me about Bart’s trouble.”
“Well, he lost power in his ship. We couldn’t find a replacement for his power component for a while, but you know what?”
“We finally took one out of an old ship and it worked!”
That’s the way conversations went with Ray. He took care of himself physically, financially, and socially, but something was askew because he truly believed that his plastic friend talked to him.
Since Ray was somewhat capable technically, we gave him a responsibility operating some of the media elements in our assemblies. Because he was eager to serve, we got his help in setting up tables and realigning chairs after church services. He liked working on bicycles, so I gave him some bike repair tools and then hired him to repair one of mine. Our church members involved Ray any way they could including fielded his questions and comments in classes or services — whether he was speaking on behalf of Bart or himself. We loved Ray, which included loving Bart.
Jesus spoke three times about the greatest and the least in his Kingdom. On all three occasions, what he said shocked everyone. Matthew records all of three; perhaps because he (a notorious Jewish turncoat) was such a surprising member of the twelve. It isn’t difficult to suspect that whenever Jesus spoke on this subject, Matthew listened with special interest. One occasion included the Jewish community; a later incident was specific to the twelve. Seems, they’d not understood the LORD’s first lesson on this subject how God’s value system.
Surrounded by curious Messianic hopefuls, Jesus talked about John the Baptizer, “Among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptizer, yet he who is least in the Kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” (Matthew 11:11). Ask yourself if that statement even makes sense! John was the greatest Prophet — Jesus had just said that John was MORE than a Prophet — but he doesn’t even rank on the Kingdom of God scale? What can Jesus be meaning?
It is confusing, until we understand what Jesus meant by ‘greatest’ and ‘least.’ If greatness, value, and worth have to do with what a society thinks, what it esteems, whom they believe to be special in some way, then John was certainly great. His birth was near miraculous, he acetic lifestyle was unique, and he was believed to Malachi’s promised predecessor to the Messiah, Elijah. Some even suspected he might be the actual Messiah. Even King Herod knew of him and respected him as a man who received God’s divine affection. Without a doubt, he was the religious rock star of his times and Jesus acknowledges his greatness, but then appears to demote him to the bottom of the kingdom-list. Shocking everyone!
So, Jesus declares that the least in the kingdom of God is greater than John. What he means is clarified in his second discussion of greatness – the one where Jesus settles his guys’ debate over their greatness by calling over a toddler. “Unless you humble ourselves and become like this little child, you won’t even enter the kingdom of heaven!” (Matthew 18:2-4) He adds, “See that you don’t look down on one of these little ones.”
Are children important to God? Certainly. Were the newbies to the kingdom of God important to Him? Certainly. Was John the Baptizer important to God? Certainly. Were the twelve disciples important to God? Certainly. Is Ray important to God? Certainly. Do you get it yet? Can you connect the dots? If you aren’t sure, this illustration may help.
After a meal in our home, the older children wash dishes and clear the table; while the babies are given special attention from Mom or me. As the older kids clean up, we change diapers, wipe away food residue, tickle and coddle the littlest one. The baby gets our attention because he is special, not more valued, but more in need. John the Baptizer already had what others still needed. Peter and the boys were being told, “Guys, do you see this child? He is important! Stop arguing in front of him! Think of what your behavior may do to him? If you make him stumble….I’ll….! Now, pay attention! People are important, and the ones of you who have the least needs better start paying attention to those with the greatest needs…or you might not be getting the attention of Heaven you want!”
All people are important. Every life is valuable. John was no more or less valuable than anyone else. Peter and the others were equal to me or you. My older children are loved just as much as my youngest. Some of us just need more help than others, and in those instances, they jump to the top of the list of the kingdom – in other words, they become priority.
At various gatherings, I enjoy visiting with friends, but often I may notice a person who seems lonely or sad. According to Jesus’ economy, I gravitate to the lonely. “Excuse me, Tommy, I see someone over there who is crying. Let me go see what they need and we’ll catch up soon.”
Every few months, my wife gets a phone or text, usually at an inconvenient time, from a lady we’ll call “Kay.” Kay is always in trouble. She needs money, a ride, advice, prayers, just to talk and talk and talk, a favor, to be helped a little, some medicine, a phone number, a pat on the back, protection, a safe place, shelter, food, but always something. Donna listens and listens and listens. She counsels with compassion and wisdom. Sometimes she will help her, sometimes she won’t, but always does what seems best for Kay — even if not easiest or most comfortable for Kay or for Donna. She never fails to show Kay value and respect. I believe this is what Jesus was trying to explain to Peter and to those Messianic hopefuls.
I said there are three times when Jesus taught on the least and the greatest. The time I haven’t mentioned was at an outdoor sermon on a hillside with a group of religious leaders huddled on the sidelines, listening with furrowed brows and folded arms. Turning to the commoners in the audience, Jesus cautioned them against the hypocrisy of that pious group and then boldly shocks everyone by pointing out that those religious elite were the least in the kingdom. That wasn’t all. He warns the commoners, “Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” He then explains himself, “You’ve heard it said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.” His message is this: “People are valuable. Treat them that way.” The religious leadership was behaving poorly, but it was no excuse for everyone to respond in kind. Showing value when we are shown no value is the way God’s kingdom operates. Jesus named it love.
I used to tell our church members, “Ray is the greatest gift God has given us. If we can learn to love Ray well, then we really have become the people of God.” Dads, teach your children to love most the least lovable. Teach them in words and actions. Go beyond programmed aid to the poor, visits to orphanages, or donations to charity. Enter into one-on-one situations with individuals currently in your sphere of influence. Prayerfully ask God for eyes to see people as He sees them. Take your kids to visit a lonely widow or make friends with a special needs child. Mentor a fatherless boy or girl. Coach your sons to stand for and with the oppressed. Train your children to look past the pigment of a person’s skin, beyond the sins of their forefathers, and through the clutter of their own sins to the precious center of every individual’s worth – the Father’s Spirit in them. Babies and the possessed, lepers and kings, women and immigrants, Ray and Kay, each have value because they bear the image and house the Spirit of God. Jesus understood this and explained to us, “What you’ve done to the least of these, you’ve done to me.”