WHO IS THE GREATEST?
‘At the same time came the disciples unto Jesus, saying, Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’
Three times over during the closing weeks of our Lord’s life do we find this strange strife. Let us look upon these three occasions and learn lessons from them.
I. Spiritual envy.—Our text relates to the first occasion. Our Lord has just taken St. Peter, St. James, and St. John away from the other disciples into the Mount of Transfiguration. We can understand how on the part of the nine disciples there may have been envy at this time. How does our Lord rebuke this spirit? He takes a little child and sets that little child in the midst of them. Christ would teach both those who envy others and those who may be tempted to be proud of their gifts. He wants them to remember that these gifts are given for the building up of the Church, and not on account of their own merit.
II. Spiritual ambition.—In Matthew 20:20 the circumstances are different. Our Lord has just foretold His coming death, and St. James and St. John asked that they might sit one on His right hand and the other on His left in His kingdom. He does not blame this ambition of St. James and St. John. It was splendid faith which, just at that moment, when He foretold His cross, was able to keep its eye fixed upon the Throne. And Jesus Christ tells us how it is to be obtained. God helping, it is to be obtained by resignation, by submission, by drinking of the cup. The only man who really commands the homage of other men is the man who is willing to serve.
III. Spiritual pride.—The third occasion upon which there is this strife as to who shall be the greatest is in St. Luke 22:24. There was also a strife amongst them, which of them should be accounted the greatest. This is an occasion of spiritual pride, looking down upon others because of some fancied superiority in spiritual things. How does our Lord deal with it? He teaches them that all need cleansing, and He will go round and wash all their feet; and then they learn the lesson. Then, instead of looking one upon another, doubting of whom He speaks, they begin to ask, crestfallen, ‘Lord, is it I?’
—Canon E. A. Stuart.
‘St. Augustine, being asked “What is the first thing in religion?” replied, “Humility.” “And what is the second?” “Humility.” “And what the third?” “Humility.”’
A MISUNDERSTOOD TERM
‘Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.’
When we speak of being converted or a conversion we are using a word which creates a difficulty, and that it does so is largely due to the fact that it has been used in a loose and unguarded way.
I. Conversion of two kinds.—There are two kinds of conversion. One sudden, striking, memorable, and all over in a few hours: such was the conversion of St. Paul. Doubtless many other men and women have had this experience of a sudden conversion. Many a man has been startled by some sudden and vehement call from God to forsake his sins. But we must not forget there is another kind of conversion which is equally conversion—the gradual, slow, almost imperceptible turning to Christ which goes on all through life. Such was the conversion of Timothy. It is to such conversions as these that the words of Scripture may apply, ‘The Kingdom of God cometh not with observation, for the Kingdom of God is within you.’
II. Doubt and assurance.—There still remains the practical danger that good people are distressed upon looking back and reviewing their past lives if they cannot discover the exact moment when they turned to Christ. On the other hand, those who have had the happy experience of a sudden conversion are frequently content to rest in that experience, without making the life-long effort which conversion demands in the future.
III. Fruits of conversion.—It would therefore be more profitable to consider the fruits of a converted life, rather than conversion itself. Take the case of St. Paul as an example. The fruits of his conversion were—
(a) Prayer. ‘Behold he prayeth.’
(b) Love to Christ. ‘The love of Christ constraineth us.’
(c) A life of service. ‘To me to live is Christ.’
The Rev. E. L. Metcalf.
‘Every one must be converted. A Christian who, having been baptized has grown up and lived a tolerably consistent Christian life, needs conversion. If we ask why, the answer seems to come in this way. We have to consider what holy baptism did for us. In the words of our Church Catechism we are taught that in holy baptism we are made members of Christ, children of God, and inheritors of the Kingdom of Heaven. In regard to each of these privileges you can think for yourselves. Made a member of Christ; a member of a body may become diseased. Made a child of God; a child may turn out a prodigal. Made an inheritor of the Kingdom of Heaven; any citizen may any day become a rebel. In regard to our spiritual life this is too often the case, and thus there comes in that great need of which Christ speaks so solemnly, the need of conversion. Except such an one turns right back to God, Christ says there is no hope for his salvation.’
THE DISCIPLES REBUKED
The disciples asked the old old question, ‘Who shall be the greatest?’ What a rebuke is conveyed in Matthew 18:2! It seemed to be a question whether they would be there at all. Certainly not unless they are—
I. Converted or changed.—What a lesson for us! We are occupied with our services, meetings, and organisations, but have we been ‘converted’? This much-abused word means a turning round (from Satan to God). The idea is in (a) the Bible, and (b) the Prayer Book; it is (c) a real thing, and (d) is necessary.
II. Characteristics of conversion.—It is to become as ‘little children.’ Children (a) shrink from evil; (b) are reverent; (c) have confidence and trust and love; and (d) true humility.
‘The disciples, we know, were good men, with one exception, but imperfect men. They loved their Divine Master; they were drawn to Him by cords of affection and loyalty, which grew stronger every day of their association with Him; but, in some respects, they were spiritually dull, and ignorant, and full of prejudice; and it cost the Lord no slight trouble, and no trifling anxiety, to educate them into fitness to be the propagators of His doctrine, and the first founders of the great Society which He had come to establish upon earth.’
THE CULTIVATION OF HUMILITY
‘Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven.’
Mark, it is not ‘be humble,’ it is ‘shall humble himself.’ It implies a process and then a victory. How shall we cultivate this grace?
I. Be sure that you are loved.—We are all inclined to be proud to those whom we think do not like us, and we all can stoop to anything for those of whom we are fond, and of whom we believe they are fond of us. Therefore, the first root of humility is love.
II. Realise yourself the object of great mercy. Take your sorrows as a proof of remembrance, and all your blessings as each a mark of an individual favour to you—for this will endear God to you.
III. Be more reverential in your religion.—In your posture, in your way of kneeling, in your way of addressing God, and speaking about sacred things, in your very voice and manner when you are engaged in what is holy—because if once you can establish the relationship of a true humility to God, it will not be very difficult to go on to be humble to man.
IV. Always try to keep yourself a little child.—Whatever age you are throw yourself back into your own childhood, and be often realising again what you used to think, and what you used to feel, when you were a very little child.
—The Rev. James Vaughan.
‘Christ was always a child. Did you ever notice it, that the apostles St. Peter and St. John, speaking—not alone of His infancy, nor of His early years,—but altogether of His whole life and His glory, twice call Him, “the Holy Child Jesus.” The expression is as true as it is remarkable. For observe, that for thirty years—whatever His occupation was—He was at Nazareth with His parents, wholly and only subject to them. And the other three years, beautiful traits of his reverential love to His mother gleam out, as for instance, when He paid such instant and profound obedience to her wish and suggestion at the marriage-feast, in His frequent returns back to the home at Nazareth, and His careful thought of her in His dying hours. And to God, Christ was always the Child. He always knelt, His eye was always upward, He traced all His powers to His Father.’
OFFENCES AND RESPONSIBILITIES
‘Woe unto the world because or offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!’
Yes, ‘it must needs be’! ‘There must be also heresies among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you.’ A perfect Church, a body composed wholly of perfected saints, has ever been the dream of the enthusiast, the aim of the fanatic. It cannot be, it is not God’s purpose: it is not thus that the saints attain their saintship; ‘offences must needs come.’ In this fallen world, there will ever be offenders, and those who make others offend.
I. Personal responsibility.—It is one of the conditions of our existence that we can do nothing alone; we cannot do good, but our act affects some besides ourselves; we cannot sin without there being another who is partaker of our sin, and is injured by it. But we shall be judged alone, saved alone, or lost alone. What a responsibility rests upon each of us, the young as well as the old, the mean as well as the lofty.
II. Offences.—We are each of us, we cannot escape from the responsibility, our brother’s keeper. Reflect on that—think that a chance word, a sneer, a poor joke on some sacred subject may have penetrated the ear and lodged in the memory of some one of our brethren, and then germinated into unbelief or blasphemy. Some impure word, some licentious song may have lighted a match, and fired a train, which has never been quenched. Well might our Blessed Lord warn us, ‘Woe to that man by whom the offence cometh.’
III. A consistent life.—On the other hand, think what our example, our consistent life, our well ordered conduct may effect. Think how many, unconsciously to ourselves, may be daily influenced for good, when they see the good that is in us. It is the duty of the priest to teach this by word of mouth; it is the privilege of every one to teach it far more by example. The crown that will cover the heads of the redeemed who are clothed in the wedding garment of Christ is ‘the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit, which is in the sight of God, of great price.’
The Rev. E. L. Blenkinsopp.
‘There is a curious superstition yet lingering in many parts of the country, that a murderer takes on himself the sins of his victim, and will have to answer for both at the Day of Judgment. There is a spiritual truth underlying this notion; the tempter to sin, the murderer of the soul, will surely have to answer for the sins, for the soul of him whom he has tempted, and who, by his agency, has lost his portion in the Kingdom of Christ. No repentance can remedy this; no tears can wash out that sin; the tempter and the tempted will meet face to face “before the judgment seat of Christ,” and then he will know the extent of that woe pronounced on him, by whom offence cometh.’
SOURCES OF CONTEMPT
‘Take heed that ye despise not one of these little ones; for I say unto you, That in heaven their angels do always behold the face of My Father which is in heaven.’
What, in the estimate of Jesus Christ, are the sources of contempt?
I. Want of knowledge.—Want of knowledge will produce contempt. If only, He seems to say, you have a due apprehension of the universe in which you are living, if only you know its vastness and marvellous organisation, then you could not be filled with this spirit of contempt. You could not despise the smallest and meanest in God’s great universe if only you had a true and enlarged conception of what that universe is.
II. Want of wisdom.—A wise man never despises. See one moment. Unwise men are ready to despise because they do not understand, or think out the meaning of little things. But the man of wisdom sees there is nothing in the world, however mean, that cannot have a real significance, and that just as you can see that the universe is one so you may see in a single thing the whole universe reflected. Here is the man who will not despise.
III. Want of reverence.—The spirit of contempt is what Jesus Christ contends with. If you will take the whole drift of His thought, you will see what He warns men against is that spirit of irreverent want of sympathy. There is nothing which so completely destroys the character and disturbs the life, rendering it useless and unpractical, as this spirit of contempt. Mark the types of Christianity it forms, and see how it then is totally at variance with that great spirit of Christianity which ought to be full of reverence because filled with love.
IV. The remedy.—Sympathy is the antidote to contempt, as love is the grand restorative of all the ills of the universe. The power of love comes upon the soul of man, and shows us that even in the basest and meanest of men there are splendid possibilities; that you can take all these fallen beings, and by surrounding them by sympathy lift them into self-esteem, and can restore them to the power of gratitude. Yes, we must despise no one in whom perchance God’s angel is struggling to raise them. We are sent as ministering angels to make them better and clearer in their views of the Father which is in heaven.
Bishop W. Boyd Carpenter.
THE BELIEVER’S PRAYER
‘If two of you shall agree on earth as touching any thing that they shall ask, it shall be done for them of My Father which is in heaven. For where two or three are gathered together in My name, there am I in the midst of them.’
The very life and soul of religion is prayer. Religion is a bond between persons. It is God’s fellowship. ‘Enoch walked with God’ remains the most adequate description of the life of the earnest Christian man.
I. Conditions of prayer.
(a) Prayer must not be made by Christians for any but righteous objects. Prayer is to be made in the Name of Christ, which implies that all our petitions shall be such as Christ Himself can second.
(b) Prayer must not be selfish. Christian prayer is characteristically the prayer of a church, the prayer of two or three gathered together in the Name of Christ to pray for common objects.
(c) Prayer must be fervent and persistent, even importunate. Prayer is a spiritual force.
II. Objects of prayer.—A large part of prayer must, of course, always be for conformity of our own desires and wills to the Will of God, but the Christian will pray for the extension of the kingdom of righteousness, and this includes that large division of prayer upon which all the apostles insisted with remarkable earnestness, intercession for other people.
III. Guidance in prayer.—It is our duty to accept Our Lord’s own guidance.
(a) By accepting His revelation that the God to Whom we pray is Our Father. If the question is put, What things may we pray for? the answer is, We may pray for whatever a child may ask his father for, and that is everything he needs. The thought of God’s Fatherhood reminds us that being indisposed to pray to our Heavenly Father must be a sign that all is not well between us.
(b) We should accept the guidance of Christ’s example. Again and again we are told that Our Lord prayed before undertaking some of His work. Once it is recorded that He remained all night in prayer to God. He realised His Sonship in active communion, and we must realise our Sonship in like manner.
(c) We may do great work if we will only teach others to pray. That is the greatest blessing a parent can confer upon his children, but if schoolmasters tell us true it is a blessing that parents often withhold from them. We should tell our children about this high privilege of prayer. Only how can we teach others to pray if we do not pray ourselves?
‘General Gordon records it as his constant experience that in his dealings with African chiefs he always found that negotiations smoothed themselves when he prayed for a chief before the interview. It was as though communications had already passed between them.’
THE SPIRIT OF FORGIVENESS
‘Then came Peter to Him, and said, Lord, how oft shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive Him? till seven times? Jesus saith unto him, I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven.’
The true spirit of forgiveness is essentially a Christian spirit.
I. Where it is to be won.—It is to be won only before the Cross of Christ. The natural heart resents all injury and wrong and cries for vengeance on the offender; there are some injuries that no man could forgive unless taught by the Spirit that inspired our Master. The doctrine of unlimited forgiveness was introduced into the world by Christ Himself. Philosophers of old may have looked upon it with partial admiration, but they never taught it as a necessary virtue. A new and indispensable virtue dates from the Advent of Jesus; the Spirit of Christ moved upon the face of the waters and men have learned to forgive.
II. Christ’s example.—And as the man Christ Jesus is the first to preach unlimited forgiveness, so He is the first to practise it—to practise it, too, under a heavy weight of anguish which might well have absorbed all the thoughts of His troubled soul. His forgiveness was absolutely without a limit. His enemies had tortured Him, spat upon Him, smitten Him, and jeered at Him in a chorus of infamous blasphemy: they nailed His holy limbs to the bitter cross: and yet, before he could commend His sinless spirit into His Father’s hands, He must intercede for His pitiless murderers—‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’
III. ‘As we forgive.’—May we so contemplate the life and death of Jesus and of His holy martyrs that, by God’s grace, there may spring up within our souls the Spirit of Divine Charity; in order that our Father may fulfil His gracious promise, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive them that trespass against us.
The Rev. W. E. Coghlan.
(1) ‘“I never forgive,” once said a well-known soldier to an earnest friend who was standing beside him. “Then I hope, sir, that you never sin,” was the true and ready answer. “He that cannot forgive others breaks the bridge over which he must pass himself; for every man has need to be forgiven.”’
(2) ‘Cæsar was a man noted for kindly feelings; he had pardoned multitudes of those who had injured him, of those who hated him mortally: “Yet even he could not look upon happiness as perfect unless it were flavoured with vengeance, nor victory as complete while his enemy breathed.”’
THE KING AND HIS SERVANTS
‘Therefore is the kingdom of heaven likened unto a certain king, which would take account of his servants.’
The parable shows how absolutely the forgiveness of our sins by Almighty God depends upon our forgiveness of others. But, above all, it warns us of the fearful danger we incur by being of an unforgiving spirit.
I. The king and his servants.—We are not only to look on each other as brothers, but as subjects of one King, or fellow-servants of a common Master. God is a King of infinite Majesty, as well as of infinite Mercy: ‘As is His Majesty, so is His Mercy’ (Sirach 2:18). It follows, therefore, that sin against Him is infinitely sinful, and wilful sin infinitely rebellious, and infinitely ungrateful as against His mercy.
II. The unforgiving servant.—See how unmerciful the unforgiving servant was. He has no grateful recollection of the blessing he had but then received. How terrible an aggravation of his sin was this behaviour to his fellow-servant! And yet the parable may apply to many amongst ourselves. Sin, and especially anger, or a sense of wrong done to us by another, so thoroughly blinds our eyes that it sweeps away the memory of past mercies and kindnesses which we have received from others.
III. The final reckoning.—The first call to account was a reckoning indeed, but a reckoning which was a warning. The next is the reckoning followed by the punishment. And then, at the end of the parable, comes the fearful warning to ourselves—‘So likewise,’ etc. For ‘he,’ says St. James, ‘shall have judgment without mercy that hath shewed no mercy.’ Are we each of us in ‘charity with our neighbour’? Let us, above all things, be most careful to avoid the bitter, revengeful, brooding, rankling spirit, come from what source or cause it may; for let us remember that without showing mercy we shall never ‘obtain mercy’ (St. Matthew 5:7). In being of an unforgiving disposition, in not freely forgiving others, we sin against God the Father, against our Lord Jesus Christ, against our neighbour, against ourselves. ‘The grace of God’ will, even at the last, ‘abandon one who refuses pardon.’
The Rev. J. B. Wilkinson.
THE ESSENCE OF CHRISTIANITY
‘Then his lord, after that he had called him, said unto him, O thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all that debt, because thou desiredst me: Shouldest not thou also have had compassion on thy fellowservant, even as I had pity on thee?’
‘Until seventy times seven.’ Here we have the very essence of Christianity. Christianity is a spirit, not a set of rules. ‘Seventy times seven’ is a Hebrew expression. It is not a definite, but an infinite number, a number impossible. Love refuses to be trammelled. In illustration of this Christ spoke the parable of the unmerciful servant. Notice:
I. The Christian duty of confession.—The lord of the servant represents God, and the acknowledgment of the debtor to him is parallel to confession to God of sins against God. But the acknowledgment of the second debtor to his superior servant of a debt owed to him is parallel to confession made to man of sins committed against man.
(a) Duty of confession to God. The necessity for confession arises from the load of acknowledged guilt. By confession we sever ourselves from our sin, and we disown it. Such was the immediate relief of David: ‘I have sinned.’ Instantly does the answer come: ‘The Lord also hath put away thy sin: thou shalt not die.’ Confession relieves by giving a sense of honesty. So long as we retain sin unconfessed we are conscious of a secret insincerity. In confession be instantaneous. We are tempted to procrastinate; we say we cannot confess yet; we will wait till we are better. See the lesson of this parable. The servant had one warm moment, infinitely precious, before imprisonment. He seized it; it might not have come again.
(b) Confession to man of sins against man. The inferior servant freely acknowledged his debt. The first noblest attitude of man is innocence; the second noblest is apology. There is a manliness in saying, ‘I have done wrong, forgive me.’
II. The principle of Christian forgiveness.—God’s forgiveness is a type of ours. It is a free thing, yet it is suspended on the condition of our forgiveness. Forgiveness implies two things—favour and remission of punishment. A concession is not a merit. Man cannot be saved without forgiveness, but his forgiveness is not the cause of his salvation. Salvation is a state of love. An unforgiving, vindictive heart is in hell. How can it be saved? It is ‘delivered to the tormentors.’ Our forgiveness, therefore, is to be unlimited, even as God’s ‘seventy times seven.’ There is no sin which man can do which may not be pardoned. The gospel is built on unlimited forgiveness.
—The Rev. F. W. Robertson.
THE UNMERCIFUL SERVANT
‘So likewise shall My heavenly Father do also unto you, if ye from your hearts forgive not every one his brother their trespasses.’
There are moments in the earthly life of man when the awful question of the Judge shakes the spirit to its centre—moments when the King whom we have been forgetting will not be forgotten—when ‘He speaks and we must hear.’ It is of such a moment as this that the Saviour is speaking in the parable.
I. Taking account.—The King is taking account of His servant. ‘Taking account,’ and what account has he to give? The secrets of his heart are made manifest. The shortcomings of the Past, the weakness of the Present, seem to bind the Future in chains. And the chain with which he had bound himself had bound others also. Their life was darkened by the gloom which he had brought upon his own. No man can live to himself; no man can die to himself. For evil or for good you are leaving your mark upon the souls with whom you dwell. Out of the depths of the servant’s despair a ray of hope begins to shine. He falls down at his lord’s feet. His lord had compassion, and forgave him the debt.
II. Forgiven yet unforgiving.—He has been forgiven, as men count forgiveness. He goes on his way with the light of his lord’s forgiveness resting upon him. But does it rest within him? Has it entered into his heart, and lighted up the dark places of his spirit? Nay, even as he goes out from the presence of his lord, a moment of trial comes, which shows what is in his heart, and proves that there is no forgiveness there. The chains which had been loosened became firm once more, and all the burden of the Past rolled back upon His spirit. He had chosen darkness rather than the light, and the darkness wrapped him in its gloom. And in the darkness dwell ‘the tormentors.’
III. Forgiveness perfected.—Let us learn from the words of Jesus what our Father means by the forgiveness of sin. Let us learn that though His forgiveness stretches free and far throughout the world He made, though it be repeated seven times, yea seventy times seven, yet He counts not that it has had its perfect work, He counts not that it is forgiveness indeed, until it has gained the offender’s heart, until it has destroyed the root of sin, and planted the spirit of Love in its place. In judgment and in mercy, in tenderness and in wrath, His everlasting Love is still the same, still doing battle with the evil that is in man, still taking away the sins of the world.
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Nisbet, James. "Commentary on Matthew 18". Church Pulpit Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Week after Epiphany