God’s rule is unique. Its uniqueness is revealed in a discussion that Jesus had with his disciples, who were arguing over which of them would be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Before we rush to judgment here, we ought to acknowledge the possibility that when the disciples raised the question of “greatness” they did so in light of their understanding that Jesus was truly their Messiah and as such it was not particularly a bad thing to try to figure out how they would be positioned in his kingdom. In response to their question however, probably to their amazement, Jesus called a child up and began to teach them about “greatness” when heaven rules.
A look at the status of children in ancient societies helps better make Jesus’ point. The law viewed children as little more than property until they reached the legal age of adulthood. Their parents had absolute authority over them. Like me growing up in Africa, children were there to be seen and not to be heard from. This is why this story is such an important story for Jesus’ disciples and for the church. Children embodies trust; they cannot do things on their own and therefore to welcome a child is to abandon your authority and status, this is because welcoming a child is to do something without expecting any pay back because the one you are serving has the least ability to repay you.
I believe the story was meant to teach the disciples about the humble nature of God’s kingdom but I also believe that Jesus also needed to teach the disciples and the church a lesson on how to care for children and vulnerable people. Our children particularly here in America by and large often have little more status than children did centuries earlier or in other countries today. But having said that, Children are vulnerable and are completely dependent on adults.
In the ancient societies words for children were gender neutral. The words for ‘child’ in Greek for example were mostly neuter; the child in the story was not a ‘he’ or ‘she’, but simply an ‘it.’ This has led some scholars to translate ‘it’ as a girl in the story. Girls in particular suffered more; newborn baby girls in some cultures were thrown away or sold into prostitution at an early age. So if Jesus did point to a little girl as the model of greatness in the kingdom, he really must have got his disciple’s attention. As was his custom on these matters, Jesus chose the most vulnerable and some how insignificant human being to make his point clear that the kingdom of God belongs to such ones.
The disciples perhaps had in their mind earthly heroes and Jesus threw them off by his illustration of greatness in God’s kingdom by holding a little girl as the model of greatness in his Father’s kingdom. Jesus communicated his heart for the “least of these” and the vulnerable people in our society in general. To be a follower of Jesus also means to care about the “least of these” as he did and failure to do could have serious consequences stated in the story. These “Little ones” obviously includes little children but it could also include people with various disabilities, refugees who have no hope, no identity and self-worth, the elderly, the chronically ill, women (in some cultures), teenagers who are lured into drugs and prostitution etc.
As if to really communicate how important “the least of these” are to God, Jesus said that their angels continually see the face of God (see Isa. 6). From Isaiah 6, the Seraphs that attended to God covered their faces with two wings (Is. 6: 2-3). Here the story is different; the angels of these “little ones” according to Jesus see the face of God, and indication of how important these “little ones” are to God.
To top it all, Jesus issued a chilling warning for those who may cause them to stumble or hurt them; “it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea” (Matt. 18:6). Since the world has not been completely redeemed yet, there are going to be people who will cause the “little ones” to stumble or hurt but woe unto them for their role in the demise of the little ones. Although such is bound to be the case, those who follow Jesus must not participate in such things or even aid them in anyway; instead they ought to care for them like their heavenly father does. And even more pointedly, people like that ought not to be among the disciples of Jesus.
If you find yourself in a situation where you are a stumbling block or you are the object of harm to a child, Jesus says that you need to amputate that part of your life that causes that to happen for it is better to enter heaven’s kingdom maimed than to spend eternity without God.
Our cultures tend to keep dependent vulnerable people out of sight but Jesus says that when we hide them, we actually hide the very people who embody kingdom living. They are vulnerable and dependent on others in the same way discipleship ought to be depended on God. Such dependence on God is what constitutes “greatness” in God’s kingdom. There is hardly a more important vocation than that of parenting—a task in which congregations and communities are involved. Everything is at stake here.
The future not only of families but also of the church and the society depend upon parents doing a decent job in raising their children, surely one of the most difficult tasks God has assigned anyone is parenting.
But with Jesus’ warning on our minds, we must consider deeply how our decisions as adults affect our children. What happens to our children and young people when mom and dad call it quits? Just to name one situation. If children are involved are they considered in such a decision? What about the issues of sexual orientation and the resultant tragic situations involving young people in our culture, are we proactively addressing these issues or punting them over to other supposed authorities until it is too late?
I am asking these questions to provoke us in light of Jesus’ words in these verses. In addition to learning about humility and dependence on God as Christians, we also learn about how to treat the “least of these” among us.