I was teaching a couple middle school students the Bible and thought it would be interesting to get their perspective on what Jesus says about children. I went to Matthew 18 and we read the text together. I was surprised to find out that they don't even identify with the passage because the children Jesus was talking about must only be eight years old (for some reason I don't know) and they are thirteen years old.
I continued anyway, however, and asked them what they think is so special about children that Jesus said we have to become like them if we want to enter the kingdom of heaven. They said children are pure and innocent. I immediately found this ironic because I'm talking to two children who are not pure or innocent. At thirteen years old, however, they aren't actually children anymore, since in Jewish culture they would have partaken of their Bar Mitzvah and been considered men.
So what does Jesus mean then? Are we supposed to become pure and innocent to enter the kingdom of heaven? Maybe. But then I thought about all my other students who are eight years old and thought, a lot of them are not very pure or innocent either. Some definitely are, but it's not a common characteristic throughout each one. I didn't have an answer, so I kept reading forward to the next section.
It talked about how terrible it would be for anyone who causes one of these little ones to stumble and how it would be better for a millstone to be tied around their neck and tossed into the sea. Then I remembered a different passage where the children were trying to get to Jesus, but their disciples wouldn't let them until Jesus rebuked them and allowed the children to come.
Children are not viewed as equals with adults actually. We see them as less intelligent, less important, and less reliable. There are reasons we do this, but it shows that there is a status difference between adults and children. And then Jesus says we have to become servants of all to be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus says we have to take the lowly position of a child to become the greatest. Furthermore, we have to change and become like children to even enter the kingdom of heaven.
The passage is less about thinking naively that children are somehow all pure and innocent and instead considering their powerlessness. They have a low position and always rely on others above them for their needs. If we want to be the greatest, we have to do the same. We must take a low position, be the servant of all, and rely on others for our needs.
That means you can't look for every promotion and shortcut when they step over others. That means you can't think a retirement fund is your answer for your future security. That means you can't depend on yourself to get by, but must look out for others, lifting them up to high positions, meeting needs around you, and trusting the King of Glory to look out for you, just like a child.
Welcome to the kingdom. Here, we always take the lesser seat.