Talk 10
Death and Taxes

Today, I want to preach the message, “Throw away the ladder.”

Many years ago, I received a message from a religious leader.  But to understand the message, let me give a little background for those who don’t know me: When I was 13, I started preaching and became a missionary. When I hit 30, I became an entrepreneur while remaining a missionary.

Here was his message: “Brother Bo, I was disappointed when you announced that you became an entrepreneur. Because you’re a preacher of God’s Word. Why are you dirtying your hands?  You should only do holy work. It’s beneath your stature as a man of God to get into business.  You should only be in the business of saving souls.”

I think if I wasn’t immersed in Scriptures, I would have been swayed by his striking words. But I knew the Bible enough to hold on to my convictions.

First, he said, “Why are you dirtying your hands with business?”

Hmm.   What is wrong with dirty hands?  When you’re laboring in the farm, you must be proud of your dirty hands.  But I knew that “dirty” meant something else—it meant “sinful”.  But in my mind, business doesn’t have to be dirty. It can be very holy. Because it serves people, gives jobs, feeds families, sends kids to school.  Besides, Jesus was a carpenter. And St. Paul was a tent-maker. Business can be holy.

The second thing that bothered me was when he said, “It’s beneath your stature as a man of God to get into business.” So in his perspective, there’s a ladder in God’s Kingdom. A hierarchy. On top are the priests and preachers and pastors.  On the bottom are salespeople and entrepreneurs and accountants and lawyers (perhaps especially lawyers). So the goal is climb the ladder. But it seems like I was going down the ladder.

But here’s my deeper question: Is there really a ladder in God’s Kingdom?

The Hierarchy Of The World

It’s pretty obvious that there’s a ladder in the kingdom of this world.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know there’s a very entrenched hierarchy around you. Some are rich and some are poor. Some are powerful and some are powerless.

That’s why you hear the message, “Aim for #1” and “Aspire For the Top” and “Climb the Corporate Ladder”.

But two thousand years ago, Jesus came into the world to shake things up.  And here’s what I believe.  Jesus came to build a Kingdom with no ladders. Where everyone had equal worth.

He did it in two ways.

First, Jesus Treated The Bottom Dwellers As His VIPs

The Beatitudes contains Jesus’ VIP Guest List for His Kingdom party.

He treated all the rejects of society—the poor, the lepers, the tax-collectors, the prostitutes—as beautiful human beings.  And more than that, as His friends. He ate with them, laughed with them, and loved each one with great dignity and respect. He treated them as God-Containers.

That’s why the people on top—the religious leaders—didn’t like what Jesus was doing. Because He was disregarding the hierarchy that was maintaining their power and privilege.

Second, Jesus Went Down to the Bottom of the Ladder

Everyone wants to go up.

But Jesus went down.

He dove downward when God became a fetus in a young girl’s belly. The greatest scandal of the universe: The Almighty God walked among us.

And when Jesus became human, he didn’t stop going down.

How did He keep going down?

Here’s a snapshot of the hierarchy of ancient Jewish society:

On the very top were the Romans, the conquerors of the day.

Second place were their puppet leaders like Herod.

Third were the Chief Priest and the Sadducees, and below them were the Pharisees, as well as anyone who had money.

Fourth were the small entrepreneurs: Carpenters—like Joseph, the foster father of Jesus—and fishermen—like Peter, James, and John.

At the bottom were the throwaways of society—the poor, the blind, the lame, the deaf, and the adulterous woman that the Pharisees wanted to stone, plus the Samaritan woman who had five husbands, and there were the tax collectors like Zacchaeus and Matthew who though rich were seen as the worst sinners and couldn’t even enter a synagogue, and don’t forget the lepers who everyone avoided…

And the bottomest of bottoms?

Criminals who were crucified on dirty crosses.

And that’s where Jesus went. He went to the very bottom.

With this long introduction, let’s dive into our Bible passage…

What Does “Kingdom” Mean?

We’re now in the 18th chapter of Matthew.  Notice that every single story that we’ve read so far was building up to where we are now: About that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?” (Matthew 18:1 NLT)

I want to remind you again what “Kingdom of Heaven” means.

For most Catholics, the first thing they think about is this peaceful place where we go after we die. It’s populated by people in white gowns and golden halos, sitting on fluffy clouds and playing the harp.

I can assure you that this was not what Matthew meant.

The original word used for “Kingdom” was more a verb than a noun.  Kingdom was more an action than a place: When God reigns, that’s the Kingdom.

Friend, can I ask you a question?  Is God King in your life?  Are you following Him?  If yes, you’re living in the Kingdom. Right here, right now.

“Can I Be Your Cabinet Secretary?”

Why did the disciples ask the question, “Who is the greatest in the Kingdom?” Because they were thinking, “If Jesus was going to carry out a coup d’état and put up a revolutionary government over Israel, who was going to be His cabinet ministers?”  Matthew was already hinting about an embarrassing conversation that we will read five chapters later, where a mother of two disciples asked a question that if I translate to modern lingo, it would sound like this: “Jesus, when you become President, can my two boys be Minister of Finance and DILG Head?”

Two thousand years later, nothing much has changed.

We live in a world where “Everything should be about ME”.

No wonder so many people are miserable.  If your motto is “everything is about me”, you’ll be living alone in your own little universe.

By the way, I’m not talking about healthy self-love.  Or healthy self-care.  We need all that. I meet so many broken people who don’t like themselves.  So yes, you’ll hear me preach about self-love.  But you can never stop at self-love.  As important as self-love is, it can never fulfill you.  Because God designed you to sacrifice yourself for others.

Listen to how Jesus answered the “who is the greatest” question…

 It’s Not About Being Cute

Jesus called a little child to him and put the child among them. (Public speakers will recognize this: Jesus teaches with “living” props!)  3 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. 4 So anyone who becomes as humble as this little child is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven.  (v.2-4)

Because we read with modern eyes, we think Jesus wants us to imitate specific characteristics of children, like “Be innocent” and “Be filled with wonder” and “Be playful”.  Those virtues are great, but this wasn’t the core message of Jesus.  Jesus was not pointing to the child’s personality but the child’s powerlessness.  It was not about the child’s traits but the child’s status in society.

Remember the disciples’ question was about position: “Who is the greatest?” Beneath that surface question was the real question, “Can I be the greatest?  Can I be on top of the ladder?”

So the answer of Jesus was also about position. Which is a little bit difficult to understand, because in modern western society, kids are like little kings in diapers. They have enormous power over their parents. They are so cute, they’ve wrapped their little chubby finger around grandma and grandpa and uncle and auntie.

But it was very different in ancient Jewish society.  I repeat: A child was powerless.  Positionally, they were at the bottom of society’s ladder.

So to paraphrase Jesus, He was saying, “Guys, by asking that question, ‘Who is the greatest?’ you’re joining the wrong Kingdom. My Kingdom isn’t a race to the top but a race to the bottom. My Kingdom isn’t about self but about service.  Can you forget yourself and focus on others?”

How do you know if you’re part of the Kingdom?  Check your purpose. Check your why. Check your center. Why do you what you do?

If everything is still about “ME”, then God is not ruling your life.


How Do You Treat The Bottom Dwellers?

Jesus ends His message by saying, “And anyone who welcomes a little child like this on my behalf is welcoming me.

Question: How do you treat the poor? How do you treat your helpers at home? How do you treat the security guard and tricycle driver and the Grab delivery guy? In God’s eyes, they’re His children. They’re your siblings.

Hey. The ladder in society has lasted for thousands of years.

But this hierarchy shouldn’t live inside you.

If you follow Jesus, there should be no ladder in your heart.

Because every person is a God-Container.

Every person deserves respect, honor, dignity, and love.

Dear friend, throw away the ladder.

“Lord, I’m Trying. Help Me!”

All my life, I’ve tried to throw away that inner ladder. Oh, it’s a stubborn thing. And I failed many times. And to think that I’m the guy who lived in the slums at age 15 so I could follow St. Francis. I’m the guy who lived in Anawim for three years, because I wanted to live with the orphans and abandoned elderly.

And yet I know I have a long way to go. Because I catch myself still treating those who are richer, more good looking, more popular, more successful, better than those who have less.  Oh, forgive me, Lord!

I’m a work in progress. For example, I run a few businesses, so I’ve tried to love my staff as my family.  One way is to help my employees retire as millionaires by matching their investments each month with my own money. (A few of them already are millionaires.)

But there’s so much more I can do. And so daily, I pray, “Lord, help me to throw away the ladder from my heart.”

Let me close with a tale…

One day, Jeff was traveling on a road.

Because it was getting dark, Jeff fell into a pit.  It was so deep, he couldn’t get out.  And so he began to cry for help.

A priest passed by and saw Jeff in the pit.  He said, “You fell because of your carelessness; you deserve to be in the pit,” and he walked away.

A pastor passed by and saw Jeff in the pit. He said, “If you only listened to me, you would not be in this pit,” and he walked away.

A preacher passed by and saw Jeff in the pit. He said, “If you’ll get out of the pit, I’ll teach you how not to fall into the pit,” and he walked away.

Many other people walked by, saw Jeff, but did nothing.

And then Jesus walked by.  And without saying a word, He jumped to the bottom of the pit, and pushed Jeff out of the pit.

That’s what Jesus did on the Cross.

He took the lowest place. So that He could push us out of the bottom, whatever “bottom” you’re going through right now.

Jesus is here. Jesus is with you. In your bottom.

And when you’re out of that pit, He’ll invite you to join His rescue operations, where together, you’ll look for other Jeffs trapped in other bottoms.


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