Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

114. The Lesson of the Little Child (Matt. 18 :1-7; Mark 9 :33-37; Luke 9:46-48)*

From time to time a spirit of envy showed itself in the apostles. As they became more convinced that their Master would one day be king of the Jews, so their ambitions and rivalries grew. One day, when they were travelling, a lively disputation broke out about the status of each in their Lord's kingdom. Were they not his shadow cabinet? So each one of them wanted to earmark for himself a place of outstanding honour and influence.

As on so many occasions, even without tearing what they were saying, Jesus knew what was afoot. But he said nothing until they were in the house (Mk.) in Capernaum —Peter's house, most probably, for it is hardly likely that the family of Jesus, also living there (Jn.2 :12), would welcome the group of apostles. Then he challenged them: "What was it ye disputed among yourselves by the way?" To this he got no answer. Only silence. Ashamed of themselves, or, if not that, fearful that he might disapprove of the entire topic, they had no word to say. Jesus had already made his first point effectively enough.

By and by some of them (Mt.18 :1; Mk.9 :35) decided to raise the question with him quietly apart from the rest. They came to him asking: "Who then is the greatest (or, greater) in the kingdom of heaven?" (Mt.) Both readings are possible. If the latter, then the question meant: "Who will be prime minister?-will it be Peter or, perhaps, John, James, Andrew, Matthew, Judas? It is difficult for a modern reader to put his finger on a clear-cut alternative. However, they assumed that this was something that could and should be settled in good time before the kingdom was set up.

A priority principle about priority

Jesus knew they were all in need of education on right attitudes to this problem, so he sat down and called all the rest to join them (Mk). As they saw it the issue was not whether they should have honour in his kingdom, but who should have more than the others. So he enunciated one of the most important principles to be found in all his teaching: "If any man desires to be first, he shall be last of all, and servant of all" (Mk.). This does not mean that the man full of ambition will be punished for his self-seeking by being brought down to the lowest place. Rather: the disciple who would have the highest honour from his Master can achieve it by readily accepting the role to which no kind of honour attaches—being everybody's slave.

Here, as so often happened in the teaching of Jesus, there is a complete inversion of human standards and judgments. The world's sense of values is always wrong. The principle which Jesus now laid before the twelve is so fundamental that he repeated it on no less than three other occasions. It is profitable to note the circumstances.

  1. The correction of James and John when they privately sought the chief places in the kingdom (Mk. 10:4.3,44).
  2. The rebuke when similar bickering broke out among the twelve at the Last Supper (Lk.22:25,26).
  3. The warning against emulating the pride of place so much in evidence among Pharisees and rabbis (Mt.23:11,12).
The attitudes reprobated are all essentially the same. Whenever a man finds himself eager for prominence, reputation, or power, whenever he feels resentful because his abilities or industry are inadequately appreciated, he needs to repeat to himself this four times repeated counsel of Jesus in the words which Jesus himself used.

On the present occasion the Lord gave the twelve a vivid object lesson. As he sat there he called to a little child - Peter's, most likely-to come to him. The boy came at once, and Jesus stood him in the middle of this ring of grown men (Mt.). Shy and embarrassed, he found himself the object of contemplation of them all. Were they wondering what Jesus was about? Or did the point register immediately in the minds of some of them?

"Be converted"

Then Jesus reached forward" and drew him to his side (Lk.). The child now stood there, with the arm of Jesus round him. How little he realised that he was now in the place of honour which, later on, James and John were to ask for. Then, very seriously, Jesus went on: "Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall in no wise enter into the kingdom of heaven" (Mt.). Here were men given to him by the Father (Jn.17:12), and a//of them in danger of becoming sons of perdition over a matter which nobody but Jesus deemed to be reprehensible.

Rarely could these disciples have had such a surprise. Confidently seeking high honour in a kingdom of splendour, they were now told there would be no place for them at all unless they altered fundamentally. The word "convert" simply means "turn" or "change".

Hadn't they all been "converted" either by John the Baptist, in the early days, or when Jesus himself called, and selected, them?

But a man needs conversion more than once. In Peter's case, several times over (Jn.l :41; Lk.5:8-ll; Mt.16 :23; Lk.22 :32; 24 :12,34; Jn.21:3,15;Gal.2:14).

Jesus was now bidding them all abandon all their forward-looking aspirations, and grow back to childhood. Not to childishness, but to the spirit now exemplified in the wee lad by his side. Called by Jesus, he had obeyed at once, and was glad to stay there quietly, even though he did not understand all that was going on around and about him. Thus, even when his obedience and love of Jesus was being held up for emulation, it did not occur to him that the simple thing he had done was praiseworthy. So there was no pride, either, but rather the reverse-a shyness at being the centre of so much attention from grown men. "Heaven lies about us in our infancy"-Wordsworth was right in one way if not in another.

True greatness -

Jesus went on: "Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven" (Mt.). It is true, of course, that children are not alway> models of Christ-like behaviour. Even at an early age they can be quarrelsome self-assertive little devils. But Jesus was commending the characteristics of this little child at this particular time. A normal child instinctively recognizes the authority of parents, accepts instructions and explanations without questioning, and does not even think to impose its own opinions or wishes on grown-ups.

This was the spirit Jesus sought-and seeks-to inculcate. "All of you be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility" (1 Pet.5:5). "Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up" (Jas.4 :10). That phrase: 'in the sight of the Lord," is all-important. When a man seeks to show humility among his fellows, he mostly succeeds in being proud of his efforts- such is human nature!

- and its reward

As he spoke, Jesus picked his little friend up, and, cradling him in his arms, gave him a warm cuddle (Mk.). "Whosoever shall receive this little child in my name receiveth me: and whosoever shall receive me receiveth him that sent me" (Mk.). Thus the Lord's own recipe for a humble spirit is to seek the company of the humble and to try to bless and benefit them as unselfishly as possible. It is as though such humble service were dedicated to Christ himself.

It is evident that here the Lord's instruction was moving away from the literal child in his arms to the wider Biblical reference. There is no misunderstanding Zechariah's language: "I will turn mine hand upon the little ones (for good]" (13:7). "Who hath despised the day of the little ones?" (4 :10). Isaiah similarly: "A little one shall become a thousand, and a small one a strong nation" (60 :22). These are they who are so often spoken of in the Psalms as "the meek of the earth." These "little ones who believe in me" are the Lord's faithful remnant, unpretentious in worldly aspiration, content to live in humble obscurity, rendering such dedicated service to Christ and to their fellows as they are able. "He that is essentially, basically, truly and sincerely least among you all, the same is great." It is to be noted that Jesus made no mention of being greatest, nor of glory in the kingdom. His present tense emphasizes present worth in the sight of the King. The future can be left to take care of itself.

Causes of stumbling

It was needful, also, to add a warning: "But I whoso shall become a stumbling stone to one of I these little ones which believe in me, it is "profitable for him that a great millstone should be hanged about his neck, and that he should be sunk in the depth of the sea" (Mk.). It is perhaps no exaggeration to say that the Lord can hardly conceive of a greater sin than the sell-seeking behaviour which causes one of his humble disciples to lose hold and go away from faith in him. For such an offender it would be a happier destiny if he could so die as to be assured of no resurrection and judgment. Or did Jesus mean: Happier if he should so die before committing such an offence?

With human life as it is, continued Jesus, there is bound to be many an occasion of stumbling in the variegated experience of the disciples: "Woe unto the world because of causes of stumbling, for it is inevitable (necessary?) that they happen: but woe to that man through whom the cause of stumbling comes!" (Mk.). Nothing is more needful for the follower of Christ than the discipline of adversity or hard circumstance. Nevertheless, when such trying situations are provoked through the wilfulness, selfishness, or maybe mere thoughtlessness, of some human agent, he will be held answerable to God if there be stumbling, even though (all unsuspected) divine wisdom is making use of such perversity. At the same time, this saying of the Lord is an assurance to the bewildered harassed disciple of the ultimate justice of God. With this conviction he can fend off the temptation to make right triumph over wrong through his own efforts. All such provocations can be safely left in God's hands. He knows best!

Notes: Mt.18:1-7

Who then is greatest. . .? Could this question have arisen if indeed Peter had already been given a papal priority over all in the church? The present tense "is" implies an expectation of an immediate kingdom. The story of the Transfiguration had evidently gone round the apostolic band (17:19 notwithstanding).
Jesus called a little child. Jesus was at home with children, and they with him: 1421; 19:13,14;21 :15,16.
Shall not enter. Gk: in no wise. What a contrast with "being greatest"!

Be converted; i.e. turn round, and grow into children again.

Previous Index Next