These are strange words, actually, provoking the question, who are “the least” here in Jesus’ statement? In a NT way of thinking, there are no “leasts” in the kingdom, for (hasn’t) that has been the problem throughout church history and, sadly, today, where the church has instituted hierarchies patterned after the world (or power) and social environments (and class) where there are “leasts” and “nonleasts.” You know, to use other NT language, “lasts” and “firsts.” So, what does Jesus mean here by “least in the kingdom”? Who are these “leasts”?
Hyperbole is the usual go-to here, that is, Jesus is just making a point using hyperbole to contrast the “greatest” (i.e., John) and the “least as greater” (i.e., everyone in the kingdom). Jesus, of course, does use hyperbole elsewhere. But, this would be a rather poor use of hyperbole at this place, for simply saying “anyone in the kingdom” would have sufficed; and taking “least” as “everyone” would be banal and a bland way of saying “everyone in the Kingdom of heaven is greater than John the Baptizer.” And, as far as I can tell, “least” isn’t naturally a synonym for “everyone” or “anyone.” Additionally, “least” as “everyone” in the kingdom would lessen the impact of the teaching.
. . . “least” as “everyone” in the kingdom would lessen the impact of the teaching.
Just prior to this John the Baptizer' disciples interchange, Jesus tells us who “the least” are: they are the blind who receive their sight, the lame who walk, the lepers who are cleansed, the deaf who hear, the dead who are raised up, and the poor who have good news preached to them (11:5). This list is not “everyone” (though we preach, teach, and reword the plain, clear reading to fit our affluent, non-poor, privileged spheres) to make it mean "everyone."
This is further affirmed by the terms used to charge Jesus at the end of the narrative unit: Jesus eats supper with (i.e., is a “glutton and a drunkard”) and is “a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (v. 9). These are “the least” because they are (without reading into the narrative) “the least” socially and religiously.* Besides, elsewhere “the least” are identified as real and particular: “little ones” (same word as “least,” mikros) receive a cup of water from a disciple (Mt 10:42); people are warned not to cause “little ones” (again, same word) to stumble, which are easily understood as “children” (18:6; cf. vv. 10, 14; Luke 9:48; 12:32; also, Hebrews 8:11; Revelation 13:16, where poor and small/least are parallel).
When the disciples asked Jesus “who is the greatest in the kingdom” (18:1b), he pulls a child before them and teaches that unless we (the crowd and the disciples) “become like a child” we cannot enter the kingdom (18:2-3). Later he calls the child a “little one” (again, the word for “least”)—thus, a child is “least” (v. 6). This makes sense in that a child in the Greco-Roman world was considered only partially human (i.e., not a full person), that is one of “the least.” So, Jesus teaches, only if one who humbles oneself to be like a child** (i.e., a “least”) could be “greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (18:3-4) This is the same pattern found in the Jesus-John-the-Baptizer teaching in Matthew 11: The “least in the kingdom of heaven” is “greater” than John the Baptist (11:11).
. . . the poor (what I call the bottom populations, the bottom demographic) are the least who are greatest in the kingdom (in our text, greater in than John-the-Baptizer), just as the last (i.e., the bottom demographics) shall be first in the kingdom.
So, it seems safe and appropriate to hear Jesus’ words, that the poor (what I call the bottom populations, the bottom demographic) are the least who are greatest in the kingdom (in our text, greater in than John-the-Baptizer), just as the last (i.e., the bottom populations, bottom demographics) shall be first in the kingdom (19:30; 20:16). Later in Matthew 25, he will refer to “the least of these” (elachistos, “least,” a synonym of and used as an equivalent to mikros) referring to those who are hungry, thirsty, unclothed, incarcerated, and a stranger. And, finally, looking back a bit, this is also confirmed by the previous list of bottom demographics at the head of the beatitudes: the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek (Matthew 5:3-5).
**Don’t lower this to mean, to be child-like, i.e., we need to be child-like. Being “like a child” in the Greco-Roman world was one of the most dangerous places to be. Our modern concern for the welfare of children has no equivalent in the NT world. Affirming the dignity of children was socially counter-cultural, for children were universally “displayed as negative symbols or paradigms” and were “ill-suited portraits for adults.” The preservation of the Roman family estate was the social and civic priority, not the protection and prosperity of the child. A child’s life was cheap. Children could face sexual exploitation by adult males, forced into heavy labor, or subject to maltreatment by tutors. The despicable ancient practice known as exposure, the abandonment of unwanted infants, is illustrative of the social mapping of Jesus’ day.
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