"At the same time came the disciples unto Jesus, saying, Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?"
We typically read this as evidence of the Apostles' petty egotism, but a conversation with Cort today put it in a whole new light. Why did the Apostles raise this question?
My midrash today is that they were trying to figure out how to rule the world.
You see, in the earliest moments of Christianity, spiritual and political messianic hopes were probably not disentangled in any way, shape, or form. The apostles probably believed that the day would come when Jesus literally ruled the Earth (or at least the land of Israel, the only truly important part of the earth from their frame of reference). Things Jesus said would have actively encouraged this expectation: in the preceding few verses (Matt 17: 24-27), for example, Jesus makes the claim that as heirs of the king, the disciples are by right exempt from the temple tax (though he advises Peter to pay it any way to avoid trouble). Would Peter have been so off the mark to relate this story to other disciples as evidence that Jesus had a right to political power? The apostles probably lived in expectation of the day when miraculous, apocalyptic events (a legion of angels a la Matt 26: 53? a spontaneous submission of Gentile kings to the anointed one as in Isa. 49: 22-23?) would bring political power into Jesus' hands and make them into a sort of cabinet for the world's new order, to reign under him as kings and judges over the tribes of Israel (Luke 22: 29-30). Yes, for now what was Caesar's would be rendered unto Caesar (Matt 22: 21), but anytime now God would strip Caesar of what was rightfully Christ's.
The question, then, as to who will be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven may have more to do with jurisdiction than with ego. Who will serve in what position in the coming literal kingdom, the heaven to be established in a messianic age on earth? Should we start finding small ways to organize and prepare now for when that transfer of power comes?
Jesus' famous response (Matt 18: 4) actually does nothing to dismiss these notions, and was probably not intended to. Rather than limiting their expectations about receiving political power, Jesus teaches them something about the ethical exercise of political power. How should you act if placed in charge of the world? is perhaps the real context for his short sermon.
Ah...and how do we act, when moment and circumstance temporarily lend us power over another person's world? Because all across the world, every day, can it truly be maintained that such states do not naturally and accidentally occur?