Tuesday, August 14, 2012


 The material below is excerpted from "Let the Little Children Come to Me: Childhood and Children in Early Christianity" by Cornelia Horn and John W. Martens. (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University Press, 2009). The passage deals with Jesus welcoming children into his midst and how the apostles and the Church are to receive these children. The excerpt omits all footnotes, except where footnotes referred to scholars in the text. Please see the published edition for the many footnotes omitted in this sample.

I offer this excerpt today both because it fits with the the most recent entry in the Gospel of Mark Online Commentary Act 4, Scene 4 and because the Gospel reading for today is taken from Matthew 18: 1-5, 10, 12-14, some of which is covered below. To see all of the discussion of the sayings of Jesus on children in the Gospels, please consult Chapter 7 of  "Let the Little Children Come to Me: Childhood and Children in Early Christianity" by Cornelia Horn and John W. Martens.

One first has to determine the original form of the saying. Accepting that Mark preserves its earliest form in most respects, one finds two elements of the saying which in Matthew and Luke have been separated. In Mark 9:33-37, Jesus speaks of welcoming the child and in vv. 41-42, he addresses the woe befalling the one who does not welcome, but rather harms a child. An insertion that comments on someone casting out demons in Jesus’ name (vv. 38-40) separates the two parts. This may be evidence that already by the time of the Gospel’s redaction early Christians had become somewhat distanced from Jesus’ blunt teaching on the value and treatment of children. In Matthew (18:1-10 and 10:40-42) and in Luke (9:46-48 and 17:1-2), these two aspects of the teaching have already been separated not by verses but by chapters and context. The teaching concerning the “little ones” (mikra) now was applied to all of Jesus’ disciples (Matt 10:40-42; Luke 17:1-2).

In the basic teaching on welcoming children (Mark 9:33-37 and parr.), Jesus speaks of how one must receive the kingdom. The disciples were asking him about greatness in the kingdom of God and he took or called a child from their midst, which indicates the presence of children among  Jesus’ followers and in his ministry. The teaching is concrete: welcome this little child (Mark 9:36, Luke 9:47, and Matt 18:2: paidion) in my name and you are welcoming me. The one who welcomes Jesus is welcoming the one who sent him. One ought not to move away from the concreteness of this example too quickly. Richard Horsley’s notes to the NRSV translation of the Gospel of Mark, for instance, state that “a child was the lowest-status person in the household,”[1] a comment which is debatable when one includes slaves in the household. Marion Lloyd Soards’ comment on Luke, on the other hand, states that “the reception of the little child requires generosity without expectation of gain.”[2] Neither of these remarks gets to the heart of the issue of the reception of the child as a child. In Mark and Luke the disciples are not told to “become like children,” but instead are instructed to “welcome this child.” Without question, the status of a child was relatively low in the ancient world, and so the reception of a child did not grant the disciples status or gain of any kind. Yet, the import of the teaching is not thereby exhausted: one is left with the clear command to receive the child in Jesus’ name. As child, the child is worthy of reception, not only worthy to be received by the disciples. The child is not simply a teaching device for Jesus, but the child itself is a welcome recipient of the kingdom. The child also offers the opportunity for encountering Jesus. Thus the child becomes his representative. There is something definitive and specific about the child as a means to encounter the presence of Jesus which is not reducible to one or more attributes of childhood, such as vulnerability, innocence, or insignificance, though all of these might be included in the reality of  the child.

The movement to understand this teaching as a metaphor for how one receives the kingdom comes with Matthew’s interpretation of the passage. Matthew 18:5 retains the teaching as found in Mark and Luke, and has Jesus state that “whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” In Matt 18:3, Jesus demanded that the disciples had to “change and become like children” and in v. 4 that they had to become “humble like this child.” The focus of the teaching had changed. Now the movement was from the child’s reception by Jesus to the disciples’ reception of the kingdom. This nuancing offered through Matthew’s interpretation has become the dominant understanding of these passages in general. While Jesus spoke on behalf of the actual reception of children, Matthew argued for the humility of a child to be adopted also among Jesus’ disciples. Matthew 18:3 also belongs in the context of Matt 19:13-15 (and parr.). Thus Matthew’s movement of the phrase to this context may indeed be an attempt to “spiritualize” this saying for all disciples of Jesus instead of focusing on actual children.

Matthew argued for something else, too, which has to be seen in the context of chapters 18 and 19 as a whole. He exhorted his audience to “change and become like children” in v. 3, but did not explain what this could mean or how a child behaves. The reader is left to wonder whether humility may be the only way by which one “becomes” a child. When understood as lowliness and vulnerability, humility certainly ranked high among the characteristics of the child, since the passages which follow in Matthew 18 warn the disciples not to “put a stumbling block” (skandalisē) before one of the “little ones” (hena tōn mikrōn) (v. 6) and not to “despise” (kataphronēsēte) one of the “little ones” (henos tōn mikrōn) (v. 10). While these “little ones” may refer, as has been argued frequently, to all of the “little ones” who make up Jesus’ disciples, those whose status and prestige render them small and insignificant by the standards of the world, it is at least as probable that following immediately upon the teaching of the reception of children, Jesus’ initial thrust was to emphasize that one was not to hinder children in their discipleship or lead them astray. In this regard it is noteworthy that in 1 Tim 4:12 Timothy was told that he should not let anyone “despise” or “look down on” him (kataphroneitō) due to his youthfulness, an instance at which the author employs the same verb which appears in Matt 18:10. Thus one may argue for the inclusion of Matt 18:10 in the original teaching as well.

Mark placed a question of John’s regarding the casting out of demons between the reception of the children and the prohibition against causing the “little ones” who believe in Jesus to sin (Mark 9:38-41). Although this weakened the connection between the two parts of the teaching, one may still hold that this was the original form of it: children were both welcomed and not to be harmed spiritually. Although Matthew offered a spiritualized interpretation of the children, which is to be seen as secondary or out of place, he retained the correct order of the teaching, preserving the link between welcoming children and not causing them to stumble. Mark 9:41, however, preserved a saying of Jesus which originally was a part of the teaching regarding children: “whoever gives you (pl.) a cup of water in my name to drink, Amen, I say to you, this one will not lose his reward.” Yet Matt 10:42 seems to have the more original saying: “whoever gives to one of these little ones a cup of cold water to drink only because of the name of disciple, Amen, I say to you, this one will not lose his reward.” “Little ones”—literally, “children”—and not a generalized “you,” the disciples, are the ones whom Jesus addressed here. As a result, one may argue that Jesus’ original teaching concerned the reception of children into the group of Jesus’ followers in this manner:

A) If you welcome a child in my name, you welcome me (Mark 9:37; Matt 18:5; Luke 9:47);
B) Whoever causes one of these little ones to sin, it would be better to be thrown into the sea with a millstone (Mark 9:42; Matt 18:5; cf. Luke 17:2);
C) See that you do not despise one of these little ones, for their angels always behold the face of my Father (Matt 18:10);
D) Whoever gives a cup of water to one of these little ones, he will not lose his reward (Matt 10:42; cf. Mark 9:41).

The teaching has a parallelism which is based on a larger structure that can be identified as consisting of the components: “welcome the child”—“if you do not welcome [it], you will be punished” // “do not despise the child”—“if you do not despise [it], you will get a reward.” Jesus’ original teaching regarding the reception of children, as far as we can reconstruct it from the sources, concerned the concrete reception of children into the Christian community as children. They were welcome as they were and they were to be protected from all who would prey on them.

                This is not to say that Matthew’s claim that all who desire to enter the Kingdom should “become like children” or become “humble like this child” (Matt 18: 3-4) is an improper extension of Jesus’ teaching, or perhaps simply a teaching out of place, only that if it draws us away from Jesus’ initial statement that children as children are welcome as preeminent representatives of Jesus, the implication of children’s acceptance in the Church is weakened and even lost. There is something about children and their place in the kingdom which is simply not reducible to innocence, vulnerability, humility, lowliness, lack of prestige, simplicity, purity, nearness to God, openness to Christ, or any other attribute one may suggest. It is all of this and more, for their place in the Kingdom is in virtue of their being simply children of God.

John W. Martens
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[1] Richard A. Horsley, “The Gospel According to Mark,” in The New Oxford Annotated Bible: New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha, Third Edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), NT 56-92, here NT 75.
[2] Mary Lloyd Soards, “The Gospel According to Luke,” in The New Oxford Annotated Bible: New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha, Third Edition, NT 93-145, here NT 116.