In this regular column, Michael Vinson, a master’s graduate of the Divinity School of the University of Cambridge and a frequent devotional speaker at Sunstone symposiums, delves into personal and scholarly aspects of scripture.
At the same time came the disciples unto Jesus, saying, Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven? And Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them, and said, Verily, I say unto you, except ye be converted and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. —Matthew 18:1–3
When I read this verse, I must confess that the disciples’ question reminds me of active Latter-day Saints who aspire to worldly success, whether it is buying a larger home in a more prestigious neighborhood, career advancement and recognition, or a more visible or higher Church calling. I know most Mormons claim to have no ambition for Church callings, but I think many secretly view leadership callings as a visible manifestation of God’s pleasure with how they have conducted their lives. But is this practice of measuring the results of an active life in the Church what Jesus was actually preaching against?
In order to understand why Jesus taught about becoming as little children, and what the disciples might have thought of his admonition, it is helpful to look at the question in the context of the Roman world. Nothing was more important in the first-century Mediterranean culture than social rank and standing.
A man’s rank and social standing were immediately obvious to everyone through the boots or sandals he could afford, and the robe or toga he was dressed in. Many mornings, especially when they needed a favor, men of minor status would go to the homes of socially superior patrons, where they would wait in the foyer to be called in (the order of their turn determined by their social standing compared to the others who were waiting). In return for a man’s political support, his patron might lend him money or help him obtain a position for a relative. Likewise, the seating arrangements in dining halls and banquets followed a strict order, the most privileged positions at the table closest to the host.
Even first-century Jews had rank and social standing in their religious world. Although we do not have any contemporary records from the Pharisees or Sadducees, we do have some from the Qumran sect, who left the Dead Sea Scrolls (and lived in the same century Jesus did). This sect annually re-evaluated the standing of each member, re-determining their rank in the congregation, their speaking order at meetings, and their hierarchy of seating in the banquet hall.
In this socially stratified world, it is no wonder that Jesus’s disciples were confused about their standing. In contrast to everything they had observed in other social situations, Jesus seemed to treat strangers as old friends and didn’t give any visible sign of recognizing rank among the disciples or indicating any favorites among them. It’s no wonder they finally asked, in effect, how will we know who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven—another question likely lay beneath this one: Lord, please tell us how we are doing, and which of us pleases you the most.
How surprising to them, then, when Jesus seemed to ignore their question and called a child into their midst. A child was among the least of individuals in the Roman world; even among Jews, children had a very low status. A Roman father had ultimate power over a child’s life. At birth, the midwife would pass the child to the father—if he declined to take it in his arms, it would be placed in the public market for anyone to take (many of these children, if they survived, became slaves). While Jews did not practice this—indeed their devotion to their children was something of a wonder to Romans—their children did not have any status or rank. Jesus tells the disciples that except they be converted and become as little children, they will not even enter into the kingdom, much less have any rank there.
Let us think for a moment about what Jesus meant by this use of “convert.” He is obviously not telling the disciples that they need to convert in the sense of accepting the gospel—they have already done that. The Greek word used here for convert means, literally, turned. One early example of this usage is from Plato, who used this word after the parable of the cave, in which he called education a “turning” of the soul to the brightest good.
Before considering the implications of what Jesus meant by telling the disciples to “turn” as children, I would like to bring into the conversation what another philosopher said about the child as a phase in the human life. In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Friedrich Nietzsche introduces the metaphor of “The Three Metamorphoses.” He speaks through the character of Zarathustra, named after the ancient Persian prophet. Nietzsche’s prophet teaches that each individual will undergo three metamorphoses en route to discovering the meaning of his or her life. In the first part of life, the spirit desires embodiment and becomes a camel. As a camel, it is responsible for carrying loads and learning obedience. The comparison with our own lives seems obvious.
But at some point, the camel desires to be free, and when it realizes that desire, it becomes a lion. The lion has but one quest: to find a dragon on whose every scale are written the words: “Thou Shalt,” a metaphor for the social and religious obligations placed on us by others. The lion must kill this dragon.
As it slays the dragon, the lion is transformed into a child.
“But say, my brothers, what can the child do that even the lion cannot do? The child is innocence and forgetting, a new beginning, a game, a self-propelled wheel, a first movement, a sacred Yes-saying.”
Nietzsche explains that the sacred “Yes-saying” is needed because the spirit now can will its own will, which is a precursor to conquering his own world.
What does Zarathustra’s child have in common with the child called by Jesus? I like to think that Jesus and Nietzsche both were trying to teach that we must become child-like not by abdicating responsibilities, but by abandoning our concern about the social expectations of others. We should learn to live our life according to our own expectations, not to attain social status or rank, and especially not to impress others.
Jesus taught his disciples, with a child as an object lesson, that instead of worrying about which calling we will advance to in the Church, and being secretly gratified that we have been chosen (thus giving us some earthly evidence of our heavenly rank), we need to “turn” from caring about our heavenly status. We need to abandon all desires for rank and social advancement, especially within the Church. Until we learn to be the child who can give the sacred “Yes” to life without caring about social position in the eyes of others, we will not even have a life worth living, much less be capable of attaining Jesus’s kingdom in heaven.
Star Valley, Wyoming