For as long as I remember, I’ve heard that my faith should be like a child’s. That 1) it should be “trusting” and “unpretentious” (pulling from my study Bible here), not tarnished by life’s disappointments, and that 2) it’s a good verse to apply to the life challenges we bring to God’s feet.
But imagine my surprise when I looked up “faith like a child” in Scripture recently and couldn’t find it. That phrase doesn’t exist in the Bible, at least not in that form.
And when I examined the passages from whence it supposedly springs, I found a different lesson – different enough, at least, that I’d never heard it.
Jesus called a little child to stand among them. “Truly I tell you,” He said, “unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 18:2-4)
I’m betting that if a million bucks were on the line and we were asked exactly where we derive “faith like a child” from, this is one passage that would spring to mind.
But faith isn’t mentioned there.
Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 18:4)
It’s humility that Jesus is putting at the forefront here.
At first I thought, well, there’s plenty of interweave between faith and humility. “Trusting” and “unpretentious” require humility. But step back three verses and it gets deeper:
At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (Matthew 18:1)
Realizing that the backdrop of this passage is one of the disciples’ infamous superiority squabbles (Luke indicates there were at least two) changes the game for me. It really does seem to be about humility now, specifically.
Now, maybe it’s just me, but when I think of children, I think of a lot of things, but humble isn’t one of them. Here’s one Bible blurb offering the typical lesson on the supposed meekness of children: “A young child is destitute of ambition, pride, and haughtiness and is therefore a good example for us.” And I’m like, since when???! Has this guy been in a classroom? “Children are characteristically humble and teachable. They aren’t prone to pride or hypocrisy.” Oh, come on. Some kids are bullies. Raucous, boastful, stubborn, volatile. And notorious for having their own double standards go shooting as far over their heads as the International Space Station.
But some children can be absolute angels. The one Jesus was showing off obviously must have fallen into that meeker category.
(Meeker, meeker, meeker. That’s fun to say. And now it’s in your head.)
I was also reminded of something in another passage from which people might get “faith like a child”:
People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” (Mark 10:13-15)
Here, the disciples rebuked parents who brought their children to Jesus.
Where else did people set themselves up as Jesus’ gatekeepers, start screening his visitors? Earlier in this very chapter, the crowds tried to keep blind, begging Bartimaeus from getting time with Jesus; same with the Syrophoenician woman in Matthew 15, an outsider to Israel. Both were considered undesirables. The Pharisees, of course, thought a prophet was above eating with sinners (and therefore labeled Jesus, who did so, a fraud).
So why did the disciples treat the parents of the children the same way?
One possibility is something I did find (here’s one example) in my research: that children were not quite admired in ancient Israel as they are here and now. Outside their own families, Jewish children were seen as something closer to burdens, and not particularly virtuous (e.g. Prov. 22:15, 29:15), without the veneer of rosy innocence our modern society gives them. The Romans even had a practice of leaving sickly children on the roadside to die! While the Jews weren’t that bad, those disciples probably saw children in the same light as they did the blind men – beneath Jesus’ attention. A conquering king, in their minds, did not stop to kiss babies.
Jesus obviously doesn’t share their view; he shares his kingdom. He welcomes those who humbly confess their lower station. Jesus is telling his disciples that if they want the kingdom, they must become like those they look down upon.
That, after all, is his refrain every other time the disciples start jockeying for position in his kingdom:
Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42-45)
Then he said to them, “Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. For it is the one who is least among you all who is the greatest.” (Luke 9:48-49)
It’s not that “faith like a child” for our everyday lives is a falsehood. It’s just that we have to go to other verses for that (Luke 12 is great). Context matters, and I can’t say I’ve ever heard Matthew 18:2-4 taught with the humility element. It’s a great treasure to uncover, because it teaches those who are children in their own eyes are heirs to a kingdom. “Do not hinder them!” Jesus fiercely orders to anyone who would bar the humble from coming close.
For this child, it just became Christmas.
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