I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven… See that you do not look down on one of these little ones. (Matthew 18.3, 10)
Big Promises in Tiny Hands
My first Bible was a “children’s” Bible with a cover pastel of Jesus talking to girls and boys, plus a few glossy inserts depicting Noah and the Flood, David and Goliath, and other favorite stories. Beyond that, it was identical to my parents' Bibles: a King James Version printed in two columns on tissue-thin stock. Mom and Dad weren’t averse to the Bible storybooks our friends’ parents were so crazy about. But neither did they encourage them. They wanted to expose us to the real thing right away. They believed we should learn to hold its big promises in our tiny hands, even though our minds weren’t yet old enough to grasp them. Thus, before we started school, we already knew how to clumsily sound out the King’s English to match scriptures we quoted by heart.
If memory serves, the first verse I learned to quote was Mathew 19.14: “Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God”—Christ’s response after the disciples rebuke parents who ask Him to bless their children. Where Matthew (per Mark’s lead) places the incident is of interest, as it appears soon after Jesus talks about child-like faith in Matthew 18. He starts the lesson by calling a child to Him, leading us to interpret His interjections about “little ones” refer to actual children. Turning the page to find Him welcoming toddlers appears to reinforce this. Yet Jesus’s tone and approach confirm He’s speaking about adults—about us. He deftly endorses open-minded innocence while adding caution against condemning it. In essence, He says holding big promises in tiny hands isn’t easy. Those with experience and knowledge must not crush others who seem to reach beyond their grasp.
Jostling for Position
An ego crisis sets the stage. The disciples ask Jesus, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (Matthew 19.1) It’s a silly question. Jesus has shown no preference among them. Asking if that will change in the future exposes their insecurities. It also ignores Christ’s law of inversion—the last come first, the least count most, and so on. The disciples either don’t get it or won’t accept it. In prior discussions, Jesus focused on the principle. Now He appears concerned the disciples’ competitive streak will harm other believers. Though they don’t realize it, they’re due to inherit Christ’s ministry in a matter of weeks. This obsession with status needs to be dismantled to prevent the future Church from becoming a hotbed of power politics. Jesus revises His teaching to include harsh warnings for anyone who leverages seniority and sophistication to intimidate newer, less knowledgeable Christians.
He stands a child before them, saying, “Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (v3) He reinforces His principle of inversion—“Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (v4)—and drops a bombshell. Anyone who welcomes an innocent, inexperienced believer welcomes Me, He says. But anyone who wounds the faith “of these little ones” would be better off committing suicide. Jesus tells us to pinpoint and remove what compels us to condemn weaker-minded Christians. “If your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away,” He says (v8), stressing it’s better to enter Heaven as an amputee than suffer eternal punishment. “See that you do not look down on one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father,” Jesus instructs. (v10) His point is made. Condescension has no place in God’s kingdom. Jostling for position over those who don’t grasp the faith as firmly as we do only defeats us. Their place in Heaven is already secure.
Equal, Not Identical
We are all equal in Christ, but none of us is identical. Some of us mature more quickly in our faith. Others grapple with the basics and never graduate to higher levels of learning. Many can only access faith by interpreting Scripture in its most concrete sense. For them, the truth must be immutably writ in stone. Just as many believers find faith by sorting it out, evincing solid truth from abstraction and granting inconsistencies to grasp inerrant principle. There are intellectually driven believers. There are emotionally driven ones. Some limit their confidence exclusively to what they find between the Bible’s covers. There are others whose confidence includes wide fields of scholarship, commentary, and thought. Finally, there are Christians—the vast majority, perhaps—who never outgrow the habit of being spoon-fed by priests, pastors, and teachers.
It’s peculiar how we find accepting our differences so hard, yet we use them so easily to undermine our equality. Instead of cherishing the faith we share, we’d rather fight about varying approaches and aptitudes that lead to faith. Everybody wants to prove he/she is more correct than the rest. Literalists deride rationalists as faith failures. Rationalists sneer at literalists as mental midgets. Seasoned believers think younger ones need to grow up. New believers think older ones have lost touch. And everyone is absolutely correct. We’re all challenged in some way. We’re all immature on some level. We’re all little ones.
Jesus finishes with the allegory of the shepherd who risks losing 99 sheep to rescue one that wanders off. Without the one, the herd is incomplete. “In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should be lost,” Jesus says. (v14) I can’t allow my urges to drive you away, because I need you to complete my community of faith. You can’t afford to alienate me, because when I’m lost, your faith community is incomplete. We are all little ones humbled by what we lack. We all hold big promises with tiny hands. We all need love, tolerance, and protection.
Condescension has no place in God’s kingdom. We are all “little ones.”
(Tomorrow: Trying God’s Patience)