Studying Matthew 18 1-9

What does it mean, really, to “become like little children”? That’s the question raised by our text this week, Matthew 18:1-9. [Some questions on the text are here.] Here are a few notes on the text:

BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: We’re in Matthew’s gospel. We might think of it as the one that presents Jesus as a teacher; as a “second Moses,” the prophet and law-giver who forms a new people, the children of God; as the fulfillment of ancient Jewish prophesy and the ultimate embodiment of God’s instruction, Torah made flesh, Wisdom’s child. All that.

Commentators point out that the gospel seems to be organized around long episodes of teaching, interspersed with action that moves the plot along. Chapter 18 looks like the beginning of a set of teaching texts that end with Jesus’ healing of two blind men outside of Jericho at the end of chapter 20. The overarching theme of the teachings, introduced by the text we’re looking at, is the real meaning of greatness, and how that relates to participation in the kingdom of the heavens.

There are several words for “child” and even “little child” in Greek, as there are in English. We might think about the differences between “newborn,” “infant,” “toddler,” “child,” “kid,” “young person,” for instance. From what I can tell, the word used in this text leans some to the familiar and “little” – whatever that means, really. We may think – and we may have heard – what it means to be “a child,” generally, and in Jesus’ time. We may have images in mind, too, from our illustrated Bibles. Probably a good idea to be aware of all that.

If we can set aside what we “know Jesus means” here, and think of any actual child we have ever known, from age 18 months or so to about five, or maybe even 10, and think of that actual child as the example Jesus brings forward in this text, instead of resting content with a one-dimensional image of a “child” that’s basically a synonym for a single other word, like “humble” or “innocent” or whatever, we will get a different idea of what Jesus is saying here. [It would be a good idea to pause and do this, now. That is how important I think it is.]

On the other hand, I have been taught more than once that we also need to set aside our modern / contemporary sentimental view of children as precious jewels when we read this passage. We need to remember that the Greeks thought of children as “little balls of chaos” (to quote my Greek I teacher), and that parents in the ancient world routinely exposed infants they didn’t want to death, and that enslaving children was commonplace. That is, Jesus probably does not take for granted that his audience shares our modern / contemporary “aww, cute, sweet” response to “a child.”

[On the other other hand, Jewish culture would have been some different from Greek and Roman? No? But by how much? … All of this has to do with what we think “like a little child” “means.”]

As much as the word “little child” is used in the text, the word “scandal”-“scandalize” or “offense”-“offend” is used even more. We’ll probably need to pay attention to that.

The text is a little vague about place and time, although we might guess a setting in Capernaum, which is where the disciples are at the end of chapter 17. That might make the “child” someone in the household, wherever the group around Jesus is living / staying.

No part of Matthew 18 is in the lectionary. Nevertheless, we will probably feel we’ve heard this story before in church. My guess is, because Mark 9:30-37 is the gospel reading for one of the Sundays in ordinary time in year B. In Mark, though, it comes minus the dire eschatological warnings.

CLOSER READING: We might want to pause at verse 1 for a minute, too: The question “who is the greatest in the kingdom of the heavens” probably has a right answer. And we probably know it. If we weren’t reading this passage, if someone just asked us that question, who would we say is the greatest in the kingdom of the heavens? Yeah. Let’s notice, that’s the context for the rest of this text.

That context makes this a profound teaching about Jesus, and about God. [Compare Philippians 2:1-11, maybe.]

In v3, “a little child” is something people must “turn” and “become like” as a condition for entering the kingdom of the heavens. That suggests that normally, people are working on becoming or being unlike little children.

In v4, Jesus specifies further, that turning evidently involves humbling oneself or perhaps lowering oneself. Whoever really does that is the greatest.

Remember – we know who the “whoever” was at that moment. So v5 is no surprise: whoever receives (in the sense of welcomes) a little child in Jesus’ name welcomes Jesus.

In v6, the teaching turns dire. Whoever would [subjunctively] cause a little one like this to stumble, or would “offend” them, or “trip them up,” or perhaps more specifically “trap” them or “trigger” them … which raises some horrible contemporary associations …

It’s hard to get a clear image of this word, honestly. The word, which will be repeated 5 more times in this text, is used in Paul’s writing for the “offense” of the cross. It’s a strong emotional reaction word. The reaction seems to be one of disgust or outrage or being put off or turned away. And clearly, it’s something Jesus’ audience will not want to do to “these little ones.”

The message keeps moving. The scandals have to come – specifically, there seems to be “the need” or “the necessity” for offenses to come. Maybe just an idiom, not to be made too much of. But alas for the person by whom they come.

There’s a suspicion that Jesus is talking about the cross here, but, he’s not just talking about one “scandal.” The scandals are many, it seems.

The best thing an offender-scandalizer can hope for is being drowned in the depths of the sea with a heavy millstone around his neck. The alternative (in vv8 & 9) will turn out to be the fire, the opposite of life.

In v8, another movement, a person’s hand or foot or eye can be the agent of scandalization. “You” – singular – can be the subject, the one scandalized. Best be rid of that, then. [We don’t usually take this literally. But in this context, the way we might need to take it symbolically may not be entirely obvious.]

Overall, this text seems to be saying a whole lot more than just “you all need to stop thinking so highly of yourselves.” Although, it probably does mean that, too.

Tissot painting, Jesus with little child speaking to disciples

Images: “St. Matthew mosaic, All Hallows Church, Allerton, UK” By Rodhullandemu [CC BY-SA 4.0], from Wikimedia Commons; “Jesus and the Little Child,” James Tissot, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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