In America, asking a child to do some basic chore around the house is likely to generate a serious protest: “am I a slave?” Kids tend to think being told to some something around the house is equivalent to Cinderella scrubbing the floors for the wicked step-mother. But this is the opposite of the world of Jesus (or most of the world), children did a great deal of hard work and obeyed their parents without question. Is this what Jesus is talking about? What can we know about children in the Second Temple period?
Children were far less important in most ancient cultures than in the modern world. As Ulrich Luz observes, that “the words παῖς and παιδίον can also mean ‘slave’ says a great deal about the legal standing of children, who were subject to the unlimited authority of their fathers” (Matthew 8-20, 428). In the Roman pursuit of honor, serving a child did not bring any honor and likely would be seen as a shameful thing. But to a Greek, humility was not a virtue. After a list of “various kinds of shameful behavior” Aristotle said these were “signs of littleness of soul and baseness” (μικροψυχίας καὶ ταπεινότητος σημεῖα, NIDNTEE, 4:449). The word was used to describe a weak state after a military defeat (Isocr. Paneg. 118, NIDNTEE, 4:449).
In Jewish culture children were certainly loved, but they did have a low status socially. One did not stop and talk to a child, or consider the opinions of a child particularly valuable. This is perhaps why Jesus talking with the rabbis when he was twelve is an important story, he was worthy of respect even as a child (Luke 2:4150). However, as Oepke observes, the idea of an “innocent child” is not found in the Old Testament (TDNT 6:646). The focus of the metaphor may not be “become innocent like a child” or have “child-like wonder.”
It is likely Jesus is already interacting with children in a socially shameful way. Jesus is able to call to a child to stand among the disciples indicates the child was nearby, perhaps even listening to Jesus teach. Like his association with tac-collectors and other sinners, Jesus was crossing over a social boundary which a typical rabbi might avoid (or simply never consider as important).
Jesus says the true disciple will become humble (ταπεινόω) like a child (v. 4). This view of children is found elsewhere in the Gospels. Jesus takes the time to bless children in (Matt 19:14) and in John 3:3 he says one cannot enter the Kingdom of God unless they are “born again,” which may be a similar idea to this “become like a child.”
Although this seems clear to the modern reader, to “be humble” can mean “little” or “low.” Luz, “In a general sense, to become low voluntarily is to reverse completely one’s previous standards of thought and action and to orient one’s life to a different order and to new standards” (Matthew 8-20, 429).
It is critically important to understand humility in the context of the Greco-Roman world. The word does not mean “low self-esteem” or self-abasement. Jesus himself is the model of humility (Matthew 20:28, Philippians 2:5-11), yet he can claim to be the Son of Man, Messiah, Son of God, the one who will return to the Father, etc.
Jesus reverses common understanding of humility in both the Jewish and Roman world. Moses was considered a model of humble service who did not seek his own glory. But often humble service was offered to someone who is your social superior (Keener, Matthew, 447). In the LXX, David is “a humble man and not of high repute” (1 Sam 18:23). The Qumran community called themselves “the poor” and considered humble submission to God’s law to be one of the greatest virtues.
How does one “become like a child?” Jesus highlights a child’s status as the lowest in society. The disciple of Jesus must think of themselves as the lowest of low and serve others like the lowest imaginable person in a society, like a child.