“We are running in the human race
Where nobody wants to settle for second place
But we’ve got to run it at a different pace
‘Cuz the last will be first
And the first will be last
At the end of the human race”
- Steven Curtis Chapman, from the 1988 album “Real Life Conversations”
During his earthly ministry, wherever He went, Jesus was a people-magnet. That is to say, people flocked from all over to see Him, to hear Him, to be near Him. And while he welcomed all of them, it is safe to say that it was the children who really touched His heart. Look at the language He uses in referencing them:
“Let the children come to me. Don’t stop them! For the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to those who are like these children” (v. 14).
I don’t have children. But I’ve spent years working with them. And I have two of the greatest nephews I could ever ask for. While children are not perfect, they do tend to have a rather simplistic view of life. Things tend to be black and white. They believe without asking for mounds of evidence. And they love unconditionally. They have boundless compassion and also share with those in need. Finally, they have a strong sense of justice. I could go on. But all of these qualities are what Jesus is saying a true believer should have. What a contrast with our current political administration who separates families and places children in cages.
And what a contrast to the next character Matthew introduces: the rich young man. He comes to Jesus seeking to justify himself and his lifestyle. Jesus lovingly confronts him but also cuts to the quick. He tells the rich young man to sell all he has and give it to the poor, then encourages him to follow. I think the next words in Scripture are amongst the saddest I have ever read. Matthew writes:
“But when the young man heard this, he went away sad, for he had many possessions” (v.22).
You see, Jesus has never been interested in what we have. Instead, he is passionately curious as to who we are, and how we are treating others. He comments that is it hard for the rich to enter the Kingdom of Heaven (v. 23) because we are weighed down by our riches. Our focus is on them and not on Him. Then He makes a curious statement about it’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for rich people to enter the Kingdom of God (v. 24), Some people have taken this saying as an indication that rich people will never get into Heaven.
On the contrary, in Jesus’ day – along one of the major mountainous trading routes – there was a small passage referred to as the Needle’s Eye. Since a majority of trade was carried by camel, it was often difficult for the animal to get through this narrow passage loaded down with all of it’s goods. In some cases, the animal would need to kneel and be removed of it’s burden to pass. I think it’s the perfect metaphor to use to describe how a rich person has to come to a saving knowledge of the Christ.
The disciples are amazed at His teaching and ask, “Then who in the world can be saved?” (v. 25).After all, if anyone could be saved, in their culture, it would be the wealthy who were seen as being blessed by God. Not so, says Jesus, and His followers are astounded. Then, Jesus brilliantly shares that with man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible (v. 26). I love that. Remember, Jesus has the end game of the cross in the back of His mind when He is saying this. He knows He is the only hope for all humankind. With Him, all things, even salvation, is possible.
Finally, after stating that possessions are not helpful, I find it ironic that the disciples immediately ask what’s in it for them. After all, they’ve given up everything to follow Jesus – so what’s the payoff? (v. 27). I think if I had been Jesus I would have been tempted to at least roll my eyes at them and say, “Really? Haven’t you been listening to me?” But He doesn’t.
Instead, He paints them a picture of what is to come by saying their reward in Heaven will be a hundred times whatever they sacrifice now (v.29) in addition to inheriting eternal life. What a generous God. And then Matthew concludes this section of the story with words that often get ignored or overlooked:
“But many who are greatest now will be least important then, and those who seem least important now will be the greatest then” (v. 30). It’s the perfect summary of what we have been talking about. Children – the least important citizens in Jesus’ day – considered to have the most important traits that believers are to imitate. Poor people – another branch of least important people in society – have the easier time getting into Heaven because their priorities are on things above, not on things below. Both of these groups will be the greatest in heaven. It will be the great reversal.
Where do you and I lie along this spectrum? Will we be child-like? Will our focus be on things to come? Where will our treasure reside? The answers affect eternity.