Becoming Like Children
In Matthew 18:1, Jesus’ disciples confronted Him with the question, "Who then is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" Jesus responded with the illustration of a child. "He called a child to Himself and set him before them, and said, ‘Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven" (18:2-4).
True to his goal of fulfilling the law and the prophets (Matt 5:17), Jesus' teaching about the humility of children is based on an OT idea:
"O LORD, my heart is not proud, nor my eyes haughty
Nor do I involve myself in great matters, Or in things too difficult for me.
Surely I have composed and quieted my soul;
Like a weaned child rests against his mother,
My soul is like a weaned child within me.
O Israel, hope in the LORD
From this time forth and forever." (Psalm 131)
This short little Psalm twice uses the image of a "weaned child" as the standard for one who is not proud in heart or haughty in eyes. The chief characteristic this Psalm is interested in is humility. And the chief characteristic of children that Jesus is interested in is likewise humility. Children
Psalm 131 is part of a larger collection of Psalms called the "Songs of Ascents" (Psalms 120-134). Many believe that these were songs that the people of Israel sung as they were ascending the mountain of Zion to worship the Lord. These Psalms reflect on different aspects of the attitude that God's people ought to have before approaching Him in His temple to worship. Psalm 131, in particular, emphasizes the importance of humility that a person must have before entering God’s house to honor Him. Psalm 132 (which follows), connects entry into the sanctuary of God with the kingship of David. It is no coincidence that just as a reflection on childlike humility precedes a description of the kingdom in the Psalms, so also childlike humility is prerequisite for entry into the kingdom in the gospels.
Did Jesus have Psalm 131 specifically in mind when he said this? Maybe. Maybe not. But the fact that Jesus (the incarnate word of God) taught something that can be found in the Scriptures of old should not surprise us. Unless a person humbles themselves like the child described in Psalm 131, he will not even enter the kingdom of heaven, much less the house of God!
But what does it mean to be humbled like a child? Being like a child means that our "heart" is not proud. We don't have an over-inflated estimation of our self worth. Being like a child means that our eyes are not "haughty." We do not look down on other people or judge others to be "inferior" to us, nor do we allow ourselves to be wise in our own eyes (cf. Rom 12:16; Isa 5:21). It means we do not involve ourselves in things that are too "great" or "too difficult."
What does it mean to keep ourselves out of things that are "too great"? This was the error of the disciples in Matthew 18:1. The disciples were concerned with the "great" and "difficult" matter of "who is the greatest?" But Jesus exposes the fact that this argument is borne out of pride. It is no different today! Which of us has not seen a group of people engaged in a heated argument about a controversial topic, and each one involved rushing to make sure that his or her opinion is heard? Which of us has not seen the clamoring of a succession of know-it-alls who want to "set everyone straight"? How often do they really succeed in doing this? Children know better than to get involved in these discussions. For all their inexperience, they can at least recognize when the matter is "too great," and know to admit their ignorance.
I personally can recall many times when I have gotten involved in arguments and matters "too great" or "too difficult" for me. I pray that I am learning not to involve myself in such things, so that my heart may learn not to be exalted. Since all of us were children at one point, you would think it would be far easier to revert to the humility of that past mindset! But it turns out that the task of reclaiming the lost humility from they days of childhood is a great challenge—like being born all over again! It is a lifelong struggle, and only worked towards with careful prayer and devotion.
May God help us to be humble children in his sight, matching the wisdom of age with the humility of youth.