Matthew 18:1-6 is one of the passages with which I have struggled for a long time. Jesus calls on the disciples to “become like little children,” as an answer to their question, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” What was Jesus talking about? Was Jesus really asking his disciples to become childlike in all areas so that they may enter the kingdom of heaven?
In this passage, and in the overall context of the life of Christ, a focus is continually made on “the least of these.” Those considered to be on the margins of society were the focal point of the healing ministry of Christ. Contained within these marginal characters in society were children. In the culture, children were basically useless until they could work. Children were viewed on the same level as slaves, and were powerless in society. The terms for “child” and “slave” are almost interchangeable in the original text of the Bible.
Jesus was not telling the disciples to become like children in terms of wisdom or knowledge. This passage is not an excuse to learn less or discount the value of education or become content with our level of knowledge. I believe the Bible is clear that one should alway value knowledge and wisdom. Over and over again, knowledge is stressed as an important factor of faith. This passage has been used, in an example of poor hermeneutics, as this excuse of ceasing to learn and ceasing to explore the depths of knowledge found in the study of God.
Now that we have that out of the way, we can see the words of Jesus as he meant them, and not as they have been often misconstrued. In the passage, Jesus tells the disciples that in order to enter the kingdom of heaven, they must turn and become like children. This was a hard thing for them to hear. A person of manly stature in that Jewish day and age would have trouble swallowing the teaching of becoming “like a child.” It was probably confusing, angering, and convicting to these men. It was definitely unexpected. Or was it? Most of Jesus’s ministry was unexpected. No one would guess that the ministry of the Messiah would be centered on rebuking the religious leaders and loving those with leprosy, would they? So, when viewed with the context of Jesus’s ministry, in retrospect especially, the statement he makes here is not so unexpected. In fact, we should expect Jesus to want us to become like the children! After all, he showed us this throughout all of his ministry.
By making this bold statement, Jesus meant that the disciples should humble themselves. Jesus wanted the disciples to become more concerned with serving, not being served. He wanted the disciples to get over their demanding a high place in the kingdom, and be content with the lowliness that comes with being a servant. Christ himself was the example of the suffering servant, as we see time and again throughout his teaching. He did not come to be served, but to serve. The disciples were looking for greatness, but their definition of greatness was flawed. They were looking to be honored in a kingdom, and did not understand servant leadership.
Jesus cut the hearts of the disciples to the core with his wisdom and words. The words spoken by Christ also constantly cut me to the core. Again and again I find myself seeking ways to become great by my own standards or society’s standards. I want to get the most retweets or likes or blog views, and somehow, in my messed-up thoughts, that will make me great in my own misconstrued version of the kingdom of God. I want to be honored in the kingdom of God by my own standards, and often not by God’s. To become like a servant is hard. To lower oneself to a lifestyle of servanthood and general lowliness is unpopular and difficult. I can’t give practical tips to a lifestyle of servanthood, because I’m still struggling to figure it out as well. I can say we should work hard to emulate the life and ministry of Christ in all we say and do. Jesus was never concerned with the high places at feasts, being honored by men, or praised by the religious leader. If Jesus had a Twitter account, he would not find his societal honor in his number of retweets or likes.
Jesus emulated a lifestyle of servanthood. So should we. That is how we can become “like a child.” It’s not about abandoning wisdom or knowledge. It is about adopting a posture of the “least of these” so we can better serve Christ in the world. If we serve others, and take the posture of the lowly, rather than puffing ourselves up for our own esteem, we will be able to become the meek people Jesus spoke of in the Beatitudes. To purposely lower oneself is counterculture. It’s taboo. It’s the opposite of the American Dream. But it’s commanded by Christ. And if we love him, we will keep his commands. Our goal in life is to glorify God and enjoy him forever, and we can only do that by living a life of servanthood, and we can only do that by lowering ourselves as Christ did.