How quickly should we move from the literal to the allegorical, figurative or spiritual meaning of words in the Bible? There is no one answer, for in reading the Bible sometimes the literal meaning of a word or a passage is indeed the spiritual meaning itself; at other times, the literal reading grounds a separate spiritual or allegorical meaning; and at still other times, both a literal and figurative meaning exist together. As Jesus prays in the Gospel of Matthew, he says, “You have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants.” The Greek word nepioi, which literally means “infants” (NRSV), might also be rendered figuratively as “little ones” (NAB). What does it matter?
Ancient Jews and Christians believed that every word of Scripture mattered in interpreting God’s word. Careful interpretation ought to matter to us as we determine whether Jesus is literally speaking of children or figuratively of all of us as children of God, or both, for this has implications as to how we ought to live. Why, for instance, has God “hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and…revealed them to infants”? Are all adults considered “wise and intelligent”? Does this verse mean that the “wise and intelligent” are shut out of the kingdom? Does infants reflect children alone or all who are simple and considered little ones by the world? What makes children worthy recipients of God’s revelation?
On the surface it seems ridiculous to think that Jesus could intend human children by nepioi, except that in Mt 19:14 Jesus instructs his disciples to “let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.” In this verse, actual children are in view, and it is to them that the kingdom belongs. If children are the intended recipients of the kingdom, it is indeed possible that Jesus has in mind actual children to whom the reality of God and God’s kingdom has been revealed.
Yet in Mt 18:3 Jesus teaches that “unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” This suggests that while literal children are the model disciples, the adult followers of Jesus are able to “change and become like children” in order to enter the kingdom.
What is it that children have that the wise and intelligent lack in Jesus’ equation? Children are vulnerable, open, trusting, reliant, weak, inferior and must depend upon those with power to protect and care for them. Such reliance opens children to the revelation from the Son. Jesus’ way is revealed to infants because the “little ones” model the necessary trust, dependence and reliance upon God the Father that the Son has revealed to them. It is this reliance that the adult disciples of Jesus must demonstrate if they are to become “little ones.” Jesus directs us all to become like them and to adopt the proper stance toward God and God’s kingdom.
Jesus’ way is not the way of the philosopher, wisdom carved out by the intelligentsia for the elite. Jesus’ way is gained by God’s gracious will and revealed to all those who can turn to God and trust, who can become like children and open themselves to the truth. It seems that just as the rich are tempted by false reliance upon wealth, the wise and intelligent are tempted by false reliance upon themselves.
God’s wisdom is available to all, whether we are young, poor, frail, elderly, wise or lacking intelligence, because God’s way must be available to all if it is the way of salvation. Adults, especially religious experts, often feel we must know it all, have it all under control and always take charge; it is a heavy burden, which Jesus asks us to lay down. Then, he assures us, “you will find rest for your souls.”
What, then, is the meaning of nepioi? It refers to those who are literally and figuratively the “infants,” who are open to the love of God and who accept that we are all children of God. Jesus asks that we lay down the burdens of the world and rely on God to become what we are intended to be: “little ones,” to whom God desires to reveal his kingdom.