Monday, June 4, 2012

The Teachings of Jesus (V), Week 23: Jesus on sin - Childlike faith (Matt 18:1-4)

When I was first doing the outline of what this series looked like, I could not decide whether to include Matthew 18. It is an important period of teaching for Jesus, but lacked the standard "The people gathered and Jesus said..." intro or the standard "They were amazed at His teaching" conclusion. The next such verse starts in 19:2, and 19:1 clearly indicates a break between this teacing and that one. In the end, I included it because, hey, we are studying the words of Jesus, right? And these are pretty important and oft-quoted words. But whether this is technically a topical series of statements like the others, I cannot say. And it probably in the end matters only to me.

"At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven." --Matthew 18:1-4, ESV

As we move into this section of teaching, Jesus has just been Transfigured, healed a demon-possessed boy, predicted His death, and told Peter that He was not bound to pay the Temple tax but should do so anyway just to keep from offending them.

I think here we finally start to see the disciples sensing some urgency. Something Big is about to happen. Jesus is appearing in all His glory. He is talking about an impending death. He is telling them that paying the Temple tax is a formality only, not a requirement. So perhaps this is why the disciples come forward and ask Jesus who will be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

Never one to pass up a good visual aid (modern preachers pay attention!), He calls to a nearby child and set this child in the midst of the group. There are all sorts of ancient historical Christian debates about who this child is, always focused on him being one of the early church fathers. This seems to rather miss the point.

The point is that Jesus grabbed this child--whether the child was a future pastor or a dirt-covered orphan girl--and brought the child up to the middle of the disciples. And He tells them that they must become "like children" in order to enter the kingdom of heaven. Of course this could mean anything, right? How should we be like children? Uneducated? Innocent? Virgins? Smelly and lacking proper potty training? My children like to drop the drawers and pee in anyone's backyard, completely shameless. Is this how we are to be like children? Many take it to mean a "child-like faith"--that is, a faith that does not question, or is not skeptical. But is this what Jesus said?

Thankfully He continues and clarifies. He says that it is the humility (tapeinoo) of a child that He is after. In the classical period, children were a far lesser legal entity than adults. Men had the highest social status, followed by women, followed by children. Indeed, the Romans did not even recognize a child as a person until the paterfamilias - male head of household - had recognized the child as legitimate. (Lacking personhood status, unwanted children who were not recognized as persons were simply killed. Infanticide was quite common in Rome during the period of Jesus, though it was not practiced among the Jews).

So children had the lowest social status, and were considered the most unworthy persons. So Jesus is explicitly saying that He is seeking people who will be humble--not necessarily that He is seeking people who are unquestioning. He wants someone who is willing to give away their social status on Earth in order to focus on and embrace their social status in heaven. It is about putting yourself low in order to make God greater. This interpretation of the passage of course fits quite well with Jesus' other teachings--that the first shall be last, that the meek and poor in spirit are those who are most blessed, etc.

Jesus will use this child--and the concept of humility and innocence--to transition into a discussion about sin, as we shall see next week.