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Becoming like little children does not mean what you think it means

Posted at 09:00 on 25 July 2022

Another Bible verse that is repeatedly misunderstood and incorrectly portrayed as an anti-intelletual manifesto is Matthew 18:3:

And he (Jesus) said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven."

I've heard many interpretations of that verse over the years. Many of them make good and noble statements in themselves, but unfortunately they almost always miss the point that Jesus was actually making.

Take, for example, the idea of "child-like innocence." Innocence is indeed important, but how many children do you actually know (other than your own, of course -- everyone knows that their own children are perfect) who this actually describes? Anyone who's ever been bullied at school, or who has ever had to look after a screaming toddler throwing a tantrum in Tesco, will know full well that the concept of "child-like innocence" is a fantasy.

Nor is this verse an anti-intellectual manifesto. Jesus is not telling us here that our faith should be child-like, or, as an old song by Chris Bowater once put it, "children believe the truth unhindered by reason." On the contrary, the Bible tells us that we should move on to a mature faith, informed and tempered by wisdom. 1 John 4:1 tells us not to believe every spirit, but to test the spirits to see which are from God. If your faith is unhindered by reason, you won't just believe the truth, you'll end up believing a whole lot of patent nonsense along with it. Somehow I don't think Jesus was intending here that we should fall hook line and sinker for astrology, homeopathy, water divining, reading tea leaves, feng shui, ancient aliens, anti-vaccination, or accelerated nuclear decay.

So what was Jesus talking about then? The answer becomes clear when you look at the one thing that everyone ignores: the context from which this verse was taken. Here are the first five verses of Matthew 18 in full:

At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”

He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me."

Puts an entirely different perspective on it, doesn't it? Jesus's words were in response to yet another argument among His disciples about who was the greatest, who would be in charge. Children, by contrast, are anything but in charge. They are accountable to everyone and responsible for no-one. They have rules and restrictions that adults don't. They lack rights that adults enjoy. They have to go to bed early. They are not allowed to drive or to vote. They have to go to school. All in all, they are Just Another Brick In The Wall.

By telling us that we have to become as little children, Jesus was not telling us how to behave, nor that we had to dumb things down. On the contrary, He was calling for humility. He was telling us that the entrance to the Kingdom of Heaven is not at the top of the org chart, but at the bottom.

Featured image credit: Lead Beyond (via Flickr)