§ 72. The little ones


§ 72.

The little ones.

Mark 9, 33-50. 10, 13 – 16.

The close connection between the account of the disciples’ dispute over rank and Jesus’ statements about His Messiahship and destiny, as demonstrated above, entitles us to examine this account in this section. Inwardly, it is connected with the other account of the blessing of the children, and our task will now be to determine the relationship between the two accounts, and especially to reconstruct the original account for the former, since even in the writing of Mark we are confronted with many disturbing elements and the precision of the presentation is nullified.

It seems, in any case, that the substance which both narratives deal with did not easily lend itself to a firm and clear representation. It is too soft and, due to its softness, difficult to digest; it is very vague and contains a thousand contradictions in its gelatinous state; it is not only unmanly but also inhumane. We will be brief, as our above investigations have already resolved all these narratives. We simply note: sentimental contemplation of childhood, once it becomes serious, is an attack on the dignity of reason and its education and goods. The child is precisely characterized by raw desire, self-will, and selfishness in their most disgusting form. Who among us would want to become a child again and discard everything he has acquired in terms of education in the company of men? And were not the disciples true children, considering everything that the Gospels have reported to us about them so far? Did they not just now commit a true childish prank when, after their Master’s remarks about His suffering, they knew nothing better to do than to argue about precedence? Instead of presenting the children as a model, Mark should rather have said: become reasonable and men for once! Until now you have only been little children. Children, become men!


1 The blessing of the children.

We will first consider the account of the blessing of the children, partly because it is the clearer, more solid one – but only relatively, for in itself it is also contradictory and impossible – and partly because we must already know it, in order to be able to decide on some interpolations which confuse the first account.

One brings – we do not know how it comes to pass, since the people have not yet heard that the Lord is such a great friend of children, nor can we understand it any better, since the Lord travels through regions where he had not previously appeared – children to him, so that they may touch Jesus, that is, as we will see later, but which Luke has left out at the end (Chapter 18, 15-17), and which Matthew has only hinted at briefly, especially in relation to the detailed introduction – he simply says (Chapter 19, 15): he laid his hands on them – so that he would put his hands on them and bless them. The disciples prevented the people who brought them: why? would only be understandable if they themselves had already become children, whose main passion is the most foolish envy. When Jesus saw it, he became angry and said to them: Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them, for such – τωνγαρ τοιουτων – is the kingdom of God. Such! That is, theirs is the kingdom of heaven, which they receive – as Luke writes in accordance with Mark’s command; Matthew has very wrongly left out this more specific designation – as a child.

The poor children! We mean the real children: what might they have done in their embarrassment while Jesus was teaching the great children, the disciples?


How embarrassed they must have stood there! Even more, that Jesus hugged and blessed them afterwards can hardly compensate for the fact that they must serve purely and solely as a means for Jesus to teach the great, adult children. Jesus says not a word about them, and they must only serve as a metaphor for the great children. Calvin indeed says that the expression “such” refers to both the little ones and those like them*; de Wette goes even further: because “it is necessary in the action of Jesus that he must speak about the children themselves, the expression ‘such’ refers back to the previous subject, the children”**). Indeed, it refers back to them, but – how long should one waste time on such children’s lessons? – in the way that they are only used as a substrate for a metaphorical expression. The children are and remain mere means, brought there only so that the Lord can use the metaphorical expression “little children”; that is, only the pragmatism of Mark brought them there, so that the command of humiliation and self-denial, which recurs so often in this section (Chapter 8, 31; – 10, 45) and is the main theme, can be expressed once in the form that bringing children gives the Lord the opportunity to impress upon his followers that one can only receive the kingdom of heaven as a child. The whole thing is extremely frosty, contrived, and without substance; it is everything that can be the opposite of living, healthy, and rational reality.

*) τοιουτων: hac voce tam parvulos, quam eorum similes comprehendit.

**) 1, 1, 160. de Wette thereby commits the other violent trick of referring to 2 Cor. 12, 2. 3. 5. The poor language has indeed suffered much when theology still ruled. Anyone who no longer feels like sacrificing the law of language to the most miserable of all passions, to theological passion, will see at first glance that Paul (v. 5) wants to avoid referring directly to himself and, as far as possible in this case, to reject himself by the expression τοιουτος.


Before we hear how Jesus commands self-abasement on the occasion of the disciples’ rank dispute, we note that later, when the disciples became displeased with the pretensions of the two Zebedees, he again demands self-abasement. Here, because the development of the theme is concluded, the speech is not only more detailed than before – the opposition to the worldly great ones and princes who seek dominion is carefully elaborated and then commanded: whoever wants to be great among you, be a servant; whoever wants to be first, be the servant of all – but it is now also stated that self-denial is the first duty of the followers of the suffering Messiah: “For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life in payment for many. “(Mark 10, 41 – 45. Matth. 20, 24 – 28.)


2. The Ranking Dispute Among the Disciples.

If it is clear that all of those incidents are literary creations, so that the Lord has an opportunity to express how the followers of the suffering Messiah should behave, and if it is equally clear that the contrast aimed at with these incidents cannot be more obvious and crude, it may still be worthwhile to point out how the crudeness of Matthew’s layout is further elaborated. Mark had wisely refrained from allowing the disciples to openly raise the question of who was the greatest, and although Luke blurred the finer nuances of the original account and only reported, “There arose a dispute among them as to who was the greatest, and when Jesus – in a wondrous way – saw the strife of their hearts, he took a child” (Chapter 9, 46-47), he still retained this reluctance. But Matthew not only allows the disciples to openly and shamelessly raise that question before the Lord, not only does he allow them to speak as if it were a foregone conclusion that there was a supreme rank in the kingdom of heaven – thus incorporating the premise of the request of the sons of Zebedee with a modification in his account – but he also allows the disciples to ask as if they had already received the promise that one of them would have the preeminence in the kingdom of heaven. “Who is (αρα) the greatest then,” they ask, “in the kingdom of heaven” (Chapter 18, 1) – a very inappropriate reference to an earlier concession in any case. In the original Gospel, Jesus never gave the disciples any reason to fall into such childishness. On the contrary! Their question is supposed to provide a contrast to the preceding conversation about suffering, death, and the cross. Or, as Chrysostom suggests, the question may refer to Jesus’ recent grant of preeminence to Peter over all the others, in which case the matter was already settled and decided. Only one thing is certain: Matthew had nothing specific in mind with that transition formula, and the disciples’ question should have been absent from a Gospel that teaches about Peter being given the keys to the kingdom of heaven.


3. The exception of a little one.

After the childish question of the disciples, Jesus takes a child – we would like to know where it immediately came from, since according to the original account the discussion took place in the house where Jesus and the disciples had stopped after their journey; we would also like to see the embarrassed face of the poor child in the midst of the disciples, whom it was supposed to serve as an example – and after he has placed it in the midst of the disciples – a piece of cake would have been more welcome to the child – he says (Matthew 18, 2-5): Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this (!) child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes such a child in my name welcomes me.

First of all, in the first half of this saying, the two different ways in which the same thought is twisted and turned and sharpened contradict each other. At the beginning (v. 3) it says, “Whoever does not become like the children cannot enter the kingdom of heaven – that is, the kingdom of heaven in general. “Then it says (v. 4): He who is humbled like this child is the greater in the kingdom of heaven,” i.e. only now does the discourse return to the occasion and the first saying does not belong here; it belongs to the narrative of the blessing of the children, where Matthew omits it. But the second half of the saying also contradicts the first. When Jesus, in v. 5, continues without further ado, in the same breath, as if he were speaking in the best context, “and whoever receives such a child in my name receives me,” we cannot see any connection here, since the child is just now regarded as an object of imitation, now as an object of benevolent care, that is, according to very different considerations, which must be kept quite separate. The contradiction seems more tolerable when, in Luke’s account, the value of the one who receives the child in Jesus’ name is mentioned first, and only then is added: “Whoever is the least among you all is the greatest” (Luke 9, 48). Here, at least, the latter reflection does not separate the statement about receiving a child from that symbolic act of Jesus placing a child before them, as it does in Matthew’s account. The contradiction seems least problematic when, as we read in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus first sits down, calls the disciples over to him, and tells them: “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all” (Mark 9, 35), and only then takes a child, places it in the midst of the disciples, and speaks about the merit of the one who receives such a child. But it is precisely here that the contradiction has emerged most sharply. Luke and Matthew at least say that Jesus, before he begins to speak, performs the symbolic action with the child. This is quite in order, but less appropriate if Jesus should sit down beforehand and directly pronounce the teaching which he first wants to give through the symbol. *). Correct! We do not dare to remark that Mark himself, because all these passages deal with the same subject, has already prefixed the sentence which Jesus later utters on the occasion of the absurd demand of the Zebedees, the sentence (C. 10, 43), whoever wants to be great must be the servant, whoever the first, the last. We immediately take back this remark, since it is contradicted by the simplicity of Mark. Luke went first, because he later omitted the story of the Zebedees, Matthew followed him blindly, increased the contradiction and only a later hand inserted this saying (C. 9, 35) and the disturbing introduction to it into the writing of Mark.

*) Wilke, p. 220. 221.


Mark has directed all the power of his presentation to the one point he has set his sights on. He does not only say what Matthew alone has copied: “whoever receives one of these children receives me”, but has the Lord add: And he that receiveth me receiveth not me, but him that sent me. “This or a similar advice must follow, as is also said in the following saying, omitted here by Matthew, but so beautifully given above (C. 10, 42), of him who gives a disciple even a drink of water (Mark 9, 41.): “Truly, I say to you, do not lose your reward. “A prayer of this kind is also required because of the following description of the terrible punishment that would befall the one who offended one of the little ones who believed in Jesus (Mark 9, 42. Matth. 18, 6). Matthew has omitted this increase, because his work was already full enough for him through the preceding insertions v. 3. 4.

The saying about taking up children, which Paul understands with humorous seriousness as compassion for orphaned children *), can only be understood correctly when we see in it one of those Christian sayings that want to be understood seriously – like the saying about plucking out the eye – but whose meaning mocks itself and lifts itself up in a more general idea. The child who is taken in the name of Jesus – that is, because, as the disciples later say (Mark 9, 41), it belongs to Christ – is not intended to represent the lesser members of the community in a rational way from the outset – otherwise, why would so much seriousness be wasted on the placement of an actual child and the reference to it? – but neither is the statement meant to stop at the mere idea of a child or the absurd notion of a believing child. Instead, the statement gets lost in that unclear darkness of prosaic seriousness and its complete negation, in that darkness which Christian language loves and has created in this grandiose indeterminacy.

*) Ereget. Handb. II, 525.


The general meaning of the saying – this is certain – is that he too can be great, indeed do everything that makes him worthy of the kingdom of heaven, who does even the smallest thing, or only has the opportunity to do it, if he does it only in the name of Jesus. It cannot be denied that the bringing of a child into the discussion is very formal, very cold, and very forced. The whole meaning of the statement is even spoiled when we have to imagine how embarrassed the child must have felt being used as a tool to teach those adult children.

We have said that the saying about the merit of the smallest kindness shown to the disciples (C. 9, 41) immediately follows the saying about the reception of such children in the writing of Mark: we agree with Wilke’s apt remark that the intervening passage (v. 38 – 40) is inserted by a later hand from the writing of Luke (9, 49 – 50). Because Jesus says: whoever receives one of these children “in my name”, it occurs to John to “take occasion” and to “reply”: Master, we have seen one who casts out demons “in your name” and does not follow us. We have therefore resisted him. But Jesus answered, “Do not hinder him, for he who is not against us is for us.” A man who tightens the threads of the narrative as tightly as Mark would have written the three sentences, “Whoever receives one such child (v. 37), whoever gives you a cup of water (v. 41), whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin (v. 42),” one after the other, and would have been unable to insert such an inappropriate episode here. Only Luke, who knows nothing greater about the seventy than that even the demons were subject to them, was able to insert this episode here for the sake of the mere words “in Jesus’ name.” If, just as Moses’ spirit came upon the seventy of the Old Testament, so Jesus’ spirit also came upon the seventy of the New Testament, and they drove out demons in their master’s name, then the parallel continues. “There, in the Old Testament, a young man complains that two others who stayed behind in the camp and did not go out to the tent with him also prophesied, and he asks Moses to forbid them. But Moses answers, ‘Would that all prophesied!’ (Numbers 11:26-29). That is the story from which we have the counterpart in Luke 9:49-50. Luke 11:23 also places value on exorcising demons and presents it as a matter of interest. The statement of Jesus that is included here, ‘He who is not with me is against me,’ has a similarity to the one expressed here in verse 50: ‘He who is not against us is for us.’ So this passage belongs only to Luke. Luke does not have the verses from Mark 9:41 onwards. He moves on to something else with the interpolated episode, which is linked to the following story of the zeal that John showed against the inhospitable Samaritans and for his Lord and Master (Luke 9:51-56) by the order of things.” *).

*) Wilke p. 635. 636.


Mark did not yet know that episode. Matthew, who also did not yet read it in the Scripture of the primitive evangelist, passes immediately after the saying of the reception of such a child to the other of the trouble which is given to one of the little ones that believe; Luke could only include this statement later, and he not only included it very late, but also very inappropriately, by giving it the blue sky as a backdrop. (Luk. 17, 1 – 2.)


4. The trouble.

After Jesus warns not to cause offense to any of the little ones who believe in him, saying that the punishment for such a transgression would be severe, Matthew 18:7 follows with the statement: “Woe to the world for the offenses, for it is necessary that offenses come, but woe to the man by whom the offense comes.” We need not even remind ourselves that the following verses (v. 8-9) about the limb that should be cut off and thrown away if it causes offense, and the punishment for those who cause offense (v. 6) are necessarily related – the severity of the punishment is the connecting link between both statements, and the progression from the first to the second is based on the reflection that if causing offense to others deserves severe punishment, then we must also be mercilessly strict against the offenses that our own limbs cause. Even without this reflection on the following verses, it is clear that the idea of the necessity of offense (v. 7) is very awkwardly inserted here. This idea can be thought of at any time, but not where the sole purpose of the speech is to warn against any kind of offense. Marcus has developed this warning (9:42-50) from the original Gospel, while Luke has only taken the opportunity to elaborate on the necessity of offense and the misery of the one who causes offense (Luke 17:1-2), wisely omitting the verses from the original Gospel. Matthew has combined the work of his two predecessors.


5. The high value of the little ones and the lost. 

Matth. 18, 10 – 14.

If, as happens especially in the writing of Mark, but also in Matthew, there is such a detailed discussion of the limbs that give rise to offense, the little ones are forgotten. This is also why they have long been forgotten, because in the saying about offense, when it is said that one should not offend any of these little ones who believe in Jesus, the original substrate of the image is pushed aside. For are children really the ones who can be said to believe in Jesus? It is therefore extremely bewildering and inappropriate when Matthew now speaks of real children again, and the way he speaks of them makes the confusion even more colossal. “Take heed,” Jesus must remark in verse 10-11, “not to despise one of these little ones, for I tell you, their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven. For the Son of Man came to save the lost.” This is followed by the parable of the lost sheep and, finally, the remark: “So it is also the will of your Father in heaven that not one of these little ones should be lost.

What confusion! It is clear from the mention of the angels that children are meant: they are the guardian angels who watch over the weakness and helplessness of the children! But can the children be called “the lost”? Every word about it would be lost and wasted with diligence and courage. Matthew copied the parable of the lost sheep from Luke and did not copy the following parable of the lost penny and son (Luk. 15, 1 – 32) at the same time, because otherwise it would have been impossible for him to cast an inappropriate retrospective glance at the little ones.


Matthew has even dulled the sharpness of the irony that is inherent in that glorious story of the lost sheep: of course! for first of all he had to shorten the parable very much in order to get back to his little ones, and the shortening had at the same time to be a weakening, because in order to enforce his game with the little ones he could not let the essence of the enormous contrast that is originally contained in that parable fully emerge. When he has found the lost sheep,” he assures Jesus, “he will rejoice over it more than over the nine and ninety who have not gone astray. I tell you,” says Luke, “there will be more joy in heaven over one repentant sinner than over nine and ninety righteous people who have no need of repentance. Thus writes the evangelist who first worked out these parables of the lost according to the pattern of that original antithesis which he saw before him in the writing of Mark. But we must add that Mark alone worked out the contrast purely, when he contrasted the healthy and the sick, the righteous and the sinners; in the parables of the lost, this ironic contrast only appears at the end, while at the beginning the fallen and the not-fallen confront each other in a completely different way. Luke was therefore not happy when he used the Old Testament *): “I will seek out what is lost” with the antithesis that Mark has worked out. That he gave expression to the same irony in the story of Zacchaeus – but not with any particular luck – has already been mentioned above, and the way in which he weaves it into the story of the anointing of Jesus will be seen later.

*) Ezech. 34, 16 τὸ ἀπολωλὸς ζητήσω καὶ τὸ πλανώμενον ἐπιστρέψω


We have already had occasion to notice how the old Adam of modern theology does not want to know anything about the sharpness of this Christian irony. He must also grumble against the parable of the prodigal. The thought that the joy over one penitent sinner is greater than over 99 righteous ones, says, for example, de Wette *), is (!) conceived in human terms: man rejoices for the moment (!) more over what he has regained than over what he already possesses. “In religion, on the contrary, this joy is eternal! The “excess weight” of this joy, says de Wette **), cannot be attributed to God. And yet it is said in Luke 15, 7: “in heaven” there will be a preponderance of joy. Yes, replies de Wette, this is said “naturally only in figurative speech”. What is natural, however, is that the natural man does not want to know or acknowledge anything about heavenly things, and what is unnatural is that he wants to force his aversion to heavenly things on heaven itself!

Since we have once engaged with the theologians and the parable of the lost sheep calls upon us to do so, let us say with what satisfaction we hear it when Neander defines the difference between the fable and the parable to the effect that in the latter “the animals are portrayed in such a way as the law of nature entails” ***). Correct! The fable makes the animals act intelligently, freely and rationally, because it is the mockery of the servant against despotism and his witty self-liberation from the degradation to which a brutal despotism has condemned him. The fable can almost be called poetry, while the parable is the serious prose of religious necessity, lets the animal be an animal and ascribes understanding and will, power and wisdom only to the lord and master, the shepherd.

*) l, 2, 77.

**) 1, 1, 154.

***) L. J. Ch. p. 174.


6. Reconciliation.

Matth. 18, 15 – 35.

Between the preceding and the following exhortation to reconciliation, the evangelist seemed to see an internal connection in the idea that humans should be reconciliatory towards their fellow brethren who have wronged them, just as God shows care towards the lost. However, firstly, the evangelist should have indicated this connection in a transitional sentence, at least. Secondly, we must note that such an indication would have been surprisingly difficult for him, since there is no connection at all. Is the tendency of that parable of the lost to depict God as reconciliatory, or is it rather ironic towards the righteous, towards the healthy? Is not the ironic dialectic between the concept of the righteous and sinners its only content? So, what is the prosaic exhortation to forgive one’s neighbor doing here?

And even if the best connection were inherently present, it would be completely undermined by the way in which Matthew elaborates on the commandment of reconciliation. Is it appropriate when, in a context where reconciliation should be commanded, the painful judicial procedure is commanded, according to which one should first confront the brother who has wronged us alone, then, if it was unsuccessful, bring two others to confront him, then, if that too is fruitless, report him to the church, and finally, if he does not listen to the church, regard him as a heathen and a tax collector?

In the following, the author continues to write in what he believes to be the best context when he says (v. 18): “whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and so on.” And when it goes on to say (v. 19-20): “if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” However, these statements are neither related to each other nor to the preceding one. Even if we were to understand v. 18 in terms of the power of excommunication, it was only previously mentioned (v. 17) that the disobedient person excludes himself from the church, or if v. 17 is supposed to present the church as an absolute judge, it is as a church, as a community, while the subjects to whom the power of binding and loosing is transferred in v. 18 are the disciples. And in v. 19-20, there is not even a mention of the function of judgment, but only of the power of community in the matter of prayer.


It would therefore be ridiculous to try to find a semblance of coherence when v. 21 returns to the subject, namely Peter asks: Lord, how often may my brother offend against me and should I forgive him? Perhaps seven times? Before we hear how the Lord answers: No, not seven times, but seven and seventy times. and before we hear the following parable of that king who punished his servant, whom he had forgiven a great debt, because he would not forgive even a lesser debt to his fellow servant – so before we hear all this, we must cut through this confused tangle – it deserves no more – and ask, whether Peter, if there is to be any talk of reconciliation, was allowed from the outset and without any cause to offend his brother so badly and shamefully that he asked with the fastidious earnestness of the quisque praesumitur malus whether his brother was allowed to sin against him seven times before he had the right to intervene with the ray of banishment?

If only Matthew had been content to copy Luke literally: “Take heed: if thy brother offend against thee, warn him; and if he repent, forgive him. And if he offend thee seven times in a day, and return unto thee seven times in a day, saying, I am sorry; forgive him” (Luke 17:3, 4). Behold! Thus speaks not only a man, but also a man who first writes down such reflections. In his poor compiling, jumbled manner, Matthew did not even realize that he writes like an inhumane person.


“Be careful: if your brother sins against you, warn him, and if he repents, forgive him!” That is just and humane! Matthew took this as an opportunity to describe the hierarchical chain of command all the way to the point where the brother is thrown out of the church! (— Or does Fritzsche want us to explicitly note that the church, the ekklesia, is the Christian church, not the “synagogue of Satan”, not the Jewish community, but the church in which the hierarchs bind and loose and in which, on the other hand — because here is where the contradictions reside — even two or three, when gathered in the name of Jesus, can be sure that the Lord is among them? Is time and paper worth nothing? — Precisely because both are worth a lot, we will not dwell further on how strange it is that Matthew wants the brother to be punished in the presence of two people in the second stage of the chain of command, because on the testimony of two or three witnesses ——– no more!). Matthew thought of the Old Testament provision on the number of witnesses in the wrong place; we also will not further point out how Matthew, only for a very superficial resemblance, now gives the power he gave to Peter above to the disciples in general and then adds a word about the power and significance of the church community: the whole thing is very poorly composed.

“And if your brother sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him!” It is trivial; this is how someone writes who first comes up with a saying of this kind and still knows what he is aiming at. Matthew focuses on the seven times, which in Luke is only an intensification of the assumed possibility — (“: and if he sins seven times”) — in a one-sided way, takes it awkwardly prosaic, lets Peter speak very clumsily as if he were sure that his brother could sin against him seven times a day – Matthew left out this necessary specification – and now the response must surpass the crude assumption by saying that he must show forbearance “until the” seventy-seventh offense.


Luke, too, has a parable which recommends the necessity of conciliation, and he, too, has placed it in an external context with the parables of the prodigal – it is the parable of the unjust steward. At the end of this parable it says: Make friends with the mammon of unrighteousness. Weisse has taken the last step towards resolving the difficulty when he declares the words “with the unrighteous mammon” to be those “which Jesus did not speak” – we must declare them to be those which do not belong to the parable (Luke 16:1-9), and even dare to call them such, which were not inserted into the text by Luke, but only by a later hand from v. 11. Weisse *) first correctly explained the meaning of the parable: just as that steward earned his master’s favour by boldly paying his debtors their bills, so we too should “regard ourselves as God’s appointed stewards of his great household and behave in exactly the same way, and no differently, towards our master’s debtors.”

*) II. 162. 163.



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