Thursday 22 June 2017

Welcoming a child in Jesus' name.

"Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these." ~ Matthew 19:14

The language of reception and welcome reappears in Matthew 18:5 as part of Jesus’ answer to his disciples: “And whoever receives (δέξηται) one such child in my name receives (δέχεται) me” (cf. 10:40; Mark 9:33-37; Luke 9:46-47).[1] The chapter’s opening verse explains how the disciples came to Jesus asking who is greatest (μείζων)[2] in the kingdom of heaven (18:1), a question which revealed that their preoccupation was still with power and status, rather than faithfulness, despite Jesus’ earlier observation that the reason for their recent failure to heal the demon-possessed boy (17:16) was their “little faith” (ὀλιγοπιστίαν, 17:20) which meant that their problem lay not with authority (cf. 10:1), but with wrong motives and attitudes: a lack of humility (18:4) expressed through rivalry (cf. 20:20-28).[3]

Jesus answered the disciples’ question (18:2-5) by enacting a parable in which he called (18:2; cf. 10:1) and set a child (παιδίον)[4] among them as a visual example of those who have no political power or social status and uses this child as a model of true discipleship and greatness in the kingdom (18:3-4), as well as paradigm of how to relate to other believers (10:5).[5] Children in the Mediterranean culture of the first century were not highly regarded,[6] instead they were weak, defenceless, and vulnerable[7] “in a violent and dangerous world subject to imperial violence (2:8, 9, 11, 13, 14, 20, 21), hunger (14:21; 15:38), sickness including paralysis (8:6; 9:2), death (9:18), and demon possession (15:26; 17:18; cf. 4:23-24)”.[8]

To enter the kingdom, true disciples must turn and become like children.

Jesus emphasised that true disciples are to “turn and become” (στραφῆτε καὶ γένησθε) like children as a prerequisite to entering the kingdom[9] (18:3), which seems like a surprising thing to say to followers whom Jesus had called (10:1) and sent (10:5) to proclaim the message of the kingdom to others (10:7) since one would have assumed that these followers had previously received the message and already entered God’s kingdom (10:14, 40).[10] However, Matthew 10:4 makes it explicit that to “turn and become like children” (18:3) means a radical change of orientation that involves abandoning desire for personal power and status to deliberately choose a low, humble position (cf. 20:27; 23:11-12).[11] The person who adopts childlike humility, i.e. whoever takes the lowly position (ταπεινώσει, 18:4) will meet the condition both for entrance into the kingdom and for genuine spiritual greatness.[12] Lowliness is both an attitude of the heart (cf. 11:29) and a lifestyle that must be practiced in hospitality to “one such child” (18:5) and “these little ones” (18:6, 10).[13]

But “a child” (18:2) is not simply a model of humility that would-be disciples, whether young or old, should imitate (18:3-4): “one such child” (18:5) [14] must also become the object of one’s actions.[15] In other words, true disciples humble themselves, and whoever perceives Christ in such a lowly disciple and acts accordingly by receiving the weak and insignificant “as though he or she were I”[16] (the one who has become like a child is received ἐπὶ τῷ ὀνόματί μου, 18:5) also receives Jesus himself (cf. 10:40, 42; 25:31-46).[17] In this case, the opposite of welcoming a disciple is becoming a stumbling block to “these little ones who believe in me”[18] (18:6) and despising instead of restoring “little ones” (18:10, 14) who are straying (18:6-14).[19]

A kindness shown to those who are lowly and downtrodden is a kindness shown to Jesus himself.

If children were used as a paradigm for the disciples’ attitude and behaviour in Jesus’ earlier teaching (18:2-4), then 19:13-15 makes it clear that actual children, and not simply adults who come in childlike humility, were brought to Jesus and he wanted to receive them (cf. Mark 10:13-16).[20] The disciples had evidently failed to remember the lesson that a kindness shown to those of lowly position is in fact a kindness shown to Jesus himself  (18:5) because they rebuked the people and tried to hinder the smallest members of the physical family from coming to have Jesus lay hands on them and pray (19:13-14).[21] But Jesus is depicted as accepting and welcoming children for they belong to the kingdom (19:14), and they receive from Jesus who, during his earthly ministry, was “the incarnate divine presence of God”[22] (1:23) the blessing they ask from their heavenly Father (18:10; cf. 7:7-8).[23] Of course “Jesus’ great concern for and compassion on the weak and most vulnerable members of society”[24] comes as no surprise since he was himself once a παιδίον who had been the victim of persecution and as God’s child par excellence he shows solidarity with the lowly and downtrodden, exemplified here by children.[25]

[1] W. D. Davies & Dale C. Allison, The Gospel According to Saint Matthew, ICC, ed. J. A. Emerton, C. E. B. Cranfield & G. N. Stanton (London: T&T Clark, 1991), 2:752, 760. 
[2] The comparative is used for the superlative here, cf. 23:11. R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, TNICOTNT (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), 675; Grant R. Osborne, Matthew, ECOTNT, ed. Clinton E. Arnold (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), 668. 
[3] Osborne, 668, 669; Ben Witherington III, Matthew, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon: Smyth & Helwys, 2006), 328, 344. 
[4] Some English translations have “little child” rather than simply “child” for παιδίον, however the diminutive form had lost much of its force by this time and in general the word refers to a child below the age of puberty. Osborne, 669. 
[5] France, 676, 677; Daniel J. Harrington, Meeting St Matthew Today: Understanding the Man, His Mission, and His Message (Chicago: Loyola, 2010), 57; Charles H. Talbert, Matthew, Paideia (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010), 217. 
[6] “The statements implying low status should not be taken to mean that children were not related to affectionately or valued” however the way in which the ancient world viewed children is remarkably different to how they are viewed in our contemporary Western society. John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew, NIGTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 732. 
[7] Osborne, 669; Talbert, 217. 
[8] Warren Carter, Matthew and the Margins: A Sociopolitical and Religious Reading (Maryknoll: Orbis, 2000), 362. 
[9] The “kingdom of heaven” (18:1, 3, 4) is probably both a present reality (that Christ has inaugurated in his messianic ministry) and a future one (that is an eschatological inheritance of the heavenly kingdom for eternity). Osborne, 669. 
[10] France, 678; John P. Meier, The Vision of Matthew: Christ, Church, and Morality in the First Gospel (New York: Crossroad, 1991), 128; Daniel Patte, The Gospel According to Matthew: A Structural Commentary on Matthew's Faith (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1987), 248. 
[11] France, 678; Meier, 129; Nolland, 732. 
[12] Meier, 129; Nolland, 732. 
[13] Osborne, 670; David L. Turner, Matthew, BECNT, ed. Robert W. Yarborough & Robert H. Stein (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 431. 
[14] The phrases ὡς τὰ παιδία (18:3) and ὡς τὸ παιδίον τοῦτο (18:4) are clearly figurative expressions, therefore the literal child in 18:2 becomes a simile for humility, and in 18:5 ἓν παιδίον τοιοῦτο underscores that the child mentioned here is a metaphor for (adult) people who have turned, become, and humbled themselves in 18:3-4. Turner, 435. 
[15] Davies & Allison, 2:759. 
[16] Nolland, 733. 
[17] Davies & Allison, 2:760; Harrington, 59; Nolland, 733; Talbert, 218. 
[18] The phrase τῶν πιστευόντων εἰς ἐμέ (18:6) is the only one in the Synoptic tradition that speaks of having faith in Jesus. Talbert, 218. It is possible that they are called “little ones” in 18:5-9 because they are simple and lowly members of the Christian community, but exact identification of who is being referred to is uncertain, suggestions include: disciples, weaker disciples, simple believers, new believers, or ordinary church members. Talbert, 218. 
[19] Meier, 129; Talbert, 218; Turner, 436. 
[20] Talbert, 235; Witherington, 366, 367. 
[21] Davies & Allison, 2:760; Patte, 268; Witherington, 367. 
[22] Witherington, 352. 
[23] Patte, 268; Talbert, 235. 
[24] Witherington, 367. 
[25] Christopher Rowland, “In This Place: The Center and the Margins in Theology”, in Reading from this Place: Social Location and Biblical Interpretation in Global Perspective, vol. 2, ed. Fernando F. Segovia & Mary Anne Tolbert (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1995), 176.

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