Albeit wildly out of sequence with the New Testament passages considered thus far, the following thoughts are the result of an academic study of two verses in the Gospel of Matthew. I offer them here for whatever value you may find in them.
A few textual critical concerns in Mt 18 require some attention before turning to the short parable in verses 12–13. The first of these occurs with verse 11, in that the earliest extant versions of the text do not contain this phrase, “For the Son of Man came (to seek and) to save the lost.” This seems to have been added as connective and clarifying material, but as such it potentially changes the original scope of the passage. In omitting this verse, a more specific reading is preserved. Although for some this may reduce the usefulness of the passage, imaginative interpreters are seldom daunted by such limitations. Thus, verse 11 has been omitted.
The next challenge appears in Mt 18:14, in which the pronoun preceding “father in heaven” is in question. No matter what pronoun one chooses here, however, it is clear that the author of Matthew is having the character of Jesus refer to God. It is best not to make too much of the pronoun discrepancy when the intent of the phrase is so blatantly clear. Similarly, whether one follows a longer or shorter text by one word (“truly”) in Mt 18:19 is inconsequential. One must assume that a devotee of the Jesus ideal would portray the words of Jesus as true, thus an additional “truly” inserted into the text cannot make the words that follow more true. Inclusion of the word is probably not reflective of a desire for clarity, but rather a preference for a particular stylistic affectation.
In Mt 18:15, however, the phrase “against you” was possibly added by a scribe for clarification, or was perhaps omitted from the original text to make the passage more universal.
In this instance, personal relationships are better served by letting the phrase stand as a more specific qualifier as to when one should confront a fellow human being. The human propensity to count as wrong or sinful any behavior with which one disagrees opens this passage up to abuse. Thus, a reader’s voracious appetite for correcting any perceived misdeeds by others may be tempered by a more limiting reading. Thus, since the longer reading is plausibly authentic, this discussion assumes the verse to read, “If a fellow disciple sins against you.”
In the passage leading up to Mt 18:12, the disciples have approached Jesus to inquire about status in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus responds by referring to a child, stating that the disciples would never enter the kingdom of heaven unless they change and become as children. Those who assume the societal status of a child will be greatest in the kingdom, and those who are welcoming to children are, in effect, welcoming Jesus. Then, the character of Jesus proclaims that, although the world is full of temptations, a person who causes temptation—particularly toward children—would be better off dead. In essence, the author suggests that suicide is preferable to the “eternal fire” that awaits an individual who leads a child astray.
This passage qualifies “little ones” as “those who believe in [Jesus]” (Mt 18:6), and this opens up room for interpretation. One might conclude that the little ones to which the character of Jesus refers are actual children who also happen to believe in him. One might justifiably conclude, however, that the little ones in this passage are now the followers of Jesus who have become like little children, suggesting that Jesus is here proclaiming woe upon any person who tempts one of his faithful followers away from faith. It is impossible to tell with certainty whether the child imagery is at this point a metaphor for the attitude of those who understand Jesus’ message or whether a child is just a child. From Mt 18:10, which immediately precedes the parable under scrutiny, one might extrapolate that the author is referring to those who are new to the Jesus cult. “Do not despise those who have less experience than you at this disciple business.” If an earlier version of a text were to be discovered which left out the qualifying “those who believe in me” in Mt 18:6, these questions would be moot, as the more specific reading of children as actual children would be much more clear.
While the interpretation of “little ones” is subject to debate, the flow of discussion within the context of the passage as a whole leads from this idea of children (and those who are like children) being greatest in the kingdom to the idea of conflict resolution and agreement among members of the faith community. The child imagery disappears following Mt 18:14, and the passage heads in a new direction about how to address conflict between believers healthily, followed by a dubious promise about wish fulfillment in harmonious pairings of people.
Since verse 14 concludes the two-verse “lost sheep” parable with the explanation that God is unwilling for any children (or however one wishes to interpret “little ones”) to be spiritually lost, it seems clear that the passage which follows builds on that with a contrast to how one might deal with a more mature believer who has gone astray. Essentially, one should speak with the person directly, then take another person along to speak with the person, and finally bring the matter publicly before the collective. At any point along this trajectory, responsible adult believers can recognize how their actions have been out of alignment with their beliefs, and they can then make a course correction and remain within the community. Once the matter has been publicly addressed, however, if the adult believer is unwilling to acknowledge wrongdoing, it is perfectly acceptable to cast them out of the faith community. This is in contrast to how one should treat the “little ones” of the passage prior to this instruction, toward whom the community of believers should be protective.
Thus, the larger passage flows as follows: The disciples ask about status in the kingdom. Jesus uses a child to point out that their priorities are skewed, indicating that only people who are child-like in status will even be admitted into the kingdom. From this statement, Jesus pronounces judgment on any person who would teach a child to behave wrongfully and asserts that children deserve special attention from the community of faith, presumably so that they will grow into adults who can be meaningful, responsible participants in the faith community. Adults, by contrast, are capable of handling things differently. Adult members of the faith community should be more able to recognize and address their wrongdoing, and it is detrimental to the community to be overindulgent toward misbehavior of adult participants. Conflict among the adults in the faith community should be resolved directly and methodically, with real consequences for those who would assert their own selfish behavior over the good of the community. With this context in mind, it is therefore quite likely that the “little ones” and the “lost sheep” of Mt 18:6–14 refer specifically to children.
Although it is beyond the scope of the lost sheep parable in Mt 18:12–13, much has been considered in the larger Christian community about what it may mean to “become like little children” (Mt 18:3). Certainly, there are those who would assert the value of a certain ignorance of the way the world works, claiming that mature scientific knowledge of reality is a hindrance to faith. Some might suggest that children have an innocence that jaded adults lack, although this opens up the larger controversial subject of original sin. Perhaps the author of Matthew is simply referring to the status of children in society, suggesting a connection only to the status of disciples in the larger context of the kingdom of heaven. While it would be futile to attempt to resolve the larger debate on the subject, it is worth considering that the author of Matthew is suggesting that children are less concerned about status and more adept at living in the moment without regard to future consequences. As will become apparent, the parable in Mt 18:12–13 suggests that children require adults to keep them from going too far afield with this freedom, but if adults were somehow able to pair mature personal responsibility with carefree idealism, what an incredible force to behold that would be! Truly, if one lacks the ability to live by what some may consider to be an unrealistic set of ideals, one cannot hope to follow the teachings of Jesus as they are presented in the gospels.
With regard to the intended audience for Mt 18:12–13, the parable falls within a passage in which the author of Matthew portrays Jesus addressing his disciples. It is probable that the author of Matthew is actually addressing the participants of the early church, recommending how the early church should address various issues through the presumed words of Jesus. There is wisdom in what is expressed for any community, and as every person is a member of some community, the passage has the potential to speak to how any human being might relate to children and manage conflict, whether one is a disciple of Jesus or not.
The actual parable is in Mt 18:12–13. In this short passage, the character of Jesus suggests that the owner of a flock of sheep would leave 99% of his flock in order to look for one sheep that wandered away. Recovering that one sheep will be a source of joy surpassing that of retaining the majority of the sheep, which stayed in a place of safety and were not the cause of any undue stress. There is truth here regarding sheep and human behavior. Sheep are often oblivious to their surroundings, and it is within the nature of a sheep to wander away, not out of any willful disobedience, but out of sheer ignorance. Likewise, when a person recovers a possession once imagined to be lost, that possession becomes more prized than other possessions that were safely kept out of harm’s way, regardless of the actual value of the possessions in question.
As previously stated, the parable equates children with sheep, prone to be oblivious to much of the world around them and ignorant of the consequences of their actions. While the conclusion of the parable mentions God, the thrust of the story is not that God will take care of children. Rather, the parable serves as a motivation for the disciples to pay attention to the children in their midst, to guide them—and rescue them if necessary—rather than despise them or look upon them with disinterest. In fact, the author of Matthew asserts that when the angels look at children, they see the face of God. Thus, the disciples would do well to look for the face of God when they look upon the children in their midst.
Even for twenty-first century adults, this admonition has profound ramifications. Children are children; children are not adults. One should not expect of children what one expects of adults. Children understand things differently than adults, they respond to the world differently from adults, and they are not aware of the ramifications of their actions to the same extent that one might expect adults to be. Thus, adults should allow children to be children, understanding that they warrant a bit more guidance and patience than adults do. If adults desire for children to grow up to be responsible members of a greater collective, it is the duty of adults to teach children how to do that. This happens through direct (patient, age-appropriate) teaching, but children also learn through modeling. If a child sees adults living responsibly, then the child learns to mimic that example. Sometimes healthy models are not evident in a child’s nuclear family. Thus, the potentially overused and trite African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child,” is an appropriate message to take away from this parable.
Human beings are in a very real way connected to one another. What happens to the children in a community affects everyone in the community—regardless of actual familiar relationships. It is therefore imperative to the health of a society that the adults of a community notice, respect, spend time with, care for, and instruct the children in their midst. To neglect the well-being of children is to treat them as non-persons. Put another way, extrapolated from Mt 18:10, to fail to see children as important is to fail to see God as important. Asserting the inherent worth and dignity of all human beings is impossible if one does not assert the inherent worth and dignity of children. Ignoring the development of meaningful relationships with and responsible behavior toward children is shortsighted and ultimately self-destructive. The children of today are, after all, the foundation of tomorrow’s society.
If one considers these conclusions credible, then one might take action in several ways. First, one might develop more responsible, mature, self-differentiated adult relationships, so that children who bear witness to these relationships have a healthy model from which to learn. Second, one might adopt a discipline of acknowledging children with respect rather than ignoring them, inviting meaningful interaction that validates a child’s own personality, opinions, and interests while still allowing for instruction and encouraging growth. Third, one might take more seriously the injustices toward children evident in one’s neighborhood, city, nation, and world. One person cannot overcome all of the challenges that children face, and yet one person can take a stand that children matter.
While many individuals become intensely engaged in the issue of reproductive rights, there are actual children living out of the womb and in the twenty-first century world who experience all manner of suffering, some of which is inflicted upon them by the adults in their midst. To be blunt, children are largely helpless against poverty, disease, lack of food or potable water, educational inequities, and humanity’s seemingly insatiable lust for violence, not to mention the greed that drives some predatory adults to force children into serving as laborers, soldiers, drug mules, or sex workers. One person cannot solve all of the world’s problems; the shepherd in Mt 18:12–13 does not go on a crusade to recover every lost sheep, after all. Yet every small action and every statement of conviction against the mistreatment and devaluation of children can contribute to a greater shift of cultural awareness and response. Transformative action can be as simple as being more responsive to the children in one’s own immediate sphere of contact. The divine may even be visible in youthful faces, if one can abandon concerns of status and lifestyle and blend the responsibility of an adult participant in the world with the bold idealism of a child.