An argument arose among the disciples about which of them was the greatest. Jesus realized the intention of their hearts and took a child and placed it by his side and said to them, “Whoever receives this child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me. For the one who is least among all of you is the one who is the greatest.” Luke 9:48
This conversation between Jesus and His disciples took place shortly after three events. First, it took place after the disciples returned from the first mission on which Jesus had sent them. Second, it was after Peter made his profession of faith stating that Jesus was “The Messiah of God.” Third, it occurred after the Transfiguration in which Jesus took Peter, James and John up the mountain to reveal His glory. After these three events, it appears that a certain rivalry began to manifest itself among the disciples. Perhaps there was jealousy of Peter’s profession of faith, or perhaps the disciples who were not taken up the mountain of the Transfiguration were a bit envious. But whatever the cause, Jesus addresses what is the beginning of a desire for vainglory among the disciples.
In commenting on this passage, Saint Cyril of Alexandria notes that in the spiritual battle, the devil’s first tactic is to stir up fleshly desires within our souls to keep us bound by the desire for those pleasures. However, when a person is able to escape these more base and fleshly desires, then the devil stirs up a spiritual sin; namely, a selfishness and vainglory. It is this desire for vainglory, the desire to be perceived as the greatest, with which the disciples were struggling.
Our Lord addresses the disciples after He “realized the intention of their hearts.” This is a very important line. Essentially, Jesus noticed that the desire for vainglory was just beginning. By analogy, when a weed begins to grow, it is easily pulled up by the roots. But if it is left to grow for a while, then the roots are more difficult to pull up, and doing so often affects the other plants and ground around the weed. So it is with sin. By gently bringing a child into their midst and stating that “the one who is least among you is the one who is the greatest,” Jesus was helping them to remove this “weed” of the sin of vainglory before it took deep root in their lives. As Jesus continues His conversation with the disciples, He continues to act with gentleness, addressing their slight error in their reasoning.
This is important to understand, because our Lord always desires to address our sin the very moment it begins. If we are open to His subtle promptings of grace, gently redirecting our actions the moment we begin to go astray, then our attentiveness to His loving rebuke will help keep us from becoming more deeply rooted in our error, whatever it may be. Establishing a practice of constant self-reflection greatly helps with this. Establishing this habit means we do not see our Lord as a harsh and critical Judge; rather, we see Him in His gentleness and care. This image of Jesus gently bringing a child before the disciples so as to teach them about true greatness should help us to realize that we should never fear these gentle promptings of grace.
Reflect, today, upon our Lord appearing before you, gently addressing the small sins with which you are struggling. Of course, all serious sins must be firmly dealt with first. But once all serious sin is rooted out of your life, be attentive to the gentle and merciful promptings of grace by which Jesus wants to root out every small sin at its beginning and even every spiritual imperfection. Attentiveness to these graces is the surest way to grow in holiness and to allow our Lord to lead you into His glorious will, making you truly great within His Kingdom.
My most merciful and gentle Jesus, I thank You for the many ways in which You come to me, revealing Your love and grace. Please help me to see clearly the ways that I must change, so that even the beginnings of the smallest sin in my life may be rooted out. I love You, my Lord. Help me to love You with all my heart. Jesus, I trust in You.