IF A PERSON ISN’T CAREFUL, it is fairly easy to distort an analogy. The reason is obvious. When one thing is an analogy of another, inevitably there are points where the two things are parallel, and other points where they are quite different. If they were parallel at every point, then their relationship would not be an analogical: the two would instead be identical. What makes an analogical relationship so fruitful and insightful lies precisely in the fact that the two things are not identical. But that is also what sometimes makes them a little tricky to understand.
This point is critical to the understanding of the analogy Jesus draws in Matthew 18:1-6. When his disciples begin to argue over who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, Jesus calls a little child and insists that unless they “change and become like little children” they will “never enter the kingdom of heaven” (18:3). Indeed, “whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (18:4). To welcome a little child in Jesus’ name is to welcome Jesus (18:5); to cause one of these little ones who believe in Jesus to sin is to commit so grievous an offense it would be better never to have been born (18:6).
It is important to notice what the analogy does not establish. There is no suggestion that children are innocent or sinless, no hint that their faith is intrinsically pure, no sentimental illusion that children have a better understanding of God than do adults. The primary point of the analogy is established by the context of the disciples’ argument. While they fret over who is greatest in the kingdom, Jesus is at pains to draw attention to members of society whom no one would think great. Children are such dependent creatures. They are not strong, wise, or sophisticated. They are relatively transparent. Proud adults, then, must humble themselves so that they may approach God as do little children: simply, in unselfconscious dependence, without any hope of being the greatest in the kingdom.
Moreover, if such children trust Jesus — doubtless without much sophistication, but with a transparent simplicity — those who corrupt them and lead them astray are pathetically and profoundly evil.
Here, then, is an image of greatness in the kingdom that shatters our pretensions, abases our pride, shames our selfish aspirations. If we must not draw the wrong conclusions from this analogy, there are plenty of correct ones to think through and put into practice.
Those who aspire to ecclesiastical heights and great reputations need to reflect at length on these words: “Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”