Becoming Like Children
When Jesus points to a child as an example for his disciples, what kind of example does the child represent? Do children represent simple faith, humble attitudes, and/or trust in their parent(s)?
In Mt. 18:1-2, the child is meant to be a contrast to the disciples, who have just asked Jesus: “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” This question takes on even greater urgency when Jesus and the disciples approach Jerusalem (in Mt. 20:17); the disciples think Jesus is about to take over and rule all Israel, with them as his “right hand” men. Thus when the mother of James and John lobbies for their high positions at Jesus’ side (as he rules), the other disciples are upset (20:20-24). They all want to be the greatest.
So Jesus is contrasting these men–who presume they will soon enjoy powerful positions, honored status, and material glory in Jesus’ kingdom on earth–with this child, who has no such presumptions. He tells the disciples: “Unless you turn (repent) and become like children, you will never (even) enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself, like this child, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”
To be like the little child means to be humble, to be like lowly children whose status is the least among the kingdoms of earth. The disciples’ status on earth, among the kingdoms of earth (including the kingdom of Israel), must be lowly if they are to be part of the kingdom of heaven; and the most lowly will be the most great. As he repeats in Mt. 19:30 and 20:16, the last will be first, and the first will be last.
When disciples humbly give up ambitious dreams for high positions in a kingdom of earth, and instead (like Jesus) challenge those who ambitiously seek to rule over and profit from others, they will be despised, slandered, and persecuted (like the prophets before them) . Yet their reward will be great (honor) in heaven (Mt. 5:10-12). Humble disciples who endure the worst hardships and persecution might be pitied (or despised) by even some other disciples; but the most humble will be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
Humility here is more than an attitude; it is a lowly status, a lowly life. This humility rejects what the kingdoms of earth honor; it turns away from what the world values and glorifies; and it challenges those who want to be great now. True disciples do these things because they value Jesus and his kingdom more than anything else.