Do Not Despise the Little Ones – Matthew 18:10-14

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.

Eh… no.

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 For example, Ulrich Luz concludes guardian angels are part of an outdated worldview.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.

4 thoughts on “Do Not Despise the Little Ones – Matthew 18:10-14

  1. I do believe that one of the roles of angels is to guard and protect believers. However, I find the modern idea of a personal guardian angel to be more of a mystical, consumerist idea. All you must do is walk into a bible bookstore and see the little silver “guardian angel” pins or tokens, to see how the idea has become a fad, for lack of a better term. In the blog you state that angels “are in fact concerned for the believer” (Long), but not as we have seen them portrayed. Baker says that if this idea of an individual guardian angel were true, how would one account for the “tragic plight of millions of children during the centuries” (Baker 141). Psalm 34:7 says, “The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and he delivers them” (NIV). The notes in my bible say this is not a doctrine of individual guardian angels but rather speaking of the “security with which the Lord surrounds his people, individually and collectively” (NIV Study Bible 818). We do not know exactly what the role of angels may be in present time, but the Bible shows us many ways that angels have provided protection to believers, like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (Dan.3:24-25). Ephesians 6:12 talks about the battle against “the cosmic powers over the present darkness” (ESV). This seems to signify there are angels who are at present protecting believers. So, while the modern idea of a guardian angel earning wings is far-fetched, it is comforting to know there are angels in the heavenly realm who are working for God’s victory.

    Baker, Charles F. Understanding the Gospels: A Different Approach. Grand Rapids, Grace Publications, 1978
    The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton, Crossway Bibles, 2016.
    The NIV Study Bible. Edited by Kenneth Baker, Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1984.

  2. As a believer I think that angels are always protecting us and surrounding us. We pray in our prayers at night and throughout the day to “keep angels of protection around us.” Children are young and lots of times they do not know what is going on, they also do not know what they are doing. As believers and Christians we have to understand that angels are surrounding those kids and protecting them from the unseen. We are all protected and just because we cannot see it in front our faces it does not mean that it is not happening. At time it could be us forgetting our coat and we have to go back in the house, but later on the road we pass a car accident that could’ve been us. We have to keep in mind and never forget that God is always looking over us.

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