Dr. Cavalletti explores the synoptic texts where Jesus presents a child as a sign of the greatest in the kingdom of God. He is preparing the disciples for his death and resurrection, yet they are concerned with who will be the greatest. Jesus identifies himself with a child, who is simultaneously both the least and the greatest. The child is a model of discipleship and a sign of Christ. We are invited to embrace the weakness of the child, the weakness of the crucifixion, in order to allow the power of God to reach perfection (2 Cor. 12:9).
(Reprinted by permission of Euntes Docete XXV [Pontifical University Urbaniana, 1972] pp.509-514). Translation by Patricia Coulter.
by Sofia Cavalletti
Sofia Cavalletti, Ph.D., is an internationally known biblical scholar and a founder of the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd. For 45 years, she and her co-worker, Gianna Gobbi, have developed the catechesis by observing and working with children between the ages of three and twelve. Cavalletti lives in Rome.
Dr. Cavalletti cites the paradox of making oneself the littlest in order to be the greatest—a trait demonstrated by the essence of the child’s humanity from which the adult might benefit.
A great deal has been written about the importance attributed to the child in various Gospel texts, and after Legasse’s masterful book on the subject (1), there seems little left to add. However if, as Legasse maintains, we should consider the child in the Gospel as a “human parable” (2), it is the parable’s nature to remain always open to new interpretations, revealing ever greater riches.
The Gospel presents two series of text relative to the child:Matthew 19:13-15Mark 10:13-16Luke 18:15-17
These texts are partially synoptic: All three have in common the passage in which Jesus tells his apostles to let the children come to him, without hindering them; Mark and Luke add the statement on the need to receive the Kingdom of God like a little child in order to enter into it, thus setting the child forth as an exemplar.
The second series of texts include:Matthew 18:1-6Mark 9:33-37Luke 9:46-48
At the outset we note that in all three Gospels, this series of texts follows the miracle of the healing of the possessed boy, which according to Luke 9:43, aroused the admiration of the crowd. This miracle, in its turn, is followed immediately by the prediction of the Passion and resurrection. These are hard words, which the disciples prefer to ignore. Only Matthew inserts the episode of the Temple tax (17:24-27) between these two texts and the passage relating to children, whereas in Mark and Luke the miracle, the prediction of the Passion, and the text referring to children follow directly upon one another.
In the second series of texts we find once again the theme of welcoming the child, but now it is transformed: They do not speak further about the child as the model for entering the Kingdom of God, but rather, to receive the little child is tantamount of receiving Christ, and the one who receives Christ receives the One who sent him.
Nonetheless the principal subject of the passage appears to be the response called forth by the apostles’ question: Who is the greatest in the Kingdom of God?
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus answers this question by calling a “little child”, and exhorting the apostles to convert and make themselves “little” in order to be the “greatest”. The Matthean text, according to Legasse, is the least altered.
In Mark’s Gospel, the disciples do not dare to reply to Jesus when he questioned them as to what they had been speaking about, because they were asking themselves who was the greatest. Then Jesus says that the one who wants to be first must be last and the servant of all; the appearance of the little child introduces the theme of acceptance.
In Luke, Jesus, reading the unvoiced question about “the greatest” in the disciples’ hearts, takes a “little child” and asserts that it is the littlest who is great.In all these responses of Jesus we find a contrast, expressed in various forms:* little/great* first/last* servant/master
* great/the one who makes oneself little.
In this contrast, the two opposite poles are discovered to be present within the child, for it is the very fact that the child is littlest that establishes him as great.
The theme of contrast is found frequently in the New Testament, and it is one that has abundant Old Testament precedents. In Jesus’ teaching it often assumes parabolic form: for example, in the parable of the mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds and becomes the biggest shrub of all (Mt. 13-31-32); intermingled with other points, we rediscover this theme in the parable of the yeast, which leavens the dough (Mt. 13:33); in the parable of the grain of wheat which gives the “full grain in the ear” (MK. 4:28); in the parable of the seed that produced some hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty (Mt. 13:8). In these parables however the little/great contrast is different from what is said in relation to the child; the seed is the smallest, and it will be the biggest of shrubs; the seed is a potentiality which will be realized at a later moment in the tree; the relationship between the seed and the tree, the yeast and the dough is diachronic, whereas the relationship between the little and the great within the child is synchronic: the little child is greatest, precisely because the child is littlest. We do not have to wait to see the greatness within the child realized at a later time; the greatness is already present in the child’s littleness. To understand the child’s greatness we need not gaze into the far distant future, as in the case of the mustard seed, but it is necessary to search for it into the present littleness, to learn how to see the power, actual and operative, in it. If it were justifiable to make a distinction among the virtues which express the fundamental religious attitude in three different aspects, we could say that the mustard seed is an object of hope, the child an object of faith.
To throw some light on the texts relating to the child, it will be necessary to refer to the other passages where this contrast is found, and those passages in which it is synchronic.
A text which seems to us to meet these requisites, is the following from St. Paul to the Corinthians: “In weakness power reaches perfection.” (2 Cor. 12:9). Here Paul juxtaposes two elements which appear irreconcilable, no less that the little/great; he expresses a contrast which seems untenable, the two terms of which are united synchronically in one single realization. It is St. Paul who achieves an apodictic enunciation of this principle, which winds through both Old and New Testament, Paul who has experienced God’s power at work in his weakness (2 Cor. 12:10), the one who knows himself to be an earthen vessel that holds a treasure (2 Cor. 4:7). Paul’s words spring from his own particular situation; nevertheless they are not linked to this, but the apostle, from an experience which he has personally suffered, reaches the point of piercing through to a law of Christian life, universally valid; he intuits in the most profound way and comes to formulate in a essential manner a theme, which constitutes a foundational motif, and perhaps the foundational motif of all Scripture.
The whole of biblical history could be found to the recapitulated in Paul’s succinct statement: From Abraham, who already old and infirmed, becomes a father and progenitor of descendants as numerous as the stars in the heavens, to the time when an enslaved and fugitive people encounter God in the desert, and above all when, in the ultimate weakness of the death of Christ, God accomplishes the greatest act of power.
Paul’s words, we could say, are the paradigmatic enunciation of the Christian paradox.
If the approach we propose is valid, the text relative to the child would thereby acquire another meaning, and the child, whose littleness and weakness are signs of greatness and strength, would appear to us as bearer of a disconcerting reality.
To better understand what is said in regard to the child, it seems necessary to us to consider the context in which the passage occurs, so as to include in this text the passages of the prediction of the Passion and the miracle which precede it. In our estimation, these two episodes and the passage about the child are not randomly situated one following the other; instead, they are linked by a thread and create a unified whole. The discourse on “the greatest,” observes Legasse (p. 19), displays the apostles’ incapacity to penetrate the mystery of redemptive humiliation, that same incapacity—if we may say—which the apostles revealed in not accepting the announcement of the Passion: “But they did not understand him when he said this; it was hidden from them so that they should not see the meaning of it” (Lk. 9:45).
The miracle caused great enthusiasm in the crowd; on other occasions Jesus also corrected such enthusiasm, so that the people would not let themselves be deceived as to the character of his Messianic role: he is the Messiah who must suffer and die to rise again; he is a powerful and victorious Messiah as well, but one whose power is realized by means of a paradox; through the greatest weakness: death. In the presence of such a paradox, however, the apostles’ ears remained closed; they did not manage to accept it. And then, seeing that his words had not been sufficient, faced with the extreme importance of what he wanted to teach and the extreme difficulty in receiving it, Jesus adds a living example of what he wanted to proclaim: The child who, in his weakness and in his littleness, is the greatest.
Seeing the disciples’ difficulty, Jesus tried to render his teaching more concrete and striking, showing a person in who his words were in some way made visible and tangible; that is, he resorted to his customary method of teaching, to the parables, but this time a “human parable” (Legasse). If the truth contained in parables is generally concretized in an image expressed in words, which the listener grasps through hearing, in this instance the truth is embodied in a visible image: that little child which Jesus places in the middle of his disciples, after embracing him. It is the child who is the greatest in his littleness, and he is the greatest precisely because of his littleness, for it is weakness such as this which God’s power in some way needs in order to be realized.
The Master corrects and addresses the crowd’s enthusiasm at his miracle in two ways: with the prophecy of his Passion, which will precede the Resurrection and with the parable of the child, who incarnates in himself the fundamental law of Christianity.
Jesus’ words do not have, in our opinion, any moralizing purpose, but they do intend to point out in the “little child” an existential type, one which manifests in a special way the paradox of the coexistence of littleness/greatness, powerlessness/power— that paradox which Christ will live to its fullest in his death and resurrection.
This clarifies the identification between accepting the “little child” and accepting Christ, the theme which concludes this passage in all three synoptics: “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me” (Mk. 9:37). Such an identification means: In the child, as in Christ, it is evident that God’s power is revealed in weakness. It also clarifies why the Kingdom of God belongs to children in particular, and why they may be considered the model for the one who wants to enter it. There is a profound affinity between Christ and children, which is not due to the possession or practice of this or that moral virtue, but to the existential state of the child: The child is the privileged bearer of that reality which Christ came to reveal and to realize in the most complete way in his own person. That preference of Christ for children, which so many speak about, originates from a kind of “blood relationship” which exists between them. Preventing children from coming to Christ is to hinder like going toward like.
If the child is a parable, then as with every parable, the child is composed of two elements—one visible and obvious, and another mysterious one which must be made the object of an ever deepening search—elements however which are inseparable just as a chemical compound cannot be separated (de Saussure), without becoming some other thing. Therefore we may not separate the littleness from the greatness in the child, without losing sight of what the child is and the reality of the sign the child embodies.
We know that if it is easy to perceive the obvious elements of the parables, staying on the superficial lever, it is not just as easy to penetrate the mysterious reality of which this element is the bearer. If it is said of the parables in general: “If anyone has ears to hear, let him listen” (Mt. 11-15), then it could be said of the child-parable: “If anyone has eyes to see, let him look.” It is easy to see that the child is little and weak, it is not as easy to see a force within the child, not in potential but actually present.
In the parables, the penetration of the meaning signified by the visible element always remains open, as we mentioned, to deeper insights and newer discoveries. To the eyes of some, the divine power present within the child’s weakness will be shown forth perhaps in that special rapport that binds the child to God in a vital relationship, one which has all the strength and spontaneity of a basic fact of life, or maybe it will be manifested in the richness and essentiality of the child’s prayer.
But the parable’s nature is to resound in a different way within each person who listens to it—or, as in this case, the person who sees it. We do not wish to impose on the child-parable any personal interpretation. We have only wanted to indicate here the parabolic character of the child, as an invitation to look at the child with eyes that know how to go beyond what appears.1. S. Legasse. Jesus e l’enfant, (Paris, 1969)2. Ibid., p. 193