The Least of These

Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, (Matthew 18:5)

The biggest question about this verse seems to be: Who is Jesus talking about here? The phrase “one such child” could be referring to the child that Jesus had brought into their midst (18:2), but it also could be referring to the members of the kingdom, who have humbled themselves like a child (18:3). For the most part I’ve always heard people take the former interpretation, with 18:5-6 being applied to actual children. This week, however, I’ve started to see more validity in the latter interpretation, that Jesus is speaking of disciples rather than kids. Either way, I think there are similar applications regardless of how we interpret what Jesus meant by “one such child.”

1. The word “receives” is a term of hospitality. It carries the connotation of receiving or accepting someone into one’s household. It isn’t accepting someone in the contemporary sense of just tolerating or putting up with him, but actually caring and providing for someone.

2. How we “receive” others is indicative of how we receive Christ. There is a similar passage earlier in Matthew’s gospel (when Jesus sends out his disciples) that almost seems appropriate to read immediately following 18:5:

“Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. The one who receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and the one who receives a righteous person because he is a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. And whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward.” (Matthew 10:40-42)

The fact that the disciples are referred to as “little ones” in 10:42 seems to support interpreting 18:5-6 as being in reference to disciples since “little ones” is also used in 18:6. More importantly, however, both passages point to a significant cultural standard in the ancient Middle East: “The emissary of a man is as the man himself” (The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament). We are to receive [accept, care for, extend hospitality toward] fellow Christians, who are ambassadors of Christ (2 Cor. 5:20), as we would Christ himself.

And if we take 18:5-6 as referring to literal children, it is not a stretch to extend this principle to them as representatives of the weak and vulnerable of society. It is clear, that Jesus cares for the vulnerable and the young, even to the point of seeing how we care for them as a picture of how we care for him:

And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’ (Matthew 25:40)

but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 19:14)

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world. (James 1:27)

The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament puts it this way:

In the man who suffers distress and needs assistance Christ comes to His own, and what they do for such a man in His name they do for Him. The significance of the illustration of the child derives from the setting of the [passage]. “The disciple demonstrates his renunciation of power and greatness when he does not value only the work which enjoys great success. Even the reception of a single child establishes fellowship between Christ and the disciples.”

3. When we receive fellow Christians or the weak and vulnerable, we are doing the work of Christ. Jesus didn’t just say “Whoever receives one such child receives me,” he said, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me.” This is a crucial point. There are many who care for children and other vulnerable members of society. There are many who fight for religious liberty and the right of Christians to worship and proselytize in peace. But it is not enough just to care for people. “Social justice” is not an end in itself. We are to care for people in Jesus’ name. The goal is not just to help someone, or feel good about ourselves, or improve society. The goal is to connect people to Jesus. We are to receive people as we would receive Jesus, but we are also to receive people as Jesus would receive them, and Jesus was never content to only deal with physical needs.

Things to Reflect on in Light of This Passage:

1. Am I hospitable, especially to fellow ambassadors to Christ? Do I receive others as I would Christ? Do I receive others in Christ’s name?

2. Do I care for children and other vulnerable members of society? Is their protection important to me?

3. Why do I help others? Out of guilt, because I feel bad that I have while others do not? Out of social obligation, because I want to improve society or the nation? Out of pride, because it makes me feel good, especially since others don’t help? Or because I see Jesus in others and want them to know him?

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