Despising one of these little ones… we should examine our thoughts to see if we can grasp what Jesus is talking about. Obviously we shouldn’t be despising anyone, but Jesus wants us to pay particular attention to the “little ones.” In the first half of today’s gospel we could understand the little ones as referring to children and littleness as a reference to their innocence or inexperience in the ways of sin. In the second part of today’s gospel we are given the parable of straying sheep – a clearer reference to the sinner. So on the one hand littleness refers to childlike simplicity, and on the other hand it refers to the helplessness of a sinner who has wandered far from safety.
In both of these cases, the existential truth of the little one is more obvious to the beholder than to the little one themself. The condition of the child and the condition of the lost sheep are similar – it is humbling if not humiliating to be treated like a child or like a sinner. How does someone recognize a “little one” without considering themselves somehow “greater?” “Whoever is great among you will be the servant of all.” Not despising the little ones – who are little either by innocence or by sin and separation – must mean that we serve the little ones. Serving the innocent by protecting and preserving their innocence – serving the sinner by mercifully bringing them back into the fold. One look at the mass media will show you how much our society despises innocence. One look inside your heart will show you how easy it is to give up on the sinner.
“Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” Just as this child whose example I show you does not persist in anger, does not long remember injury suffered, is not enamored inordinately by the sight of a beautiful woman, does not think one thing and say another, so you too, unless you have similar innocence and purity of mind, will not be able to enter the kingdom of heaven. Or it might be taken in another way: “Whosoever therefore humiliates himself like this child is greater in the kingdom of heaven,” so as to imply that anyone who imitates me and humiliates himself following my example, so that he abases himself as much as I abased myself in accepting the form of a servant, will enter the kingdom of heaven.1
EPIPHANIUS THE LATIN:
For a child does not know how to hold resentment or to grow angry. He does not know how to repay evil for evil. He does not think base thoughts. He does not commit adultery or arson or murder. He is utterly ignorant of theft or brawling or all the things that will draw him to sin. He does not know how to disparage, how to blaspheme, how to hurt, how to lie. He believes what he hears. What he is ordered he does not analyze. He loves his parents with full affection. Therefore what children are in their simplicity, let us become through a holy way of life, as children innocent of sin. And quite rightly, one who has become a child innocent of sin in this way is greater in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever receives such a person will receive Christ.2
But with our souls, our own agency that is our actions and our character causes one to be large or small or belonging to those in the middle. And it is in our power whether we grow in stature and receive an increase in size or do not grow and remain small. For we must believe that to attain to manhood and mature manhood at that depends on the person within: passing out of the times of childhood and advancing to manhood and putting aside the stuff of childhood and perfecting the stage of manhood. Just so we must suppose that there is still some measure of spiritual growth to which the most perfect soul can advance in glorifying the Lord and so become great.3
- COMMENTARY ON MATTHEW 3.18.4. Simonetti, M. (Ed.). (2002). Matthew 14-28 (p. 68). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- INTERPRETATION OF THE GOSPELS 27. Simonetti, M. (Ed.). (2002). Matthew 14-28 (pp. 68–69). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- COMMENTARY ON MATTHEW 13.26. Simonetti, M. (Ed.). (2002). Matthew 14-28 (p. 73). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.