In first century Palestine, children were the most vulnerable members of society. Infant mortality rates were high. Life expectancies were much shorter than they are now, so children might be left without one of both parents. Children also had low social and economic status. To be compared to a child might be an insult.
In both Matthew 16 (verses 21-23) and 17 (verses 22-23) Jesus warns his disciples that he must suffer and die. It is not surprising that his disciples become concerned about their future status in relationship to one another as well as to those beyond their group. Jesus teaches humility.
These texts describe two examples that reveal Jesus’ attitudes toward children and greatness. This in itself is a surprising juxtaposition given the status of children in Jesus’ world. When asked by his disciples, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” (18:1), Jesus responds by describing greatness. He says that greatness is humility. His followers must become like the child he has called to himself. On another occasion when people were bringing children to him, the disciples tried to control their access to Jesus. Jesus rebuked the disciples and welcomed the children. In both stories, Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven is for those like these children.
Jesus does not answer the disciples’ question about the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. He turns their attention from their concern about greatness to the necessity to change if they want to enter the kingdom. Jesus’ proclamation of the coming reign of God tells us that God turns things upside down. God welcomes and lifts up the lowly. He compares himself to them. Welcoming in his name those who are humble is welcoming Jesus himself.