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Compare Mark 9:33-37 and Luke 9:46-48. The disciples are concerned with an issue naturally prominent in status-conscious Mediterranean antiquity: who will be greatest in the kingdom (v. 1; compare 5:19; 20:26; 23:11). Jesus declares that the kingdom belongs to children (compare 19:14). This paragraph urges at least two lessons.
Kingdom Status May Be Inverse to Worldly Status (18:1-4)
Ancient moralists regularly trotted forth models of heroes and statesmen for their students to imitate; Jesus instead points to a child. More so then than today, children were powerless, without status and utterly dependent on their parents (Harrington 1982:74). Yet we must imitate such people of no status, people who recognize their dependence (compare France 1985:270). To "turn" (NIV change) reflects the Jewish concept of repentance (as in Jer 34:15); compare John 3:3, 5.
Embracing the Weak, We Embrace Christ (18:5)
True disciples are "little ones who believe in" Jesus (18:6; compare 10:42), out to make Christ great alone. In Jesus' day parents loved children, but children held little status. Jesus calls us to notice and welcome the "nobodies," to esteem those without status or social respect.