And he came to Capernaum: and being in the house he asked them, What was it that you disputed among yourselves by the way?…
I. Let us begin with THE MISTAKE SOMETIMES MADE, WHICH WILL CERTAINLY NEED CORRECTION. Our Lord does not teach by any implication that children are sinless little creatures.
1. For the argument and illustration of the discourse He gave are all against such a supposition. According to the authorized version, Christ says that they are "lost," that the Son of Man needed to come to "save" them, and without the will of the Father they would "perish" (Matthew 18:11-14).
2. The story offers no proof of any innocence even in the child He chose. Ecclesiastical tradition, not reliable, states that this boy became afterwards the martyr Ignatius, and was in the subsequent persecutions thrown to the wild beasts at Rome. That is the best which could be said of him, and we do not know even so much to be true. Surely, he was never offered as a model child, and we do not suppose he was born unlike others.
II. So now let us inquire WHAT IS THE TRUE SPIRITUAL DOCTRINE OF THE PASSAGE. It is evident that our Lord was rebuking His disciples for a foolish dispute they had had "by the way." And he did this by commending to them a child-like disposition.
1. A child is remarkable for his considerateness of ethers. It is the hardest thing we ever try to do to teach our children to be aristocratic and keep up "style." They are instinctive in their fondness for what is agreeably human. It was asked of the good Cecil's daughter what made everybody love her? She thought a moment with a curious sort of surprise, then answered with her own kind of logic, "Because I love everybody."
2. A child is remarkable for his obedience to rightful authority. His subjection is instinctive as his charity is. He accepts the parental will as law. So his fidelity is spontaneous; he does not recognize any merit in it. He does the exact thing he was set to do. When the young girl in the class heard the teacher say, "How is the will of God done in heaven?" she answered, "It is done without anybody's asking any questions."
3. A child is remarkable for his contentment in the home circle. There is only one mother in the world, and where that mother is, there is home. Disturb him, wound him, frighten him, maltreat him, and his earliest wish is, "Please let me go home."
4. A child is remarkable for his persistency of trust. Children are the most logical creatures in the world. A lady asked the small daughter of the missionary Judson, "Were you not afraid to journey so far over the ocean?" And the reply was, "Why, no, madam: father prayed for us when we started!" Do a boy a real kindness, and nothing on earth can keep him from insisting to all the others that you are a kind man. Help him once, and he will keep coming with a pathetic sort of confidence that you like to help him. For one, having stumbled around a good deal in this muddle of a world, in which nobody seems to stick to anything, I am ready to say I know nothing more beautiful than the sweet forgiveness, and renewal of confidence, which a child shows when, having met a rebuff once and been turned away, it sits wondering and waiting, as if sure you would come round by and by and be good again.
III. Thus, now, having studied the real meaning of this incident, let us try to find out ITS PRACTICAL BEARING.
1. In the first place, consider how it would modify our estimates of human greatness. Here is the point at which our Lord meant His instruction should be felt earliest. These disciples had been contending about preeminence. Perhaps Peter began the jealous dispute, reminding them that he kept the house where Jesus was entertained. Perhaps John asked him to remember the place Jesus usually gave him at the table. Perhaps Andrew suggested that Simon might as well bear in mind that he had led him to Jesus down in Bethabara. Perhaps Matthew hushed them imperiously, declaring that none of them were business men as he had been. And perhaps James insisted that age and experience had some rights in the reckoning of precedence. Thus they worked themselves up into a passion. All this petulance was met by the spectacle of a tranquil little boy, who possibly wondered how he came to be put into show: and while they were looking curiously at him, Jesus said, calmly: "Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven."
2. Next, let us consider bow this teaching would modify our aims for attainment. We need more of this child spirit in our hearts. Does anyone ask how it may be attained? In the old fable which the Hebrews used to teach their children about the fallen angels, they said that the angels of knowledge, proud and wilful, were cast down hopelessly into hell; but the angels of love, humble and tearful, crept back once more into the blessed light, and were welcomed home.
3. Again, let us consider how these words of Christ would modify our intellectual processes of study. Yes: but the Bible says do this thing like a child. Study with your faith rather than your intellect. A man needs conversion, not conviction. Our Lord here reverses human terms of counsel. We say to a child, "Be a man," but Jesus says to a man, "Be a child." That is the way to enter the kingdom.
4. Once more: let us consider how this doctrine will modify our formulas of belief. There is something for the great divines to learn also. Do we never force our theories beyond the confines of the gospel? A child's theology is frequently wiser for real human need than a man's. It often comes to pass that when a mature intellect has been worrying itself into most discouraging confusion, it is startled by the keen penetration and almost oracular deliverance of an infant trust. Ask one of our young girls, "What is God?" Perhaps she will give answer, "God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in His being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth." And perhaps she will reply, "God is my father in heaven." For all availableness to deep experience of need, some of us think that, little as this seems to say, really it says more than the other does. Faith cannot climb up on the north side of a doctrine in the shade. She took her notion out of the prayer, and not out of the catechism; that is all. These great formulas ought to be explained in the very warmth and light of the figures and relationships of the gospel.
5. Let us consider likewise how Christ's teaching would modify our advice to inquirers. Some of those who claim to be honest seekers after truth completely invert the order of relation between belief and duty. Much of the difficulty they profess to find in the gospel is irrelevant in the matter of obligation, and entirely illogical in the matter of faith. Any sensible child is aware that its father's relationship by marriage, social standing in the community, form of daily occupation, political influence in the party, or citizenship by naturalization, has nothing to do with the question of its own obedience to his just commands. To reckon how much money he owes or owns, does not come before minding what he says. But inquirers will often insist on having the Trinity made clear, before they will take up repentance. They say they are stumbled about praying, because they cannot understand the Incarnation. Now the child spirit knows that taking the yoke comes even before learning of Christ (see Matthew 11:29). Jesus says, Do My will (John 7:17).
6. Finally, let us consider how this teaching will modify our tests of experience in grace. It is only a strange perversity which makes us seem to prefer the more subtle evidences of a change of heart. Here a plain test is proposed. The last result, the positively completed picture, of regeneration, is found in a child's temper and disposition. Anyone ought to know whether he possesses that or not. He can find out. His life will answer his questions, when possibly he cannot exactly find out about so mysterious a thing as his heart. Nobody is going to be excluded from heaven because he cannot find out his election or his regeneration, if he is holy, and truly believes in Christ, "as this little child."
(C. S. Robinson, D. D.)
Parallel VersesKJV: And he came to Capernaum: and being in the house he asked them, What was it that ye disputed among yourselves by the way?