Jesus said, “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
I recall my oldest brother looking at his two toddler sons struggle over something, saying, “Little kids have it rough: they’re short, they can’t talk, they don’t have any money and they can’t drive.” In a modern culture that prizes strength, listens only to the loudest voices, and views wealth and materialism as the ultimate goals, it was his view that small children were particularly disadvantaged. Those little boys are now adults with families of their own, but their father’s lighthearted comment still rings true in a day when ethicists and abortion advocates endlessly debate the imaginary point when helpless children attain “personhood” – and be given the “car keys” that will allow them the right to live.
Matthew records a time when the disciples argued over who would be the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus drew a child from the crowd and replied, “…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.” Matthew 18:3-5. This surely would have confused and frustrated them in the same way Jesus perplexed Nicodemus by telling him that “no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again." John 3:3
In the first-century Roman Empire, children were not considered full persons possessed of souls. They were the property of their father, and not even that until their father declared it so. If they remained unacknowledged after birth, their lot would be abandonment and death by exposure, or a life of slavery. The Hebrews appeared to place a greater value on their children, but more as family assets – sons to preserve the family name and property and daughters to make advantageous marriages to expand the family fortunes – rather than as persons in their own right.
First-century Roman, Greek and Hebrew cultures alike socially “cancelled” children. Their lives and identities were completely dependent on what their family, culture and social status declared them to be – otherwise, they were non-existent. They were without inherent value and were neither seen nor considered by those in social power. For the disciples to hear their rabbi tell them to adopt the humiliating status of children would be not only confusing, but also insulting.
But Jesus is not finished. He goes on to warn, “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea…See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.” Matthew 18:6, 10.
Bible commentators write that drowning by millstone was a capital punishment practiced by the Syrians, Romans, Macedonians, and the Greeks. It was reserved for the worst criminals, especially those guilty of sacrilege. It was particularly despised as a manner of death because there was no possibility of burial rites in preparation for the afterlife. Drowning by millstone meant not only physical death, but also removed any hope for eternal life. Drowning by millstone was the ultimate “cancellation.”
Jesus is warning that his Father views the abuse of innocent children as a sacrilege that neither escapes heaven’s notice, nor will remain unpunished – and that the punishment for the unrepentant will not only include cancellation of the hope of eternal life, but something unimaginably worse. At the same time, he is making it clear that heaven is not for the “great,” but instead is reserved for the humble and lowly. Far better for the powerful and ambitious to “cancel” themselves in this life, to identify as, and imitate the humility of children – the ones they considered soulless – in order to preserve the hope of retaining their own souls for heaven.
Pray for those who presume to judge the personhood of the unborn, that they might cease and repent of their advocacy of death for those whose lives are held sacred by Christ Jesus.
“But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.”