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Issues Facing Missions Today 22: The Disciples Are Not 'Leaders' But 'Little Ones' in Matthew's Gospel

Issues Facing Missions Today 22: The Disciples Are Not 'Leaders' But 'Little Ones' in Matthew's Gospel

The following article of mine (about 9,000 words) originally appeared in the journal Transformation, a holistic mission studies journal published by the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies.  See: 'Not 'Leaders' but 'Little Ones' in the Father's Kingdom: The character of discipleship in Matthew's Gospel.' Transformation 2004 (21.2): 114-125. With thanks to Transformation, it is republished here as part of my mini-series challenging the leadership and servant-leadership paradigms for Christian ministry.

Not 'Leaders' but 'Little Ones' in the Father's Kingdom:
The Character of Discipleship in Matthew's Gospel


'Leadership' literature and programmes abound in Christian circles today.  Financial supporters want to know that their money will train 'leaders'.  Ministers looking for a change can move up the denominational ladder through some kind of leadership training (e.g., a 'Leadership' track in a Doctor of Ministry degree).  Outside the Church, the local, national and global news is seen through the lens of how leaders are doing.  In a word, 'leadership' is a topic that sells well.  Consequently, it can be rather  difficult to convince someone that it is not a study of leadership per se that he or she needs but a study of the Bible, Church history, theology, ethics, or missions to prepare him or her better for ministry to others.

John Stott ends his book Issues Facing Christians Today with a focus on leadership.  He begins: 'There is a serious dearth of leaders in the contemporary world.'[1]  This leads him into a rhetorically fine piece on the qualities of good leadership: visionary, industrious, persevering, serving, and disciplined.  Such a description of leadership should become a cause for concern in leadership studies, however, as it may be used to describe people from Adolf Hitler to Mother Theresa.

By framing the discussion of ministry in terms of 'leadership'--when did this change from 'ministry' to 'leadership' take place?--Christian educators naturally turn to the social sciences and business education to find out what makes a good leader.  The Bible is then searched for authoritative proof-texts and examples of the leadership theory being promoted.  But such studies invariably beg the question whether Biblical characters are being presented as models for Christian ministry today.  Change the metaphor from 'leadership' back to 'ministry' and one's use of the Bible changes as well, not to mention the whole content or curriculum of such a study.

This essay does not proceed from the general interest in leadership studies to discover what the Bible might say about the topic.  The assumption is that we need to hear the Biblical witness on its own terms before trying to fit it into our predetermined categories.  The larger project requires hearing independent voices in the canon, appreciating development within the canon, and allowing for diversity in the canon if that is what we find.  This study contributes towards this end by attending to one canonical voice: Matthew.  Something might be said about church 'leaders' in other parts of the New Testament, or perhaps even 'leadership' in the Old Testament writings, but Matthew's Gospel offers a strong challenge to this way of framing any discussion of Christian ministry--a challenge which 'Christian leadership' studies need to hear.

The Character of Discipleship in Matthew's Gospel: Introductory Remarks

This study, then, examines Matthew's answer to the question, 'What is it that we are doing when we are being disciples?'  The disciples of Jesus were tempted to answer this question through one of two models on offer in their Jewish and early Christian contexts: discipleship either as rabbinic training within institutional religion (Mt. 23.8ff) or as something more operational (ministerial) or even charismatic (Mt. 7.15-23).  Matthew offers an alternative view of disciples: not leaders but little ones in intentional community and mission.[2]

Jesus' teaching on and example of 'littleness' instead of leadership in Matthew was not a qualification of the leadership notion, such as in the oxymoron 'servant leadership' so often used in Christian circles today.  'Servant leadership' implies the exercise of power for service.  This is not the message of the cross, which is about serving in 'weakness'. In Matthew's Gospel, Jesus posed an all-out challenge to thinking in leadership terms at all.  At its heart, this challenge is to authority structures, balancing and manipulating power resources, seeking advancement, appealing to a magisterial body apart from Jesus (cf. Mt. 23.8-11), and a focus on successful accomplishments (Mt. 7.15-23).  On the other hand, as we shall see, 'littleness' must not be confused with egalitarianism, which has to do with the balancing of power in a community.

The character of Jesus' disciples in Matthew's Gospel is a theme established right at the beginning of Matthew's account of Jesus' ministry in the Sermon on the Mount (5.3-12).  It follows throughout the Gospel as a theme on becoming and being little for ministry.  In this essay, I will comment on this theme through a focus on Mt. 17.24-20.28 and then examine the terms Matthew's Gospel uses for the disciples.

At the outset, though, we need to see that discipleship in Matthew's Gospel must be seen  from an exilic point of view:[3] disciples are those who pray like Nehemiah at the time of the return from exile, confessing their sins, avowing to revere God's name, and calling on Him to restore them (Neh. 1.5-11).  The 'Lord's Prayer' (Mt. 6.9-13) is itself a prayer of exiles anticipating the coming of God's kingdom: it is a prayer of littleness before the greatness of God's restoring His people from their well-deserved exile.  Following the synagogue prayer called the Qaddish, it prays for God's kingdom to come and puts the petitioner into the mindset of the Jewish exiles awaiting God's restoration.[4]  Israel went into captivity because she failed to hallow God's name, but God's restoring his people to His kingdom reign, despite their sins, would entail sanctifying His great and holy name among the nations (Ez. 36.20ff).  The prayers for 'daily bread', not being led into temptation, and being delivered from evil all easily recall to mind Israel's needs and failures when they were first led out of captivity from Egypt.  With this memory brought to mind, the disciple praying the Lord's Prayer (really, the Disciple's Prayer), adopts the posture of a chastened exile wholly dependent upon God's mercy.[5]  Thus the beatitudes and the Lord's Prayer produce a foundational understanding of discipleship on which the rest of the Gospel builds.

Searching for Thematic Structuring in Matthew

Matthew Uses Themes to Structure His Gospel

I must first establish that Mt. 17.24-20.28 is a thematic unit in Matthew.  The typical structuring of Matthew's Gospel places Mt. 18 as a self-contained unit, the ecclesiastical discourse.[6]  Donald Carson sees 18.1-19.2 under the title 'Fourth Discourse: Life Under Kingdom Authority,'[7] and Donald Hagner writes:[8]

[18.1-35] concerns relations between members of the community, dealing in turn with such particular matters as humility, the avoidance of causing others to stumble, and the importance of forgiveness.

I agree with Hagner that the section is more than an 'ecclesiastical discourse', and yet I would like to argue that there is more of a unifying thread than Hagner sees.  Also, I will argue over against most other commentators that ch. 18 is not a self-contained discourse section in Matthew.[9]  Indeed, the influence of B. W. Bacon on structuring Matthew's Gospel into a series of narratives and discourses does no justice to the book whatsoever.[10]

The beginning of our section may be 18.1, or 17.24, or even some earlier pericope.[11]  But arguments that would push the unit's beginning earlier than 17.24 will not be able to rest on the same sort of data on 'littleness' offered here, and so I will begin the section with 17.24.  The section following 17.24-20.28 forms a very clear unit and bears some comment at greater length to establish how it is that Matthew went about his composition when altering Mark's order, expanding Mark's content, and abbreviating Mark's rhetoric.  What we will see is that Matthew used narrative and discourse material together to impose a loose thematic unity on his Markan source.

            Matthew 20.29-23.39: The Temple Conflict Scene Regarding Jesus' Authority

Mt. 20.29-23.39, the section immediately following the one under study here, is a self-contained section focusing on the theme of Jesus' public trial at the Temple.[12]  Somewhat reminiscent of John's structuring technique in John 1-12, Matthew uses events to lead into teaching on a theme.  In Mt. 20.29-21.22, Jesus does certain things (healing the blind, triumphally entering Jerusalem by enacting Zech. 9.9, cleansing the Temple, and cursing the fig tree) that lead to the question of Mt. 21.23: 'By what authority are you doing these things?  And who gave you this authority?'  The subsequent conflict over Jesus' authority runs through chapter 22, which, in the end, returns again to the specific question of Jesus' authority vis-√†-vis King David.  Jesus concludes the trial over his authority by declaring that his authority actually exceeds that of David: 'If David thus calls him Lord, how can he be his son?"' (Mt. 22.45).  Chapter 23 (Jesus' verdict at the public trial scene at the Temple) then concludes with Jesus' statement that he would not again return to Jerusalem until the people say 'Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord' (23.39).  This repeats the welcome used by the crowds when he first entered Jerusalem (21.9), but now with no mention of King David.

In producing so nicely balanced a theme over several chapters, Matthew has used a variety of material from Mark and other sources.  His redaction of his sources and composition of the section as a whole produce a sustained focus on the theme of Jesus' authority.  In both Mt. 17.24-20.28 and 20.29-23.39, where there is sustained discourse (Mt. 18 or Mt. 23), the discourse fits into a thematic unit rather than marks off a section of the Gospel from the rest.

            The Theme of Matthew 10.1-17.23: Responses to the Kingdom Ministry

Moreover, the phrase, 'when Jesus finished saying these things' should not be taken as a structuring device but merely as a piece of the narrative.[13]  For example, in both Mt. 11.1 and Mt. 19.1 the phrase does not signal a new thematic section.  As to Mt. 11.1, the material in Mt. 11 continues the theme begun in ch. 10 on responses to Jesus and to the kingdom ministry.  Indeed, the whole section of Mt. 10.1-17.23 seems to fit under this thematic title.  Ch. 10 is not simply a 'missionary discourse': it is a discourse on the reception the disciples will get when sent out to extend Jesus' ministry.  Ch. 13 has to do with more than 'parables of the kingdom'--they are parables on the acceptance of the kingdom.  Pericopae in Mt. 10.1-17.23, including the two discourses, fit into a section on Responses to Jesus and the Kingdom.  All this points to de-emphasising the discourse - narrative structuring of Matthew and to ignoring the phrase 'when Jesus finished saying these things' as a clue to structure (over against narrative flow).

            Matthew 17.24-20.28: Discipleship as Being Little, Not Leaders

I would like to argue that Matthew does the same sort of thing with Mt. 17.24-20.28 as he does with Mt. 20.29-23.39.  Possibly the section should begin with 18.1, but Mt. 17.24-27 does fit nicely into the theme of 18.1ff.[14]  Here Matthew describes discipleship as littleness in the kingdom.  The theme is present in Mark's Gospel as well, and yet Matthew adds material and alters Mark's stories in order to sustain this focus throughout the section.  This theme is clearly stated in 18.1-5 and in 19.13-15: kingdom discipleship is modelled after a child.  In 20.20-28 we find the teaching in 18.1-5 repeated.[15]  If 17.24-27 is part of the section, then the reason it is is similar to that for including 20.29-34 at the beginning of the next section (running through 23.39): it introduces the term to consider throughout the section (in our case, 'sons').  In 20.29-23.39, Jesus is considered in terms of the titles 'Son of David' and 'the one coming in the name of the Lord'; in 17.24-20.28, the disciples are considered in accordance with terms related to the social status of 'sons' (or 'children').

Matthew's Theme of 'Littleness' in 17.24-20.28

The following chart demonstrates the sustained theme of disciples as children or little ones in Mt. 17.24-20.28.  It also shows how Matthew has redacted Mark (through omissions, additions, and alterations) in order to produce this sustained theme over the entire section.  The Greek terms noted in the middle column are ways in which the theme of littleness is kept before the reader's eye.

Redaction of Mark
Mt. 17.24-27: The Temple Tax Coin
u`io,j (son) 2 times
This pericope is unique to Mt.
Mt. 18.1-5: The Greatest in the Kingdom[16]
paidi,on  (child) 4 times
Mk. 9.33-37.  Mt. omits Mk. 9.38-41 in order to keep the focus on this theme.
Mt. 18.6-7: Stumbling blocks before these little ones.
mikro,j (little)
Mk. 9.42.  Mt. expands Mk. with a 'woe' saying.
Mt. 18.8-9: Hand, foot, or eye causes you to stumble, cut it off.

Mk. 9.43-47.  Mt. shortens Mk. by omitting  the conclusion of Mk. 9.48 and the sayings about salt in 9.49-50.
Mt. 18.10: Do not despise one of these little ones.
mikro,j (little)
Here Mt. begins to add material not in Mk. until he again picks up Mk. 10.1ff in Mt. 19.1ff.
Mt. 18.11 is a later manuscript addition to be ignored.

Mt. 18.12-14: Parable of the Lost Sheep
mikro,j  (little) (v. 14)
This is a Q parable (par. Lk. 15.4-7).  The message fits with the next section.
Mt. 18.15-17: Steps of trying to regain someone who sins against you.  Matthew adds a conclusion about the authority of the disciples gathered in judgement--Mt. 18.18-20: Binding, agreeing, Jesus' presence when two or three are gathered in his name.
avdelfo,j (brother)
This is unique to Mt. and serves as an interpretation of the parable of the lost sheep.  Lk. 17.3 has a similar saying (no literary relationship to Mt.).
Mt. 18.21-35: Parable of the indebted slave.
dou/loj (slave, servant)
avdelfo,j (brother) (v. 35)
Mt. adds this to Mk., possibly to balance 18.15-20.  Mt. 18.21-22 // Lk. 17.4.  Mt. 18.23-35 is unique to Matthew.
Mt. 19.1-2: Jesus cures large crowds in Judea beyond the Jordan.
Mt. 19.3-9 is attached to this introduction and is Jesus' answer to the Pharisees about divorce.

Mk. 10.1.  In Mk., Jesus goes to the region of Judea and beyond the Jordan, and he teaches the large crowds.  Mk. 10.2-9 is Jesus' answer to the Pharisees about divorce and then his repeated answer to his disciples.
Mt. 19.10-12: The disciples ask Jesus about divorce and Jesus answers.
euvnou/coj (eunuch)

Mk. 10.10-12: Mt. changes this exchange from a repetition on divorce to a statement about discipleship as giving up even marriage for the sake of the kingdom.
Mt. 19.13-15: Jesus receives the little children and lays hands on them.
paidi,on (child)

Mk. 10.13-16: Mt. follows Mk.--the theme is the same.
Mt. 19.16-22: A rich man asks Jesus about eternal life.
neani,skoj (young man--a would-be disciple who is not perfect)
Mk. 10:17-22: Matthew changes Mk. slightly to read 'young man' (vv. 20, 22).
Mt. 19.23-30: Jesus follows up the previous incident with a lesson for his disciples, who have given up everything to follow him.  The first will be last and the last will be first.
e;scatoj (last)
Mk. 10.23-31.  Mk. has Jesus call his disciples 'Te,kna' (children) in v. 24.  The theme from Mk. is consistent with Mt.'s sustained emphasis on what it means to be 'little'--both Mt. and Mk. speak of being 'last' instead of 'first' for the sake of Jesus (Mk. also has 'and for the sake of the Gospel').
Mt. 20.1-16: The Parable of the Labourers in the Vineyard.
e;scatoj (last)
This pericope is unique to Mt.
Mt. 20.17-19: Jesus predicts his being mocked, flogged and put to death in Jerusalem, and that after three days he will be raised up.

Mk. 10.32-34.  Mt. follows Mark as Jesus' suffering and death is consistent with the theme.
Mt. 20.20-28: Rather than looking to be great over the others, a disciple is to be a servant, a slave, just as the Son of Man has come to give his life as a ransom for others.
dia,konoj (servant)
dou/loj (slave, servant)
over against being me,gaj (great)
Mk. 10.35-40.  Mt. follows Mark (with slight alterations) as the teaching on serving others instead of lording it over them is consistent with the theme.

By examining such a chart, what stands out is that in almost every pericope some term describing discipleship as 'little' is present.  Only a few require a comment to show that they too fit the theme.

(1)   Mt. 18.6-7 and 18.8-9 are clearly related: they are both found in Matthew's source, and they both teach on stumbling blocks.  They therefore form a unit; but even so, the theme of littleness is considered first in terms of others and then in terms of oneself: one must take belittling action so as not to create stumbling blocks.
(2)   Mt. 18.15-20 has an offended disciple think of discipleship in terms of being 'brothers'.  One must not demean or immediately excommunicate an offender, but try to win him or her back as a brother or sister.  This only works if the community of disciples has no hierarchy[17]--something Jesus insists on in Mt. 23.8-11.  Indeed, to be wronged and then be the one to go after the one in the wrong to try to restore him or her is a form of becoming little in discipleship towards others, as the parable of the lost sheep illustrates.
(3)   Mt. 18.21-35 shows how, with the self-understanding of being a forgiven 'slave' and debtor to God, forgiveness of a 'brother' (v. 35) within the community naturally follows.
(4)   Mt. 19.1-12 forms a unit, even though it has three parts (vv. 1-2, 3-9, 10-12).    Matthew's redaction of Mark turns the focus away from a teaching on divorce for both Pharisees and disciples to a teaching consistent with the theme of littleness.  The kingdom of heaven calls disciples to acts of littleness, not for ascetic reasons but for work in the kingdom.  Just as service in a king's home called for eunuchs, so too the disciples' leaving their families to follow Jesus was a kind of 'eunuch' service in the kingdom.  The 'family' is a model for Christian community: God is called 'Father', the disciples leave their families (Mt. 19.29) and call each other 'brothers' (e.g., Mt. 18.21), Jesus refers to the disciples as 'children'.  Disciples who forgo marriage for the sake of the kingdom are, with respect to normal life, 'eunuchs', but they do indeed have new family relationships as disciples of Jesus and an inheritance (cf. Mt. 19.29).
Mt. 19.16-30 is again a unit with two parts, the second driving the point home on discipleship.  Here Matthew is able to keep the text of Mark as he found it: discipleship involves becoming little (passing through the eye of a needle!) with respect to family and possessions in order to follow Jesus.  While Matthew does not follow Mark in Jesus addressing his disciples as 'children' here, the point of littleness is clear in the demands of discipleship.  Possibly Matthew's reference to the rich man as a 'young man' has to do with his being a person who follows the Ten Commandments (a kind of littleness) but still not giving up his heart's desire to follow Jesus (still a man).  At least, he is not an 'elder of the people,' a consistently negative term in Matthew (presbu,teroj, 15.2; 16.21; 21.23; 26.3; 26.47, 57; 27.1, 3, 12, 20, 41; 28.12).  We cannot be certain that Matthew consistently intended to use age terminology metaphorically (e.g., Mark's seven uses of 'elders' is also consistently negative), even if 'child,' 'young man,' and 'elder' fit the argument, but we do see once again in this pericope that the disciples have become 'last for Jesus' and not tried to be first.  The young man wants to be first.
(5)   Mt. 20.1-16 ends the same way as the previous pericope about being last.  But it also contains the logic of the kingdom's call to being last.  Service is not rewarded according to merit but according to grace.  Like the previous pericope, which states clearly that no one can be saved by his or her own work but only by God's work (Mt. 19.26), this pericope only makes sense in an economy of grace.  The objection from those who worked more and were paid the same is an objection in an economy of merit.  People strive to be first in an economy of merit; they strive to serve in an economy of grace.

So, we can see that the theme of 'littleness' is sustained throughout the section from Mt. 17.24-20.28.  There are various ways in which to understand the nature of the littleness of discipleship, as Matthew suggests through his redaction of Mark.  This merits a second chart:

The Nature of Littleness
Mt. 17.24-27: The Temple Tax Coin
Here, being 'sons' in the kingdom is a matter of status.  Jesus qualifies the implications of such status by teaching the disciples not to cause offence (v. 27).
Mt. 18.1-5: The Greatest in the kingdom
Be humble.
Mt. 18.6-9: Stumbling blocks before these little ones and yourself.
Do not cause a disciple[18] to stumble.  Do not cause yourself to stumble.  Do not think others or even you yourself are 'big' enough to handle temptation and sin.
Mt. 18.10: Do not despise one of these little ones.
Do not despise other disciples.
Mt. 18.12-20: Parable of the Lost Sheep; Going after the one who sins against you before bringing community judgement.
'Littleness' involves trying to restore sinful people, even when they have sinned against you.
Mt. 18.21-35: Parable of the indebted slave.
Littleness calls on us to forgive others, for we are all indebted slaves and brothers.
Mt. 19.1-12: Jesus' teaching on divorce and marriage.
Being little for the kingdom may mean giving up things that are perfectly good in God's creation, such as marriage.  This is not for ascetic purposes but because the kingdom and discipleship are understood in terms of service and missions.
Mt. 19.13-15: Jesus receives the little children and lays hands on them.
Children are examples of kingdom littleness.  They are in themselves, therefore, to be received.  But this can only be done by those who see themselves as little rather than too important for children.
Mt. 19.16-30: A rich man asks Jesus about eternal life; his disciples ask about who can be saved and comment on leaving all to follow Jesus.
Littleness involves seeking to be last rather than first for Jesus' sake.  This may entail giving up possessions and family.
Mt. 20.1-16: The Parable of the Labourers in the Vineyard.
Littleness involves understanding service not in order to receive merit but as itself a gift.
Mt. 20.17-19: Jesus predicts his being mocked, flogged and put to death in Jerusalem, and after three days be raised up.
Jesus is the example of littleness in giving his life in Jerusalem.
Mt. 20.20-28: Disciples dispute over greatness.
Littleness involves serving others, not hierarchical authority.[19]  It involves not seeking to be first but to be a slave within the community of disciples, just like the Son of Man.

Terms for Discipleship Elsewhere in Matthew's Gospel

The focus on Mt. 17.24-20.28 can be broadened into the rest of Matthew.  One way to do this would be to focus on another major section which teaches on discipleship, the Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 5-7).  This would greatly enrich the present study, but it requires a lengthy examination on its own and one which I think calls for a different method of study from the one we are pursuing here.  That is, rather than a focus on reading the text of Matthew, we would do well to read the Sermon on the Mount in light of the historical-theological reading perspective of Israel in exile.  So I will leave the Sermon on the Mount for another study.

Corroborating the thematic emphasis in Mt. 17.24-20.28 on the disciples as 'little ones' is a wider study of terms used in Matthew's Gospel for the disciples.  The following terms and passages are relevant (excluding those already considered in Mt. 17-24-20.28).


Mat 10:42 'And whoever gives to one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he shall not lose his reward' (Revised Standard Version and throughout in this list)
Mat 11:11 'Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has risen no one greater than John the Baptist; yet he who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.'


Mat 11:25 'At that time Jesus declared, "I thank thee, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to babes;'
Mat 21:16 'and they said to him, "Do you hear what these are saying?" And Jesus said to them, "Yes; have you never read, `Out of the mouth of babes and sucklings thou hast brought perfect praise'?"'


Mat 7:11 'If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!'
Mat 9:2 'And behold, they brought to him a paralytic, lying on his bed; and when Jesus saw their faith he said to the paralytic, "Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven."'
 Mat 15:26 'And he answered, "It is not fair to take the children's bread and throw it to the dogs."'


Mat 12:18 '"Behold, my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon him, and he shall proclaim justice to the Gentiles.'

`uio,j (used of Jesus and the disciples)

Mat 2:15 'and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, "Out of Egypt have I called my son."'
Mat 3:17 'and lo, a voice from heaven, saying, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased."'  Cf. Mat 17:5 'He was still speaking, when lo, a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him."'
Mat 5:9 '"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.'
 Mat 5:45 'so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.'
Mat 8:12 'while the sons of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth."'
Mat 13:38 'the field is the world, and the good seed means the sons of the kingdom; the weeds are the sons of the evil one,'


Mat 25:40 'And the King will answer them, `Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.''
Mat 25:45 'Then he will answer them, `Truly, I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me.''

dia,konoj( diakone,w

Mat 23:11 'He who is greatest among you shall be your servant;'

dou/loj( douleu,w

Mat 10:24 '"A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master;'
Mat 10:25 'it is enough for the disciple to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household.'
Mat 24:45 '"Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom his master has set over his household, to give them their food at the proper time?'
Mat 24:46 'Blessed is that servant whom his master when he comes will find so doing.'  [Also vv. 48, 50 use this word.]
Mat 25:14 '"For it will be as when a man going on a journey called his servants and entrusted to them his property;'
Mat 25:30 'And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness; there men will weep and gnash their teeth.''
Mat 6:24 '"No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.'


The most common word in Matthew for Jesus’ followers is ‘maqhth,j’, ‘disciple.'[20]  This word, as the previous words, also connotes ‘littleness’--one who is following (avkalouqe,w--cf. Mt. 8.19, 22; 9.9; 10.38; 16.24; 19.21, 28) and learning from another.  The mission of the disciples is to replicate themselves by going into the world to make other followers and learners of Jesus (Mt. 28.19-20).

The Place of Peter: An Exception?

One possible exception to this representation of Matthew's understanding of discipleship comes in the character of Peter.  It is sometimes thought that Peter is or represents a hierarchical figure of authority in this Gospel because of his more prominent role and Jesus' words in Mt. 16.17-18.  Donald Senior presents the argument for Peter as not only a representative of discipleship but also a symbol of leadership.[21]  Matthew adds stories about Peter to Mark's account (14.28-31; 16.17-19; 17.24-27; 18.21ff), and Peter has an authoritative role (he is given the keys to the kingdom of heaven (16.19), called the 'rock' on which the Church is built (16.18), receives special revelation from the Father (16.17), and he and Jesus share the Temple tax (17.24-27)).[22]

Yet being given keys to the kingdom of heaven (Mt. 16.19) entails a binding and loosing authority that other disciples have as well (Mt. 18.18).  One can interpret Peter's appellation in Mt. 16.18 as giving him some kind of special authority, but if this is so, then here is our only example in Matthew of any kind of hierarchical, ecclesiastical authority among the disciples.  This notoriously difficult verse can be interpreted otherwise: while names can indicate something about the person (e.g., Gen. 17.5), they can also indicate something about events (such as in Is. 8.3; Hos. 1.4, 6, 9).[23]  If 'gates of Hades' means 'death',[24] 'rock' may be used as in Ps. 28.1 as what prevents one from sinking inexorably into the clutches of death.  (Similarly, it is a metaphor for salvation in the sense of a safe place, as in Ps. 18.2, 31, 46.)  'Rock' does not seem to be a metaphor for some sort of authority.  The truth of Peter's confession that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God (Mt. 16.16) means that Jesus'  impending death in Jerusalem cannot prevail against His restoration of God's people (the Church).  Peter, with his name meaning 'Rock', comes to symbolise this truth for God's people and for Jesus by means of his identification of Jesus: God's salvation will not allow Jesus to descend into the Pit of Death but will bring salvation or restoration through His Messiah.  Jesus, who faces death in Jerusalem, knows that being Messiah means not defeat in death but restoration for the exiles entering God's kingdom.  Thus the twelve disciples, as representative of the twelve tribes of Israel, signify a restoration of God's people, and Peter's being given the keys to the kingdom of heaven represents the certainty of restoration for God's people returning from exile.

Interpreting 'Littleness' for Ministry

Such terms illustrate the nature of discipleship in Matthew's Gospel in terms of 'littleness' rather than high status.  The terms noted above are often present in Mt. 17.24-20.28 as well.  Several points might be made about understanding discipleship in this way.

(1) Jesus is the Paradigm for Littleness: Two of the terms refer to Jesus as well as to the disciples (son, servant): Jesus functions as a model for discipleship, even if his status as 'son' and 'servant' is of a different kind for Matthew.  Jesus may refer to God as his 'Father' or to God as 'Your Father' in speaking to his disciples, but he never includes himself with his disciples in the same relation to God as 'Father.'  His temptation as 'Son of God' is unique, yet his three replies to the devil from Deuteronomy show that he is picking up Israel's role as 'son of God' (ch. 4).  In this way, we might argue, he becomes the paradigm for the disciples facing temptation.  Moreover, his passion offers an example to the disciples of living according to the Sermon on the Mount (being blessed when persecuted, turning the other cheek).  Jesus, therefore, picks up Israel's identity as 'son' and 'servant' but succeeds in these roles where Israel failed, thus making it possible for the disciples to follow his lead in true sonship and servanthood.  A 'leader' needs different qualities from his or her 'followers', but Jesus' littleness is something for disciples to follow.

(2) The Mission is Characterised by Littleness: The disciples' littleness is also like that of Jesus in the sense that both are called to a missionary service, which may require giving up family, marriage, and property for the sake of the mission.  Indeed, in Mt. 17.24-20.28, as we have seen, Jesus' own example of going to suffer in Jerusalem, of serving others, and of giving his life as a ransom for many are examples to his disciples of mission characterised by littleness.  Some of the terms for littleness carry the idea of service.  'Littleness' as an absolute can lead to asceticism; 'littleness for mission' disqualifies the ascetic life as self-indulgent.

A significant passage for Matthean christology is Mt. 12.17-21:

This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah: "Here is my servant, whom I have chosen, my beloved, with whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles.  He will not wrangle or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets.  He will not break a bruised reed or quench a smoldering wick until he brings justice to victory.  And in his name the Gentiles will hope."

Richard Beaton has argued that the passage, as used by Matthew, contrasts Jesus with the Pharisees' leadership (chs. 11 and 12 do offer this contrast).[25]  Beaton favours interpreting Is. 42 in Mt. 12 not in terms of Is. 53’s suffering servant but in terms of Is. 42’s emphasis on an ethical servant.[26]  ‘Servant’ in Matthew is not a title but a description of Jesus’ task.[27]  He continues:[28]

…Matthew [in 12.18-21’s use of Is. 42.1-4] appears to integrate a dynamic ethical component and a high christology.  Thus the compassionate servant is also the agent of universal justice for the nations.    Furthermore, this elevated christology, evidenced in the inclusion of sonship language in the title ‘my Beloved’ and the LXX reading of ‘the nations will trust in his ‘name',' provides a basis for the mission of the servant and establishes Jesus’ identity as central to Matthew’s understanding of the divine mandate.

With this passage, as Beaton argues, Matthew is able to link Jesus' compassionate miracles to his messiahship or kingship and an attack on the leadership of the Pharisees.  But we also see here a christological connection to discipleship.  The disciples are at once the object of this compassionate servant-messiah's ministry and the ones who follow Jesus in such an ongoing ministry of divine justice to the nations.  The meaning of 'divine justice to the nations' is clear from the context in Matthew.  It includes marginalised Jews, particularly those marginalised by the religious institution set up by false leaders in Judaism.  Jesus relieves the heavy yoke of Pharisaic and scribal teaching on the Law and offers a gentler justice, such as healing people on the Sabbath.  He says in this context,

"Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light" (Mt. 11.28-30).

Thus the language of littleness for discipleship comports well with the compassionate purpose of the servant's own ministry to the little ones of the world and with the character of his ministry.  A Gospel proclaiming the wonderful results of the cross equally proclaims the wonderful way of the cross.  For Paul, the 'meekness and gentleness of Christ' (2 Cor. 10.1) is as much a part of the Gospel as the message of salvation itself.  Matthew makes this point with reference to Is. 42.1-4.

Another expression of littleness as the character of the mission is 'taking up a cross' (Mt. 10.38; cf.16.24ff).  This stands as a contrast to the other (frequently chosen) option of Jesus' time in establishing the kingdom: taking up the sword.  The choice of cross over sword is a choice regarding the means to achieve the end of kingdom justice and righteousness which applies just as much to today's disciples as it did to Jesus' first disciples.  Jesus went on to show his disciples literally what this meant.  It meant, as Mt. 10.39 clarifies, losing one's life in order to find it.  The way of the sword is the way trying to 'find' life, but Jesus says that this way actually results in losing one's life.

The most extensive clarification of this littleness in ministry comes in Mt. 10, where the disciples are told that they are to go without supplies on a village by village mission to all Israel. The reason for this is that a reception of the kingdom message of Jesus will mean that the disciples too are received (in the sense of meeting their needs).  To turn this around in ministry, the reception of finances and goods from the missionary disciples would mean a rejection of the kingdom message of Jesus.  In a key passage in which Jesus calls his disciples 'little ones', he drives this point home:

"Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet's reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple-- truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward" (Mt. 10.40-42).

This passage is clearly echoed later in Matthew's Gospel when Jesus describes who will be rewarded as 'sheep' as opposed to 'goats' for the way in which they treated 'the least of these my brethren' (Mt. 25.31ff).  The hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, sick, and prisoner are the disciples, sent out as missionaries to all nations just as they were sent out to the villages of Israel.[29]  Their littleness in their missionary status is the key to salvation for the nations, whose reception of them with their message will mean a reception of Jesus and the kingdom message.  This, like Mt. 18.18-20, is a powerful passage for the argument that missions is done through the Church.[30]  But it can only happen through a Church that follows the way of Jesus, the way of the cross.  Again, if the Church is to fulfil its mission, it must do so in the power of the cross.  Any interpretation of missions as simply seeking an end of justice becomes distorted if this path does not take the way (means) of the cross but of power.  It is still some kind of mission, possibly even with positive--even just--benefits, but it is not Jesus' mission.

'Littleness', then, must be interpreted in relation to mission in Matthew, and vice-versa.  Discipleship virtues, such as love, forgiveness, faith, humility, and righteousness, relate to both being the Father's little ones and serving in mission.[31]

(3) 'Littleness' is the Key to Our Relationship with God: Being designated 'children' also captures the loving and intimate relationship a Christian has with God.  Ritual and tradition are always secondary to what is primary in the Christian faith: a Father-child relationship with God through Jesus Christ (Mt. 11.25).  Jesus agrees with the prophet in preferring mercy to sacrifice (9.13; 12.7; cf. Hos. 6.6).  He opposes relationships which are regulated through law instead of by the heart (Mat. 5.21-48; 15.18-20; 18.21ff).  He cleanses the Temple, opposes the religious groups, and offers in their place faith in and prayer to God (Mt. 21.19-22).

(4) 'Littleness is the Key to Our Relationships with One Another: The notion of the disciples being little children involves how we relate to one another in the Church in several ways.  This is seen most clearly in an extended section in Matthew on the nature of discipleship as ‘being little,’ Mt. 17.24-20.28.  Disciples are ‘little children’ or humble (18.4) in their relationships with one another.  They realise that they can lead others, even themselves!, into sin and so need to protect one another even as one would a child (18.5-9).  They care for little ones as brothers or sisters left by the Father to baby sit a child (18.10).  They put up with a fair amount of abuse while trying to bring a person who sins back into right relationship within the church, even when that person has sinned against them (18.12-18).  And even if the church acts to punish the person by ostracising or excommunicating him or her from fellowship, on the personal level one always holds out a hand of forgiveness.  The basis for this forgiveness has nothing to do with our being nice people; it is entirely based on the extraordinary grace which God has shown us for our incredible sin against Him (18.21ff).


This essay has explored various ways in which discipleship in Matthew is construed in terms of being little ones.  The particular focus on Mt. 17.24-20.28 as a section on 'littleness' calls attention to how discipleship is modelled on Jesus' way of the cross: the section comes in the midst of Jesus' passion predictions.  Over against construing Christian ministry in terms of leadership studies, this essay suggests we need to hear the specific challenge of discipleship in Matthew's Gospel.  The simple check for Christians in their various relationships and ministries is to ask, 'Is this the way of the cross?'  That, rather than exploring good 'leadership' qualities, will divide the Adolf Hitlers from the Mother Theresas in our understanding!

[1] John Stott, Issues Facing the Church Today: A Major Appraisal of Contemporary Social and Moral Questions (Basingstoke: Marshall Morgan and Scott, 1984), p. 327.
[2] Cf. Edward LeRoy Long, Jr., A Survey of Christian Ethics (NY: Oxford University Press, 1967).    Long distinguishes institutional, operational, and intentional community paradigms as alternative moral means in the pursuit of moral ends.  There were Jewish versions of the intentional community model too (Qumran, the Therapeutae).
[3] This point is well made by N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God (London: SPCK, 1996); cf. Craig Evans, 'Jesus and the Continuing Exile of Israel,' in Jesus and the Restoration of Israel, ed. C. Newman (Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 1999), pp. 77-100.  The 'twelve' disciples, representing the twelve tribes of Israel, equally represent the restoration of Israel, and therefore an exiled Israel awaiting the Kingdom of God.  The narrative of exile and restoration forms a hermeneutic for reading Matthew which is essential for interpreting the entire Gospel.
[4] Cf. also Tobit 13.
[5] There is a variety of alternative interpretations of the Lord's Prayer or ethics in Matthew.  My reading builds on the argument (footnote 2) that Jesus' ministry needs to be understood in terms of a 'restoration of Israel' from 'captivity'.
[6] Warren Carter does this as well, although his argument that chs. 19 and 20 should be taken together due to their thematic unity of addressing standard household management and structure questions in antiquity (marriage, children, wealth, and slavery).  Cf. Households and Discipleship: A Study of Mt. 19-20, JSNTS 103 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1994).  The family serves as the metaphor for discipleship, he argues.  While in agreement, I believe the compositional unity is due to the theme of 'littleness', not 'household'.  Cf. Carter's discussion of scholars taking chs. 19 and 20 together (p. 18, notes 1, 2, and 3).
[7] Donald Carson, 'Matthew,' in The Expositor's Bible Commentary, Vol. 8: Matthew, Mark and Luke, ed. F. Gaebelein (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984), p. 395.
[8] Donald Hagner, Matthew 14-28, Word Biblical Commentary 33b (Waco: Word Books, 1995), p. 514.
[9] Alternative structuring that incorporates ch. 18 into a larger section does not support the argument I am making here.  Cf. H. J. B. Combrink, 'The Structure of Matthew's Gospel as Narrative,' TynBul 34 (1983), pp. 61-90.   Combrink sees the discourse of ch. 18 within a larger narrative unit, Mt. 16.21-20.34.  But the overriding theme is Jesus' impending passion and the disciples' failure to understand.
[10] B.W. Bacon, Studies in Matthew (NY: Holt, 1930).
[11] Cf. Jack Kingsbury (Matthew as Story, 2nd rev. ed. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988), p. 139): The leitmotif of the third part of Matthew's story (16.21-28.20) is Jesus' journey to Jerusalem and his passion and resurrection.  In harmony with this, the motif that dominates Matthew's story of the disciples is that servanthood constitutes the essence of discipleship.'
[12] Rollin G. Grams, 'The Temple Conflict Scene: A Rhetorical Analysis of Matthew 21-23,' in Persuasive Artistry: Studies in New Testament Rhetoric in Honor of George A. Kennedy, ed. Duane F. Watson (Sheffield, 1991).  I now believe the unit begins in Mt. 20.29, not 21.1.
[13] Such a statement, of course, runs against the grain.  For example, David Bauer's 6 pointers for discovering Mt.'s structure include the requirement that this phrase be explained (The Structure of Matthew’s Gospel: A Study in Literary Design, JSNTS 31 (Sheffield: Almond Press, 1989), p. 55).
[14] William G. Thompson, S.J., Matthew's Advice to a Divided Community: Mt. 17.22-18.35, Analecta Biblica (Roma: Biblical Institute Press, 1970) takes Mt. 17.22-18.35 as a unit.
[15] David McClister argues that 17.22-23 and 20.17-19, the second and third passion predictions of Jesus, form an inclusio for material that is structurally unified as a large chiasm (17.24-27 // 19.16-20.16; 18.1-7 //19.13-15; 18.8-9 //19.10-12; 18.10-14 //19.1-9; 18.15-17 // 18.21-35, with 18.18-20 at the centre).  Here is a rare example of someone taking almost the same verses together as a unit that I do in this article, although I am not persuaded that chiastic structures work over large units.  The two passion predictions, taken as an inclusio, mean to McClister that 17.22-20.19 is an explanation of Jesus' death.
[16] I have broken down into parts for analysis what I see as a complete pericope in Matthew's Gospel, 18.1-10.  Donald Hagner argues that Mt. 18.5 should be taken with vv. 6-9 (Matthew 14-28, ad loc), and this leaves three pericopes in the text (1-4, 5-9, 10-14).  The parable of the lost sheep (18.12-14) does fit with the sayings using 'mikro,j '.  But I would take vv. 4-10 as all part of the conclusion to 18.1-3, exploring the notion that discipleship is like a child (or perhaps, 'the importance of being little'), with the parable of the lost sheep as an illustrative parable of the teaching.  Supporting this view is the possible chiastic structure of vv. 4-10:
           A             =              whoever humbles himself as this child is the greatest in the kingdom of
heaven (v. 4)
B             =              whoever receives one such child (v. 5)
C             =              whoever causes one of the least of these to stumble (v. 6)
D             =              Conclusion: woe to the world from which stumblings come…woe to the
man from whom stumblings come (v. 7)
                C'            =              The hand, foot or eye that causes oneself to stumble (vv. 8-9)
                B'            =              Do not despise one of the least of these (v. 10a)
                A'            =              Their angels in heaven continually see the face of my Father in heaven (v.
[17] Surprisingly, there is no taking of an errant member before an eldership.  The Matthean community, unlike the Jerusalem community of Acts, has a congregational arrangement.
[18] I read Mt. 18.6-10's references to 'little ones' not as references to actual children (for a contrary argument, see W. D. Davies and Dale Allison, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel according to Saint Matthew, vol. 2, International Critical Commentary (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1991), ad loc) but to the disciples as children, consistent with the entire theme of Mt. 17.24-20.28.  This reading of Mt. 18.6-10 is typical of the commentaries as well; see, e.g., Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 14-28, ad loc.  As Mt. 19.15 shows, the symbolic meaning can have implications for the literal children: the mascot requires special care by the team.
[19] K. W. Clark argues that the meaning of [kata]kurieu,ein in Mt. 20.25 is not 'abusive rule' but 'hierarchical rule'--The Gentile Bias and Other Essays (Leiden: Brill, 1980), pp. 207-212.  The prefix 'kata' (including in Matthew) sharpens the negative force of a word, though, and if Clark is correct then we need to insist that not just a form of authority is being rejected but also that it is perceived as an abusive authority.  Moreover, John Elliott's argument against understanding the family in egalitarian terms in the 1st century is a helpful caution in this overall discussion about the early Church--'The Jesus Movement Was Not Egalitarian but Family-oriented,' Biblical Interpretation 11.2 (April 2003): 173-210.  There is no reason to believe that Matthew was arguing for a social egalitarianism, even within the Church: discipleship as 'littleness' is a far more radical notion which can even be practised in hierarchical arrangements (but not in egalitarian power sharing), even if it undermines its abusive aspects (cf. Paul's approach to slavery in Philemon).
[20] The word in its various forms occurs 74 times; 46 times in Mark; 37 times in Luke and 30 times in Acts; 78 times in John's Gospel; but not at all in Paul or the rest of the New Testament as a designation of believers.
[21] Donald Senior, What Are They Saying About Matthew?, Rev. ed. (NY: Paulist Press, 1996), pp. 95-100.  See also Raymond Brown, 'The Meaning of Modern New Testament Studies for an Ecumenical Understanding of Peter and a Theology of the Papacy', in Raymond Brown and J. Reumann, eds., Peter in the new Testament: A Collaborative Assessment by Protestant and Roman Catholic Scholars (Minneapolis: Augsburg/New York: Paulist Press, 1973).  Contrast Jack D. Kingsbury, 'The Figure of Peter in Matthew's Gospel as a Theological Problem,' Journal of Biblical Literature 98 (1979): 67-83.
[22] Also, Senior adds, Matthew's picture of Peter needs to be added to the rest of the NT writings, which present Peter on a trajectory of increasing prominence as pastor, missionary, martyr, confessor of the faith, receiver of special revelation, guardian of the faith, as well as a weak and sinful man (Senior, What Are They Saying About Matthew?, p. 75).  2 Pt. 3.15-16 shows Peter as the interpreter of Paul (p. 76).
[23] Cf. C. Caragounis, Peter and the Rock (NY: Walter de Gruter, 1990), who argues, among other things, that Peter is not the object of Jesus' statement because (1) 'on this rock' is used rather than 'on you', and (2) pe,tra rather than pe,troj (which is in the masculine form and would have been a direct play on Peter's name) is used (p. 89).
[24] Cf. Jack P. Lewis, 'The Gates of Hell Shall Not Prevail Against It' (Matt. 16.18): A Study of the History of Interpretation,' Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 38.3 (Sept., 1995): 349-367.
[25] Richard Beaton, Isaiah’s Christ in Matthew’s Gospel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).
[26] He agrees with B. Gerhardsson, ‘Gottes Sohn als Diener Gottes: Messias, Agape und Himmelsherrschaft nach dem Math√§usevangelium’, ST (1973): 73-106; p. 176.  He also notes that in Judaism this passage was at times given a messianic interpretation: this is not uniquely a Christian reading of messiahship (cf. p. 85).  His evidence is as follows: the passage was read messianically prior to Matthew by 1QIsa(a) [which has an X beside verses 1 and 4 and shows the verses were marked off for independent use, pp. 74f], 1 Enoch [Similitudes of 37-71 use ‘Chosen/Elect One,’ considered to be based on Is. 42.1a’s ‘Elect One’, p. 76; the judicial role of the Elect One seems to be based on Is. 42.1-4 (along with Dn. 7.8, 13) in 1 En. 45.3; 49.4; 61.8; 62; ‘light to the Gentiles’ and compassion to the brokenhearted in 1 Enoch 48.2-7, ‘traditionally associated with Isa. 49.2, 6’ may relate to Is. 42.1-4, since there is a reference to a staff and compassion (p. 77)], Psalms of Solomon [possibly seen in 17.29, 31 and 35, p. 78f] and possibly the Targums [‘servant’ could be taken as messiah, as in 43.10 and esp. 52.13 and 53.10; but Is. 42.1-4 is unclear in the Targum about whether the messiah is indicated] (p. 85).
[27] Beaton, Isaiah's Christ in Matthew's Gospel, p. 175.
[28] Beaton, Isaiah's Christ in Matthew's Gospel, p. 177f.
[29] For a discussion of this interpretation, see, e.g., Donald Hagner, Matthew 14-28, Word Biblical Commentary 33b (Dallas, TX: Word Pub., 1995).  Graham Stanton presents a good argument in favour of this position, although he might have paralleled the struggles of the disciples in mission in Mt. 10 more closely with the needs of the least of Jesus' brethren in Mt. 25.31ff (which would explain why visiting 'prisoners' is in the list)--A Gospel For a New People: Studies in Matthew (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1992), ch. 9.  Sherman W. Gray, who believes the 'least of these my brothers' refers to Christians in general and not a specific group, offers a useful survey of how this passage has been interpreted through the ages--The Least of My Brothers: Matthew 25.31-46, A History of Interpretation, SBL Dissertation Series 114 (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1989).
[30] Matthew locates mission not in a Kingdom of God above the work of the Church but in a Kingdom of God working through the Church.  Cf. Mt. 28.18-20.
[31] A narrative reading of Matthew, and therefore of Matthean discipleship, methodologically calls attention to mission.  Cf. Terence L. Donaldson, 'Guiding Readers--Making Disciples: Discipleship in Matthew's Narrative Strategy,' in Patterns of Discipleship in the New Testament, ed. R. Longenecker (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), pp. 30-49.