The content of this post is drawn from a short paper I wrote for a graduate studies subject I undertook this year (2021).
Matthew 18:1-5 is widely regarded as a foundational passage for theological reflection concerning children. It is, for instance, a keystone text for the child theology movement, whose mantra is “doing theology with a child in the midst”. Following the example of Jesus, the child theology movement seeks to “reform all theological reflection and enquiry ‘with a child in the midst’.” White writes of “foregrounding the child”, that is, using the child as a lens through which to explore and interpret the full range of biblical, historical and systematic theology”.
A central question that arises from Matthew 18:1-5 is, “What does it mean to become like a child?” In this paper, I will provide a response to that question, and examine some other biblical passages in relation to it.
Becoming like a child …
In Matthew 18:3, Jesus makes the remarkable proclamation that unless one changes to “become like little children”, they will “never enter the kingdom of heaven”. These words of Jesus were subsequent to a question posed to him by his disciples about greatness in the kingdom of heaven. From other passages in the Gospels it is apparent that the disciples argued amongst themselves about their relative status and position (cf. Mark 9:33-34, Luke 9:46, Luke 22:24). Personal honours pertaining to following Jesus were of great interest to them (cf. Mark 10:37). Jesus’ response was to put a child in their midst. Their ambition, he declared, must be to become child-like, for in the kingdom of heaven greatness means taking the lowly position of a child.
One response to Jesus’ words about becoming “like little children” has been to propose qualities of children that adults should embrace. Surveying biblical commentators, Zuck variously found suggested:
being receptive, responsive to Jesus’ call (like the little one Jesus called to him), amenable and simple, teachable, modest and unspoiled, trusting, in need of instruction, or sinless.
Yet Jesus does not specify any such qualities of children, virtuous though they may be. He does, however, speak of humility. Gundry-Volf explains that this “could refer both to a condition typical of children (who by virtue of their weakness and vulnerability are “humble”) and to a corresponding quality or frame of mind (humility as trust in divine favor).” In ancient times, children were “the least, the lowest, and the last in terms of social status.” They could have no pretensions towards greatness, and knew that to be the case through their daily existence. Therein lies an important clue to what it means for disciples of Jesus to “become like little children” – it is to avow any pursuit of greatness or claim to it, and to recognise that in relation to the kingdom of heaven, we are dependent on God’s providential grace. For all children of God, heavenly hope lies not in achievement, honours or relative status, but in being summoned and welcomed by Jesus.
Little children were the weakest and most vulnerable link in the social chain and therefore in many and profound ways dependent on God’s rule being implemented in their lives. If Jesus’ ministry has demonstrated so far that the kingdom of God is for those who are needy because they are needy and dependent on God, then clearly it belongs to the little children.
The child’s littleness, immaturity and need of assistance are realities with which Jesus calls all people to spiritually identify. The “becoming” of childlikeness is the “becoming” of humility, the denying of self before Jesus and for Jesus’ sake. The child, write Willmer and White, “is another way of inviting us into the way of the cross.” (Location 156)
Children, Jesus implied, show us how to enter the kingdom. A child has no way of earning entrance to the kingdom. … How then are we to enter the kingdom? We are to come like a child, with empty hands and no merit of our own, trusting the God of grace.
That said, to regard Jesus’ call to become like a child as only spiritually metaphorical is to lose sight of the actual child. The way of the cross is follow Jesus wherever he leads us in this world, and invariably he draws us to serve the marginalized, disempowered, weak and defenseless. To become like a child is to empathise deeply with the vulnerability of children, and to enter their world in such a way as to welcome them in the way and spirit of Jesus. The welcome of children which Jesus speaks of in Matthew 18:5 is much more than sentimentality: it encounters the actual child at their point of need and serves them for Christ’s sake. In Gundry’s words, “The humility of the great … consists particularly in their stooping humbly to serve children.”
The child in the midst …: A look at other biblical texts
Are there connections between Jesus’ call to us in Matthew 18:3 to disavow greatness and “become like a child” and other biblical passages? Are there other passages where we might find a child in the midst and what might these say to us about the theology of the child?
- The infancy-of-Jesus narratives in Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2 tell us of God’s sending of God’s Son as a human child into the midst of human existence. The infant Jesus is dependent and vulnerable, his very life under threat. The so-called “great” of the world – symbolised by Herod – seek to destroy him. Yet, he is under the heavenly Father’s care, and his mission of sacrificial, self-emptying, humble service to the world is carried forwards. To welcome the infant Jesus is to see in him all vulnerable children, and to serve them in the way and spirit of Christ.
- In John 6:1-14 we are told of a hungry crowd and a boy who is brought into the midst of Jesus’ disciples with five small barley loaves and two small fish. Andrew’s words in John 6:9 exaggerate the “smallness” of both the boy and of the food at hand. Yet, Jesus esteems the child and his “meagre” offerings by performing a miracle of abundance. The child who is looked upon as little becomes an instrument of God’s big workings, inviting onlookers then and now to re-evaluate how we regard and treat children.
- Acts 20:7-12 tells of a child or youth named Eutychus who falls asleep on an upstairs window sill while Paul is talking “on and on”, presumably unnoticed by those gathered. He falls out of the window and is picked up dead. Paul rushes down, throwing himself on the child/youth. Eutychus is miraculously brought back to life, and placed into the midst of his Christian community with celebration and thanksgiving. Interpreted symbolically, this passage highlights the marginalisation of children that takes place even in Christian communities. It also calls us to an alternative way of life with children – one that truly recognises them as present, is conscious of their needs, and celebrates them as integral members of the body of Christ.
The case has been made that to “become like a child” is to disavow worldly ambitions of greatness, understanding ourselves as wholly dependent on God’s grace in Christ. It is also to empathise deeply with the vulnerability of children, entering their world in such a way as to welcome and serve them in the way and spirit of Jesus. Three other biblical passages that involve a “child in the midst” have been explored in relation to these understandings.
Gundry, Judith, ‘Children in the Gospel of Mark, with Special Attention to Jesus’ Blessing of the Children (Mark 10:13-16) and the Purpose of Mark’ in Marcia J. Bunge (ed.), The Child in the Bible (Grand Rapids: William B Eerdmans Publishing, 2008), 143-176.
Gundry-Volf, Judith ‘The Least and the Greatest: Children in the New Testament’ in Marcia J. Bunge (ed.), The Child in Christian Thought (Grand Rapids: William B Eerdmans Publishing, 2001), Kindle Edition.
Haddon, Willmer and Keith W. White, Entry Point: Towards Theology with Matthew 18 (London: WTL Publications, 2015), Kindle Edition.
May, Scottie and Beth Posterski, Catherine Stonehouse, Linda Cannell, Children Matter: Celebrating their Place in the Church, Family and Community (Grand Rapids: William B Eerdmans, 2005).
Miller-McLemore, Bonnie J., Let the Children Come: Reimagining Childhood from a Christian Perspective (San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 2003).
Richards, Anne, Children in the Bible: A Fresh Approach (London: SPCK Publishing, 2013).
White, Keith J. ‘”He Placed a Little Child in the Midst”: Jesus, the Kingdom and Children’ in Marcia J. Bunge (ed.), The Child in the Bible (Grand Rapids: William B Eerdmans Publishing, 2008), 353-374.
Zuck, Roy B., Precious in his Sight: Childhood and Children in the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996).
 Keith J. White, ‘”He Placed a Little Child in the Midst”: Jesus, the Kingdom and Children’ in Marcia J. Bunge (ed.), The Child in the Bible (Grand Rapids: William B Eerdmans Publishing, 2008), 355.
 White in Bunge (ed.) The Child in the Bible (2008), 355 n. 11.
 Roy B. Zuck, Precious in his Sight: Childhood and Children in the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996), 206.
 Can I suggest that we should be cautious in ascribing humility to children as an inherent, universal quality? Haddon Willmer and Keith W. White write, “Whatever the child meant in the time of Jesus, children today are not models of humility and cannot be for social reasons.” Source: Haddon Willmer and Keith W. White, Entry Point: Towards Theology with Matthew 18 (London: WTL Publications, 2015), Kindle Edition: Location 1979.
 Judith Gundry-Volf, ‘The Least and the Greatest: Children in the New Testament’ in Marcia J. Bunge (ed.), The Child in Christian Thought (Grand Rapids: William B Eerdmans Publishing, 2001), Kindle Edition: Location 789. See also Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore, Let the Children Come: Reimagining Childhood from a Christian Perspective (San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 2003), 96-97.
 White in Bunge (ed.), The Child in the Bible (2008), 371.
 Anne Richards, Children in the Bible: A Fresh Approach (London: SPCK Publishing, 2013), 124.
 Zuck quotes Tasker as follows: “A little child has no idea that he (sic) is great, and so in the kingdom of heaven the greatest is he (sic) who is least conscious of being great.” Source: Zuck, Precious in His Sight (1996), 207.
 Gundry notes that the children do “nothing to obtain Jesus’ blessing: they are simply brought to him, and he takes them into his arms and blesses them.” Source: Gundry in Bunge, The Child in Christian Thought (2001), Kindle Edition: Location 768.
 Judith Gundry, ‘Children in the Gospel of Mark, with Special Attention to Jesus’ Blessing of the Children (Mark 10:13-16) and the Purpose of Mark’ in Bunge (ed.), The Child in the Bible, 154.
 Willmer and White, Entry Point (2015), Kindle Edition: Location 156.
 May, Scottie and Beth Posterski, Catherine Stonehouse, Linda Cannell, Children Matter: Celebrating their Place in the Church, Family and Community (Grand Rapids: William B Eerdmans, 2005), 41.
 Gundry in Bunge, The Child in Christian Thought (2001), Kindle Edition: Location 811.
 See my article, ‘What is in a Boy?: Reflections on the Feeding of the Five Thousand’ – https://formingfaith.blog/2017/08/05/whats-in-a-boy-reflections-on-the-feeding-of-the-five-thousand