CONTEXT: Lk. 17:20-37, Jesus taught the disciples about the coming of the kingdom. Now, in four vignettes-two parables (18:1-8 and 18:9-14) and two stories (18:15-17 and 18:18-30)-Jesus begins to show the disciples what kingdom life is like. Both parables have to do with prayer. The Parable of the Widow and the Unjust Judge (18:1-8) teaches us to pray persistently, and the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (18:9-14) teaches us to pray humbly. The first story-the blessing of the children (18:15-17)-reprises the humility lesson of the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (18:9-14). Both emphasize the Great Reversal of which Jesus has spoken (13:30). The disenfranchised-the tax collector and the children-receive a blessing. When the disciples try to prevent children from bothering Jesus, he not only demands to see the children, but declares that, "whoever doesn't receive the kingdom of God like a little child will in no way enter into it" (18:17). In the second story-the rich ruler (18:18-30)-Jesus calls the rich man to humble himself by giving his riches (the source of his power, prestige, and pride) to the poor. He must humble himself to be eligible to follow Jesus (18:22).
LUKE 18:9. SOME WERE CONVINCED OF THEIR OWN RIGHTEOUSNESS
9 Now He also told this parable to some people who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and viewed others with contempt:
"He spoke also this parable to certain people" (v. 9a). The word "also" ties this parable to the earlier one (18:1-8). Luke opens this parable with an introduction (v. 9) and Jesus closes it with a conclusion (v. 14). In the introduction (v. 9), Luke does not specifically mention Pharisees, but speaks of people who are self-righteous and contemptuous.
"who were convinced of their own righteousness, and who despised all others" (v. 9b). Not all Pharisees are self-righteous and contemptuous, and not all disciples are humble servants. James and John, for instance, try to guarantee themselves top billing in the kingdom (Matthew 20:20-28; Mark 10:35-45). It is all too tempting for disciples, having achieved "insider" status with this up-and-coming young prophet, to fall into the sin of pride.
We clergy are further tempted to pride as we are promoted to ever-larger churches and ever more important offices-as we see ourselves on television or rub elbows with wealthy or influential parishioners. We are tempted to be contemptuous of members of our congregation who refuse to share our vision-or who do foolish things that bring them grief.
LUKE 18:10-12. I THANK YOU THAT I AM NOT LIKE THIS TAX COLLECTOR
10 "Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood and began praying this in regard to himself: 'God, I thank You that I am not like other people: swindlers, crooked, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I pay tithes of all that I get.'
"Two men went up into the temple to pray" (v. 10a). People must literally go up to the temple to pray. Jerusalem is built on a mountain, and the temple is on a high point in the city. Traditional times for public prayer are 9:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. (Acts 2:15; 3:1), but a person can engage in private prayers at any time of the day. We tend to think of these two men as engaged in private prayer, but Kenneth Bailey makes a case for the context being public worship (Kenneth Bailey, 145 ff.):
"one was a Pharisee and the other a tax collector" (v. 10b). Jesus frequently criticizes Pharisees (11:39, 42; 12:1; 16:15, 18), so we tend to think of the Pharisee as the bad guy and the tax collector as the good guy. However, such characterizations rob the parable of its power. Pharisees genuinely try to uphold the Torah in a world where Roman power and Samaritan neighbors tempt people to compromise. Pharisees genuinely try to please God. Tax collectors, on the other hand, collaborate with Romans and steal from Jews.
"The Pharisee stood and prayed to himself (pros heauton) like this" (v. 11a). The Pharisee stands alone, distancing himself from his inferiors. His purpose in standing by himself might be to call attention to his elite status-or it might be to keep himself separate from those, including this tax collector, who might defile him by their unclean touch (Kenneth Bailey, 148).
Does pros heauton (to himself) modify statheis (having stood) or tauta proseucheto (these things was praying)? In other words, is the Pharisee "standing by himself" or "praying to himself"? Scholars are divided on that point, but a good case can be made for the latter, particularly in view of the content of his prayer-narcissistic and self-congratulatory. There is, in this Pharisee's prayer, no adoration, confession or supplication-only thanksgiving. His thanksgiving, moreover, is self-centered and, therefore, not pleasing to God. It would seem that the Pharisee is both standing by himself and praying to himself.
"God, I thank you, that I am not like the rest of men, extortioners, unrighteous, adulterers, or even like this tax collector" (v. 11b). The Pharisee errs by his thoughts of other people while praying to God.
However, the Pharisee's focus is on neither God nor the tax collector, but is rather on self. He uses the first-person pronoun four times in rapid succession-"I..., I..., I..., I...." In assessing his own character, he compares himself only to the worst elements of his society, and pronounces himself excellent by comparison. When picking a standard by which to measure ourselves, we need to look higher. The only faithful standard is Jesus. If we compare ourselves to Jesus, our sin will be obvious and we will not be tempted to the kind of pride that taints this Pharisee.
"I fast twice a week. I give tithes of all that I get" (v. 12). The Pharisee clearly exceeds Torah requirements:
LUKE 18:13. GOD, BE MERCIFUL TO ME, A SINNER
13 But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to raise his eyes toward heaven, but was beating his chest, saying, 'God, be merciful to me, the sinner!'
"But the tax collector, standing far away, wouldn't even lift up his eyes to heaven" (v. 13a). The tax collector, like the Pharisee, stands by himself, but his reason is different. The Pharisee feels too good to associate with common people, but the tax collector feels too bad.
"but beat his breast" (v. 13b). Beating one's breast is a gesture used by Mideastern men seldom and only to express the most extreme anguish. We find examples only here and at the cross (23:48) (Kenneth Bailey, 153).
"God, be merciful (hilastheti) to me, a sinner!" (v. 13c). The tax collector's prayer is simple and direct. He cannot claim any virtue, and can hope only for mercy. His prayer has much in keeping with the great penitential psalm: "Have mercy on me, God, according to your loving kindness. According to the multitude of your tender mercies, blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity. Cleanse me from my sin" (Psalm 51:1-2).
LUKE 18:14. HE WHO HUMBLES HIMSELF WILL BE EXALTED
14 I tell you, this man went to his house justified rather than the other one; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted."
"I tell you, this man went down to his house justified (dedikaiomenos) rather than the other" (v. 14a). Interestingly enough, Jesus does not tell us that the tax collector offers to refund ill-gotten money, as Zacchaeus will do (19:8). He does not say that the tax collector will change his ways and become respectable.
"for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted" (v. 14b).
We thus have a righteous man (the Pharisee) going down to his house as unjustified/ unrighteous and an unrighteous man (the tax collector) going down to his house as justified/righteous. The point is obvious. Justification/righteousness is not something that we can accomplish on our own. We can only receive it as a gift from God.
Luke 18:15-17 Commentary - Little Children Come to Jesus
5 Now they were bringing even their babies to Him so that He would touch them; but when the disciples saw it, they began rebuking them. 16 But Jesus called for the little ones, saying, "Allow the children to come to Me, and do not forbid them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. 17 Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it at all."
What is it about the children coming to Jesus that touches us deeply? Perhaps because we have heard countless times as a child about little children coming to him. Perhaps it is part of our sense of security when we feel like little children before him. But now that we are adults, we need to see this passage from an adult standpoint. What does Jesus mean to teach his disciples from this incident?
In Luke, at least, the incident of little children coming to Jesus is squarely in the context of humility.761 The immediately preceding passage is the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, which Jesus concludes with the words: "For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted" (18:14b). Here's what follows:
Bringing Babies to the Master (Luke 18:15a)
"People were also bringing babies to Jesus to have him touch them." (18:15a)
Presumably, parents wanted Jesus to touch the babies in an act of blessing. The word translated "touch" is Greek haptō, "to make close contact, 'touch,' frequently of touching as a means of conveying a blessing," though in our passage the word may also convey the idea of "to hold."762 A number of times Jesus touches to bless and to heal.763 In Matthew's account we read, "Then little children were brought to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them" (Matthew 19:13a).
As a pastor I have had the privilege of taking many little children in my arms at infant dedications, placing my hands on them, praying for them, and speaking a blessing over them. It is a precious and beautiful time. No wonder the parents during Jesus' outdoor teaching wanted this blessing for their own children.
In this incident they were little children. The word translated "babies" is Greek brephos, "a very small child, baby, infant."764 In the parallel passages (Matthew 19:13 and Mark 10:13) and verse 16 of our passage, another word for "child" is used: Greek paidion, "a child, normally below the age of puberty, child," used of boys and girls.765 Paidion is a diminutive of pais, the general word for child. In Classical Greek, Hippocrates used paidion of a child up to 7 years old, while pais described a child from 7 to 14 years of age.766
The background of the story may be the practice of bringing children to the elders or scribes for a prayer of blessing upon them on the evening of the Day of Atonement.767
Rebuked by the Disciples (Luke 18:15b)
"People were also bringing babies to Jesus to have him touch them. When the disciples saw this, they rebuked them." (18:15)
You can imagine the setting. Parents are bringing babies, and letting their toddlers run up to Jesus, and Jesus would, with great joy, scoop them up and pray for them. When Jesus did this once, other parents saw it and came down toward the front. They wanted this for their children, too, for their children were often with them in the audience.
But the disciples would have none of it. Jesus was about important business -- teaching and healing. They couldn't allow this work to be interrupted by mere children constantly running up. They began to stop the little children, and tell off the parents in no uncertain terms. The word translated "rebuked" is Greek epitimaō, "to express strong disapproval of someone, rebuke, reprove, censure," also "speak seriously, warn" in order to prevent an action or bring one to an end.768
The View of Children in Jesus' Day
This question of how children are viewed in Jesus' culture is important if we are to interpret this passage correctly. The disciples rebuked the parents because children were viewed as unimportant in Palestine in Jesus' day. The previous incident in Luke that involved children is a good example:
"An argument started among the disciples as to which of them would be the greatest. Jesus, knowing their thoughts, took a little child (paidion) and had him stand beside him. Then he said to them, "Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. For he who is least among you all -- he is the greatest." (Luke 9:46-48)
A careful study by Albrecht Oepke demonstrates that the principle of the innocence of children is alien to the Old Testament. True, children were not held responsible for sin even up to nine years of age, but the concept of the evil impulse is there from conception or birth. In Scripture, not until the Apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 14:20) does the idea of children's innocence even appear. And in Paul and other epistles, a much more common theme is that of the immaturity and inferiority of the child (1 Corinthians 3:1; 13:11; 14:20; Galatians 4:1, 3; Ephesians 4:14; Hebrews 5:13; 1 Peter 2:1-2), following the view of "foolishness" bound up in the heart of a child (Proverbs 22:15; 29:15).
While children were prized by parents -- male children especially -- in society they were largely ignored as unimportant. They aren't considered worthy of much adult attention outside their families.
Don't Hinder the Children (Luke 18:16a)
"But Jesus called the children to him and said, 'Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.'" (18:16)
I can imagine the scene. Red-faced disciples have arrogantly told off the parents and instructed them to control their children in the presence of such an important teacher as Jesus. And then Jesus rebukes the rebukers and calls the children back to him -- "Come here, children...." -- while the frustrated disciples stand powerless to stop it. They are supposed to do crowd control and Jesus is keeping them from doing their job. What are they to do?
The little children run past the disciples, over to Jesus' lap -- he usually sits when he teaches -- and snuggle up close to him, while Jesus lays his hands on them and prays for them. Soon all the children in the entire crowd have run up to Jesus and are crowding around him, waiting for his touch and a prayer. How beautiful!
Jesus' command to the disciples is clear: Let them come (positively) and don't hinder them (negatively). The word translated "let" (NIV) or "suffer" (KJV) is Greek aphiemi, "allow, let, permit, leave."769 The word translated "hinder" (NIV) or "forbid" (KJV) is Greek kōlyō, "to keep something from happening, hinder, prevent, forbid."770
The Kingdom Belongs to Such as These (Luke 18:16b)
But why does Jesus let them come on this occasion? It doesn't seem like this is his normal practice. It seems like Jesus wants to use this occasion to make a point, to teach his disciples an important lesson about the Kingdom of God.
"But Jesus called the children to him and said, 'Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.'" (18:16)
The phrase "such as these" (NIV) or "of such" (KJV) translates the Greek correlative adjective toioytos, pertaining to being like some person or thing mentioned in a context, "of such a kind, such as this, like such."771
Notice, Jesus doesn't say that the Kingdom belongs to little children or that they are already in the Kingdom. He says that those who inherit or possess the kingdom will be "like" these children.
What characteristic of children is Jesus pointing to as an essential characteristic of disciples? Several possibilities have been mentioned:
Entering the Kingdom as a Little Child (Luke 18:17)
Infants can do nothing to merit the Kingdom, yet they are a metaphor of receiving the Kingdom.
"I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it." (18:17)
The word translated "receive" is Greek dechomai, which in this context means, "to indicate approval or conviction by accepting, be receptive of, be open to, approve, accept."772
How do the little children come to Jesus? Freely, openly, humbly. They come to God with no posturing of worthiness, like the Pharisee in the preceding parable (18:11-12). Rather, they come because Jesus calls them to him. They come in simple faith, like the tax collector (18:13).
Lack of pretension, openness, humility -- these are the qualities of children that Jesus seems to be holding up as necessary for entrance to the Kingdom.
APPLICATION Lessons for Disciples
What are we to learn from this incident?
This is good news! Have you felt that Jesus wouldn't welcome you because of something you might have done in the past or because of your lack of religious observance? Coming to Jesus has nothing to do with your worthiness and everything to do with his willingness to forgive, cleanse, and transform you.
What is this passage saying? If little children can run to Jesus' arms, why not you? Why not now? Hear Jesus calling you to come? Come now.