Jesus commands his followers not to despise, or “look down on,” the little ones. Although this seems fairly straight forward, there are several issues with this saying. Does Jesus teach that children have guardian angels?
First, what happened to Matthew 18:11? In the King James Version, the verse reads “For the Son of Man came to save the lost.” At some point a copiest added Luke 19:10 in order to enhance the connection between verse 10 and verses 12-14 (Morris, Matthew, 464). Most modern translations do not include the verse.
Second, the verb translate do not despise” (καταφρονέω) has a wide range of meanings, such as “not to be concerned with.” But Luz points out it is not synonymous with σκανδαλίζω, the verb used in the previous passage (cause to sin). He considers this verb “much weaker” (Luz, Matthew 8-20, 440, note 27). There is therefore a shift away from causing a child to sin to simply ignoring children as unimportant.
Third, are the “little ones” in this paragraph the children from verse 5? Jesus used a word which means child in v. 5 (παιδία) but on verses 5-6 he uses a more generic term (μικροί). It appears Jesus has actual children in mind in this saying rather than his disciples.
The reason no one should despise a little one is that they have an angel before the father. Does Jesus imply children have guardian angels? One problem with Christian thinking about angels is we are more influence by popular culture than the Bible. In the Bible, angels are in fact concerned for the believer, but they never are portrayed as “Harold the Angel” who is trying to earn his wings.
There is a hint of guardian angels in the Old Testament and the literature of the Second Temple period. In Psalm 91:11-13, for example, angels guard every way of the psalmist. This is the verse Satan himself quotes during Jesus’s temptation. There are several stories in the Old Testament in which people see angels (Jacob in Gen 24:7, 24:40, 48:16). There are a number of Second Temple allusions to something like a guarding angel. In Tobit 5:4-22, Tobit sees the angel Raphael, Raphael then travels with him and protects his on several occasions.
Most modern discussions of guardian angels range from sober recognition of the protection of God to new age psychobabble. For example, Ulrich Luz concludes guardian angels are part of an outdated worldview. “I am of the opinion that a modern interpretation of Matt 18:10 can simply try to take seriously the substance of the concern expressed in the language of an earlier age.” He therefore abandons “the concrete idea of guardian angels, since it is no longer self-evident to the modern mind.” But he also observes that even Martin Luther believed “it is proper and necessary to preach about the good guardian angel of children who wears a white robe and sits at the child’s crib” (Matthew 8-20, 440, note 28). This verse is sometime used to defend infant baptism, although that is a particularly theological reading of this difficult verse.
Most modern discussions of angels sounds more like new age psychobabble. In modern new age, mystical Christianity the guardian angel idea has grown into a wild eco-system of demi-gods who allegedly can be contacted, evoked and manipulated into giving you good fortune and wealth. “Guardian angels watch over you throughout your lifetime. Guardian angels provide protection, guidance and encouragement. Your guardian angel is praying for you and delivering the answers to your prayers. Your guardian angel also keeps a record of the choices you have made in your lifetime.
This is not at all what Jesus is saying! He says that the little ones have an advocate before God’s throne. By using a small child as an illustration in Matthew 18, Jesus is making a lesser-to-greater argument. If even a child receives justice before God, how much more the follower of Jesus. If there are “angels in heaven” pleading the case of little children, how much more should the true disciple of Jesus care for the lowest in their society?
This is a particularly important principle for global Christianity. In the west, there is a general sense that children are vulnerable and need to be protected, including proper health care and education. Even where this is woefully inadequate, most western countries understand the need to care for children. But in countries where care for children is not an important cultural value Christianity must take the lead and care for the child, especially those who are orphaned or have special needs.