"And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said 'Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." - Matthew 18:2-3
It is often said that as followers of Jesus we must have a "child-like faith". Sometimes this is taken to mean that we should have a child-like trust in God; just as a child must depend on their parents to provide for them, so we should depend upon God to provide for us. Other times "child-like faith" is interpreted as a kind of innocence. Still others might say this means our faith should be simple and not too complicated.
While there might be a number of ways we can compare our faith to the life of a child and some of those comparisons might even be instructive for our spiritual health, there is one aspect of children to which Jesus is drawing attention here; their lack of status.
Even in our own 21st century American culture, children are more or less powerless. They can not vote or hold political office. They usually do not have the means to acquire wealth or wield influence. And yet, they are at least recognized as people with certain rights. As a result, there are numerous laws to protect children from harm or abuse by those more powerful than them. By contrast, children in the first century Greco-Roman world had no such laws to protect them. They were essentially the property of their parents, equivalent to or of barely higher status than slaves, who could treat them however they pleased without any legal repercussions. It was not an uncommon practice for female babies to simply be abandoned to die because they were not seen as bringing any value to the family. In the ancient world, children had no rights, no power, no status.
It is in response to the disciples' question "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" that Jesus places a child in front of them and says that they must become like children. Then to make the point even more plain, in v.4 Jesus says "Whoever humbles himself like this child is greatest in the kingdom of heaven." Matthew doesn't tell us this story to show us that Jesus was good with kids or to call us to a simple, trusting, innocent faith. This is a point about Jesus' kingdom and those who participate in it. This is an upside down kingdom where the first are last, the least are greatest, and the crucified is king. When Jesus' calls us to child-like faith it is a call to humility, to emptying ourselves, to being a people of no status.
And Christian humility means much more than simply being modest (and certainly something other than having a low self-esteem). It means actively receiving, caring for, serving these "little ones". Jesus says in v. 5-6 "Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea." Obviously, "these little ones" refers to the children to which Jesus has just been referring. However, many scholars believe this might be a reference to "little ones" within the congregations to whom Matthew's gospel is addressed. In other words, Matthew is calling upon those in his churches to humble themselves to the point of caring not only for children but to humble themselves by caring for anyone who has been marginalized, anyone who is of low status like a child. Jesus says whoever receives these marginalized outcasts is receiving Jesus himself and whoever does not receive them would be better off being dragged to the bottom of the sea by a large stone! I think it is safe to say that Jesus means for us to take this admonition seriously.