A Selfish Question, A Surprising Answer

If you’ve ever spent time around small children, you know they tend to hear only what they want to hear, often missing the point of what’s really being said. My daughter is in a phase right now where she is fixated on Minnie Mouse. If you are talking to her about something and somehow mention Minnie Mouse, she’s gone. She has focused in on that and has completely forgotten about whatever else you might have been saying. Sadly, adults are often not much better. We tend to fixate on the things that interest us and miss the bigger picture we are supposed to see.

That’s what happened to Jesus’ disciples in our passage this morning. Jesus had begun to tell his disciples that he would soon be crucified and rise again. He also told them the Kingdom of Heaven was coming soon. The disciples missed the big picture and instead fixated on what the Kingdom of Heaven would be like.

When they heard Jesus talk about the kingdom of heaven, they weren’t thinking about a spiritual kingdom, but rather a physical kingdom on earth. They expected that Jesus would overthrow the Roman government and make Israel into a world power. They continued to think this way even after Jesus rose from the grave! (cf. Acts 1:6) So as they thought about Jesus becoming the king of a new empire, they wondered what their roles would be. They wondered where they would rank in the new kingdom. So they came to Jesus and asked him which of them would be the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven. Luke tells us this question came up because they were arguing about who would be the greatest. They were focused on what the Kingdom meant for them. It was a selfish question and they had missed the point!

Jesus was surely frustrated by their question, but rather than chastising them, he used a couple of different analogies to help them gain a different perspective—to see that the Kingdom of Heaven was about more than just them.

Jesus’ Response

Jesus responded to their selfish question with an object lesson.

Jesus called a little child to him and put the child among them. Then he said, “I tell you the truth, unless you turn from your sins and become like little children, you will never get into the Kingdom of Heaven. So anyone who becomes as humble as this little child is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven. (Matthew 18:2-4, NLT)

He told the disciples that unless they became like little children they wouldn’t even be in heaven—let alone become great in it. This was a perplexing example, because at that time children were basically the lowest of the low. In our society children are almost worshiped, but in first century Israel, they were ignored. Children were to stay out of the way and learn to be productive members of society as quickly as possible. Yet Jesus said the disciples needed to become like children.

There are many traits about children that might be good for us to emulate (an attitude of trust in their parents, a recognition of their dependency upon adults to care for them, or an innocence in the way they deal with others), but Jesus specifically refers to one: humility. Jesus said that unless a person becomes as humble as a little child, they will not enter heaven.

What did he mean by that? What does childlike humility look like? Think about watching a group of small children play. Little kids aren’t concerned about their social status; they treat everyone their age as friends! It doesn’t matter whether the other child is of a different race or socioeconomic status, it doesn’t matter whether the other child speaks more or fewer words—they see other children as equals. They don’t worry about whether they are better than the other children or not—they just have fun together.

As they get older, children tend to lose that. It’s not long before those same children will compete and try to show their dominance. Soon they will start ranking one another and marginalize those who might bring them down. And not much changes once we become adults. The same selfish attitude invades every part of our lives.

It’s that attitude that led the disciples to ask who the greatest would be. Their primary concern was themselves and their status. But Jesus’ example cuts to the heart of the matter. The Kingdom of Heaven is not solely about us as individuals—it’s about much more than that. If our only concern in the Christian faith is what’s in it for us, we have a wrong view of the Kingdom of Heaven—and we are no different than the disciples.

Guarding Against Sin

As Jesus continues, he illustrates his point further.

“And anyone who welcomes a little child like this on my behalf is welcoming me. But if you cause one of these little ones who trusts in me to fall into sin, it would be better for you to have a large millstone tied around your neck and be drowned in the depths of the sea.

“What sorrow awaits the world, because it tempts people to sin. Temptations are inevitable, but what sorrow awaits the person who does the tempting. So if your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It’s better to enter eternal life with only one hand or one foot than to be thrown into eternal fire with both of your hands and feet. And if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It’s better to enter eternal life with only one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell.

10 “Beware that you don’t look down on any of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels are always in the presence of my heavenly Father. (Matthew 18:5-10, NLT)

Once Jesus again talks about little children, but this time he’s probably not referring only to children. He is saying that each of us is God’s child and each of us is valuable to God—so we should value each other, care for each other, and keep each other from falling into sin.

He tells us that we should not lead any of his little ones into sin. He said the person who leads another into sin would be better off to have a millstone tied around his neck and be cast into the sea. This was a vivid picture. Everyone in those days ground their own grain, so they were familiar with what a millstone was. Most people even had a mill in their home where they could grind their grain by hand. But the word Jesus uses describes the kind of stone that would have been at a professional mill. This kind of stone was so large that it took a donkey to move it. Imagine being thrown into the sea with a stone weighing hundreds of pounds wrapped around your neck. No matter how strong a swimmer you are, your fate would be sealed—you would sink straight to the bottom and drown.

Jesus says this fate would be better than the fate awaiting one who leads others astray. So who is it that might lead others astray? If you’re like me, your mind immediately goes to the televangelists and false teachers who knowingly prey on people for their own benefit. But they are not the only ones who lead people astray. We can lead people astray by teaching false doctrine, but we can also lead others astray by our actions. There are several applications to what Jesus says here.

First, it is not funny to tempt others to sin. Many non-believers think it is funny to try to get Christians to sin. They will goad Christians into doing things that are wrong or inappropriate, simply because they think it’s funny to see Christians do these things. So they will try to get a Christian to lash out in anger, to engage in coarse talk, to get intoxicated, or to lie or cheat. Sometimes it even happens in the church—we like to see others sin like we do, because it makes us feel better about ourselves. We tend not to think much of it, but when we encourage others to sin, we bear just as much guilt as they do. And Jesus says the consequences for doing so are severe. We must remember that sin is not a joking matter.

Second, the way we live teaches others what’s right and wrong. When people know you are a Christian, they watch you to see how to live. They assume that when we do something, God approves of it. So when we engage in sinful behaviors they assume those behaviors are ok, and we unwittingly lead them into sin. This is true everywhere, but it is especially true in our own homes. Just like the rest of the world, our children watch us to see how to live.

We must ask what kind of example we are setting for our children and the other “little ones” in our lives. What are our lives teaching those around us?

  • Are our lives teaching them to develop good priorities, or are we teaching people to chase after all sorts of other, less important things?
  • Are our lives teaching them to speak in ways that are honoring to God and others, or are we teaching them to tear down those who disagree with us, and to gossip about others?
  • Are our lives teaching them to look to God for guidance, or are our decisions based on what the world says, our friends say, or based on what we read online?
  • Are our lives teaching them to develop self-control (with money, with food, with drink, or sexual desires), or are we modeling a life that is driven merely by how we feel in the moment?

Jesus’ warning about leading others astray applies even to the way we live our lives. How we live can lead people either closer to the Lord or further away from Him. Our actions have consequences—not only for us, but for everyone who may be watching us.

Third, we must take whatever measures are necessary to ensure that we don’t go down a path of sin. Jesus uses some pretty extreme examples about the measures we should take to root out sin from our lives. He says,

So if your hand or foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It’s better to enter eternal life with only one hand or one foot than to be thrown into eternal fire with both of your hands and feet. And if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It’s better to enter eternal life with only one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell. (Matthew 18:8-9, NLT)

Jesus isn’t advocating self-mutilation in response to sin, but He is showing us how important it is to root sin out of our lives. Sometimes we need to cut out something good in order to get rid of something bad. If there is something that leads you into sin (even if that thing itself isn’t sinful), we may need to cut it out of our lives in order root out the sinful behavior.

Think about it like this. Suppose you were at work and had a bottle of water sitting out, and when you came back to get it someone told you they had accidentally spilled a bottle of bleach and some had gotten into your water. Would you continue to drink the water? Of course not! Even though the whole bottle isn’t poisonous, there’s enough there that it’s not worth the risk to drink it. It’s better to find something else to drink rather than drinking something that will probably hurt you.

That’s Jesus’ point. Sometimes it is better for us to cut something completely out of our life because it’s not worth the risk of continuing to do it. It’s not worth continuing to do something if it leads you to sin. Practically speaking it may mean,

  • That you need to change the types of movies, TV shows, or music you consume, because you see that those things are changing the way you think or act.
  • That you need to stop reading, watching, or listening to the news source that makes you hard-hearted, angry, or intolerant of people who disagree with you.
  • That you need to stop hanging out with the group of people who bring out the worst in you and instead find friends who will encourage you to live the way God intended.
  • That you need to step back from a commitment that isn’t bad, but is keeping you from doing something that is better.
  • That you need to set boundaries for yourself that will keep you from getting into a situation where you know you will succumb to sin.

Jesus reminds us what is at stake here. Sin isn’t funny, and it isn’t something we should tolerate in our lives. Sin has a way of spreading if we don’t work to contain it. Jesus says that we need to make sure we are protecting ourselves from sin and that we aren’t leading others into sin. The stakes are far too high to do nothing.

A Final Parable

Remember that all of this talk about keeping yourself from sin stems from the question the disciples asked about who would be the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus was trying to help them see that their hearts were in the wrong place. The disciples were still thinking primarily about themselves, but Jesus was trying to broaden their view. So to that end, he concluded with a parable that illustrated the right attitude.

12 “If a man has a hundred sheep and one of them wanders away, what will he do? Won’t he leave the ninety-nine others on the hills and go out to search for the one that is lost? 13 And if he finds it, I tell you the truth, he will rejoice over it more than over the ninety-nine that didn’t wander away! 14 In the same way, it is not my heavenly Father’s will that even one of these little ones should perish. (Matthew 18:12-14, NLT)

Jesus uses the analogy of a shepherd searching for a lost sheep. Shepherds took the responsibility of caring for sheep very seriously. They loved the sheep and would do whatever they had to in order to protect them. So if one sheep wandered off, the shepherd would leave the rest in the care of someone else and search high and low until he could bring the lost sheep home.

I’ve used this example before, but it’s forever burned in my memory, so I’ll share it again. When we went to Disney World several years ago we had a scary experience. Sarah, Gabe, Grace, and I were walking along trying to figure out where to go next, when suddenly Grace was nowhere to be seen. We began a frantic search for her, retracing our steps and calling out for her, desperately hoping to find her. When that didn’t work I found a Disney World worker and pleaded with them to get on the radio and urge people to look for a lost little blonde-haired, blue-eyed little girl dressed like Cinderella (I think they were hoping for a little less common description). Shortly after this we discovered that she had somehow found my sister in a crowd going the other direction and went with her. I was relieved to know she was safe, but I would have stayed in that park all night looking for my daughter if we hadn’t found her.

This is how Jesus pictures the Father caring for us—and it is the example He gives us of how we should care for each other. Instead of selfishly looking out only for our own interests or our own comfort, we are to look out for each other. We should do whatever is necessary to keep ourselves from falling into sin and to help one another stay pure and grow in faith. When we or someone else is wandering from the things of God, we should seek to bring them back with the same intensity as a father trying to protect his daughter.


I suspect the disciples were probably confused by Jesus’ response. They were looking for a simple answer, because they wanted to know where they ranked. But Jesus’ response points to the fact that they were asking the wrong question. Jesus was showing them their hearts were in the wrong place—they were only focused on themselves, while He was concerned with everyone.

If you’ve ever played a team sport, you know that a team with selfish players generally doesn’t get very far. If you have players who are only concerned with their stats, their accolades, their playing time, or how they feel, the team is going to suffer. But when you have players who can see the big picture, they work together. They look out for one another, they try to make each other better. Teams that are successful encourage each other to do the hard work that no one else sees. They encourage those who are struggling and learn from those who are excelling. They care less about who gets the credit, and more about doing their best.

This, says Jesus, is how the Kingdom of Heaven should be. Each of us has an effect on those around us. When we compromise with sin, when we allow ourselves to become complacent, when we drift away from the Lord, the team is hurt. But so often we don’t see that, because we only see ourselves. We need to lift our eyes—we need to see how the things we do affect those around us.

The Church in America today is often very inward-focused. We ask how can the Church meet my needs, how does the Church make me feel, and how can the Church serve me. That’s the same mistake the disciples made—they were focused only on what was in it for them. But that’s not what God wants from us—He wants us to care for those around us! So we should be asking, what can I do to meet the needs of the Church, how can I make the Church better, and how can I serve the Lord, the Church, and those who are in it with my time, talents, and treasure? Jesus reminds us that the Christian life isn’t only about us—we are to work together as a team, instead of being selfish.

So, we need to look around us and see how our actions either help or hurt the rest of the body of Christ. If the things we are doing (or not doing) are weakening the team, we need to change what we’re doing! The disciples’ question was selfish, but Jesus’ answer was just what they needed to hear. My guess is that it’s something you and I need to hear as well. So let’s lift our eyes, see each other, and work together to be the best team we can be.

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