"Do not despise one of these little ones"

Sometime soon the Catholic University Press of America will publish a book authored by Cornelia Horn of Saint Louis University and myself on children in the early Church, titled "’Let the Little Children Come to Me’: Children and Childhood in Early Christianity." The genesis of this book was a study written by a colleague of mine at the University of Winnipeg, Mark Golden, "Children and Childhood in Classical Athens," published by the Johns Hopkins University Press. After I read Mark’s fine book, I wondered, "so what difference did Christianity make in the lives of children?" I knew what Jesus had said about children, though I had never really considered these passages in depth or scrutinized them for Jesus’ meaning, neither as a scholar nor as a Christian. I had simply let a sort of Disney-like image of children coming to scamper on Jesus’ knees wash over me; though it must be said I was encouraged in this throughout my life by those soft-focus paintings from children’s Bibles of little children doing just that. What I had never really asked, though, was what did Jesus mean when he spoke of children and how well has the Church lived up to Jesus’ teachings? One of Jesus’ sayings on children is found in Matthew 18:1-5: The disciples approached Jesus and said, "Who is the greatest in the Kingdom of heaven?" He called a child over, placed it in their midst, and said, "Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the Kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the Kingdom of heaven. And whoever receives one child such as this in my name receives me. "See that you do not despise one of these little ones, for I say to you that their angels in heaven always look upon the face of my heavenly Father." The reading for the Memorial of Guardian Angels, celebrated on October 2, 2008, adds verse 10, which makes good sense. It also omits verses 6-9, to which we will return later. Why did Jesus ask a child to be a model for the disciples of Jesus? In what way was a child a model for greatness? Probably Jesus is undercutting the entire question: the kingdom of heaven is not about greatness, at least not as envisaged by those who seek it on earth. Greatness in the earthly realm is about power, control, authority, honor, fame and wealth. Children in the ancient world were not considered as models for adults; at best they were incipient adults, being trained to take their place in the adult world. Children were not ignored or unloved - though these things happen to unfortunate children in every age - but they were not worthy of emulation as children. I think this paradox is precisely what Jesus is driving at. The disciples of Jesus are to cultivate and build the traits that little children naturally possess, for they have no other choice. Some of these traits are trust, vulnerability, faithfulness, dependence, and, yes, humility. For Jesus does point to humility alone as a virtue his disciples must grasp. In this powerful paradox greatness is defined as humility in the kingdom of heaven. This is the model for Jesus’ disciples, but Jesus does not stop at this point. He also suggests that children themselves be welcomed into the kingdom: their reception into the kingdom is the equivalent of receiving Jesus himself. The child, not simply the attributes such as humility, vulnerability, and openness which a child possesses, is to be welcomed into the kingdom. In verses 6-9 Jesus warns us against harming children, against creating "stumbling blocks" for children, and suggests that those who do so are in grave spiritual danger. It is for this reason that the "little ones" are guarded over by angels, that is, they are in the greatest need of spiritual care and oversight since those who are weak and vulnerable are most in danger (v. 10). It is for this reason too, I would suggest, that Jesus asks the leaders of the Church, for chapter 18 is directed at Church leadership, even if not exclusively, to adopt the child as their spiritual model and as a result "turn and become like children." Sometimes it is hard to see the kingdom of heaven in the Church and hard to see how the structures of the Church either truly welcome children as Jesus himself or honor the attributes of children, such as humility, which Jesus himself points to as true greatness. And any of the arguments which could be brought against actually initiating the sort of leadership model Jesus speaks of in Matthew 18:1-5 or of taking children seriously as models of discipleship when compared to the wisdom of great Biblical scholars, priests, or theologians would also have been brought against Jesus in his own day. We need to wrestle with this question: how do we do what he told us to do? John W. Martens
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