Summary: Jesus says we must become children to enter the Kingdom. What does this look like?
As a Little Child
This is a well-known passage because it refers to the innocence of children. We often call them our “little angels” even if their misbehavior often contradicts. When a child tragically dies, if is said that God needed another angel in heaven. By the way, this is probably not the best thing to say to grieving parents, but I digress. We know all to well that the ways of the world corrupt these children as they grow up. This passage indicates that God will severely judge those that lead children astray. But, nevertheless, all who come to maturity, become corrupted. Paul describes that he once was alive as a child, but the Law revealed that he was indeed corrupt and a sinner. In this our mortality is revealed.
So when we come to a passage like this one, we can take comfort that our children are not held accountable like we all are. So if a young child dies, we can at least take comfort that they are not lost. But where does this leave the rest of us? Let us look further into the passage.
The words “at this time” points us back to the previous passage, which describes a conflict Jesus had with the Temple tax collectors. They knew Jesus had not paid his taxes and confronted Peter about it. Peter lies to them, and Jesus has to correct Peter on this. He asked them about their motivation. At the same time they were shaking down the poor for their half-shekel or drachma tax which was commanded in the law for the expenses of the Temple, they were not very careful to collect this tax from their own children. They exempted their children who were relatively well off. But Jesus provides the means of paying the tax for Himself and Peter by putting a silver coin into the mouth of a fish. So far as I know, this is the only time, Jesus used His power to provide for His own need. Even though the Temple cult was a racket which Jesus would soon address in the cleansing of the Temple, Jesus was careful to observe the commandment of the Law.
So this current passage is linked to this in time, as well as the use of the word “children.” The former were the children of the Temple racketeers, who without the gracious intervention of God doomed to the same fate as their parents. The would grow up to show favoritism to their own children and consider their own children to be greater than the children of the poor Israelites.
Once we see this connection, it opens up this passage to a deeper level of meaning. The disciples come to Jesus in the light of this and ask Jesus who was the “greater” in the Kingdom. The Greek uses the comparative adjective and not the superlative one. They were willing to give their master first place. But they wanted to know who came next. They had not really heard what Jesus had said to Pater. They were thinking just like the Sadducees and the tax collectors. They were interested in worldly privilege. They wanted roles in Jesus’ cabinet, so to speak. We all know the great temptation that comes for corruption in upper echelons of government. Jesus could not let this view go unchallenged. He would have to deal with this same thing again and again. The early church continued to be challenged by those who sought this type of greatness. James and others warned against showing favoritism. When this came up at the Last Supper as recorded in Luke, he had to rebuke them sharply. John adds the acted-out sermon in the washing of feet to drive this point home.
Here Jesus finds a young child and stands him up in their midst. A child was under tutelage and correction of his or her parents. They had no legal status apart from their relation to their parents. They were dependent on them until the time they grew and learned a trade by which they could support themselves. Jesus tells them they must turn back and become like this little child to be in His kingdom. The children of the world grow to flaunt their status. But God’s children are to otherwise. Jesus emphatically states that unless they become like children, they would by no means enter into His kingdom. This statement is similar to what Jesus tells Nicodemus in the Gospel of John. One must be “born again” or “born from above” (God). It is these who have the humble dependence of a child who make up God’s Kingdom.
Jesus also addresses the disciples as a group. You are to come in as children, and the people you accept into the church have to be children likewise. Children need no be nurtured and disciplined. In like matter, converts need to be discipled. The main verb of the Great Commission at the end of the Gospel is “make disciples” and not “Go.” “Go tells us where to make disciples, and the participles that follow tell us how. Winning them is confirmed by baptizing them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” The other part is the nurturing process. It tells us to teach them to observe whatsoever things He had commanded the disciples. The first responsibility of the convert is to submit to the yoke of being a learner. It seems today, the first thing we do is to look at their natural talents, call them spiritual gifts, and then give them a job in the church. This is a totally wrongheaded approach. The church needs to follow what Jesus teaches and not what the world does.