As an introduction to Matthew discipleship discourse, Jesus’s disciples ask about rank or honor in the kingdom of God: Who is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven? It is possible the disciples ask this question after Peter’s confession. If he was elevated to the leader of the disciples and then James and John went with him to witness the transfiguration, then the other might wonder how they rank.
In the context of the ancient world, honor and shame were extremely important social values. A poor Galilean fisherman would be extremely low on the social ladder in the Roman Empire, so low that they may as well not exist. It is only natural for the disciples to ask about who the greatest in the Kingdom might be.
Jesus does not answer the question directly but invites a child to stand in the middle of the group. The answer is not about rank in the kingdom, if the true disciple does not become like a child, they will not even get into the Kingdom of Heaven!
He tells the disciples the must change the way they are thinking and become like a child. The verb Matthew uses (στρέφω) has the sense of changing direction or turning around. This is not a repentance word; the disciples do not need to repent of their sins and accept Jesus as savior. They are already insiders and followers of Jesus. But at this moment they are acting like the rest of the word. That must change, Jesus says, if they expect to enter the kingdom.
The disciples must change their direction and become “like the child.” There is something about a child which is a model of proper discipleship. Jesus has something about a child in mind, but not everything about children (ie. this does not mean “become short” or “become uneducated” to enter the Kingdom). Cultural and social context will help us understand what Jesus has in mind. Imagine taking a snotty little kid with a Kool-Aid mustache, who believes a monster lives in his bedroom closet and likes playing in mud puddles-take that kid and use him as a model of the ideal disciple. The audience would have been shocked, not even noticing a child was present in the first place.
This is a remarkable way to illustrate a virtue in the ancient world! A Greco-Roman ethical writer typically used the model of a great political leader or famous philosopher as a model of virtue (Keener, Matthew, 447). Jesus instead turns to a child as the ideal disciple who enters the Kingdom of Heaven. It is simply inappropriate to worry about rank and status in the kingdom of God. A quick survey of books published by evangelicals will show we too point to ideal adults who have somehow modeled spiritual discipline. No one is going to publish How to be Like Jesus if it is written by a 6-year-old kid.
Children were far less important in most ancient cultures than in the modern world As 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” (Luz, Matthew 8-20, 428). Even in Jewish culture children where certainly loved, a child had 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.
It is likely Jesus is already interacting with children in a socially shameful way. Jesus can call to a child to stand among the disciples indicates the child was nearby, perhaps even listening to Jesus teach. Like his association with tax-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.”
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.
Is the child humble because they are vulnerable? (Wilkins, Matthew, 612) If that aspect of a child in the ancient world is the focus of the metaphor, then it may point to the vulnerability of the early church. Like children in the Roman world, they are constant mortal danger with few real protectors. The early church was defenseless and powerless in the Greco-Roman world.
How does one “become like a child?”