Friday, July 31, 2009

Ruling the World -- Matthew 18: 1

"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?


  1. Why would the Apostles' question be viewed as egotism in the first place?

    After all, how often do we, consciously or unconsciously, create mental hierarchies of righteousness? We all want to know what qualities and attributes make someone holy, so it's natural for the apostles to question who the holiest is. Immature, perhaps. Uninformed, perhaps. But not necessarily egotistical or petty.

    After all, Christ's own statement that "he that is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than" John the Baptist (Matt. 11:11) can be viewed as an example of this sort of hierarchical thought. At the very least, it encourages the notion that some are greater than others when it comes to God's Kingdom.

    And what Christ teaches, in His response to the Apostles question, is the eternal principle that humility, teachability and submission are the keys to greatness, because only by these ways can we hope to truly learn from God, instead of staying stuck in our tabernacles of clay.

  2. I recently read a book by Malcom Gladwell called "Blink," in which he made the point that many of our decisions are based on very thin slices of vital information about a situation. Sometimes, of course, we consider the wrong slice, but when we know enough to consider the right thin slice, that is all we need to know, and it allows us to make decisions very quickly and accurately.

    This idea reminded me of Joseph Smith's emphasis on keys of knowledge. Judging from some of his collected speeches, Joseph frequently talked about certain keys that people could use to determine everything from whether an angel was legitimate to who possessed the truth among the different religious groups on the earth.

    And here, Christ is sharing one of those keys regarding greatness, and the true way to judge (even at a moment's notice) who is great in the Kingdom of God. Also, as lionofzion points out, it is the key for those who desire to become great in the kingdom of God, as the apostles apparently did.



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