Jesus squatted down to the child’s level. “Eli! Come here, little guy.” Eli looked up from his stack of pebbles, curious. Who besides his mama and sisters here knew his name? The most kind, gentle face he had ever seen was looking at him, the Man’s hands outstretched. Without hesitation, he straightened up and trotted over to Jesus. The Teacher grinned into Eli’s eyes and fondly caressed his soft black curls. Eli’s face lit up with a beam of innocent delight, returning Jesus’ gaze. He could tell this Man liked him.
Jesus exchanged a smile and a glance with Eli’s mother, wordlessly securing her blessing to keep her boy with Him a little longer. She nodded her permission shyly, pleased. Her energetic toddler rarely remained still for more than a few seconds. She was surprised at how contented he now was to stand quietly leaning back into Jesus, blinking at the masses of people gathered around. The Teacher stood again, His hand resting on Eli’s head, and the child glowed with peace.
Jesus paused and took time to look into the individual faces assembled around Him. His tone vibrant with loving authority, He began to convey what was on His heart. “The truth is,” He explained, continuing to look around, “You must change your thinking and become like little children. If you don’t do this, you will never enter God’s kingdom. The greatest person in God’s kingdom is the one who makes himself humble like this child” ¹.
Everything about Jesus’ bearing emanated affection for Eli. A warm atmosphere of love surrounded Him, enveloping the little boy and everyone listening. Eager ears leaned in, concentrating on His teaching. Thirsty spirits had even now begun to respond to His truth. He was communicating to them not only through His words, but also through His voice, through His piercing gaze, and through His powerfully welcoming demeanor. Even in just hearing His introductory statement, they could already discern how momentous His message was: Jesus was appealing to their deep hearts, beckoning them all to become His Father’s little ones. He was inviting every hungry soul to belong.
Jesus then lifted Eli up in His arms. He kissed the child’s rosy cheek and continued, “And whoever welcomes a child like this in My name welcomes Me” ². His eyes gave away His overwhelming love for the boy.
His voice grew fiercely protective. “But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him to have a huge millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the open sea!” ³. He held Eli even closer as He spoke these words.
Fathers and mothers in the crowd observed closely. They could tangibly perceive Jesus’ protectiveness of the child in His arms. The way Jesus was holding him brought to mind their own daughters and sons. How the instinct to guard and shelter rises up aggressively within, at any threat of hurt to our little ones!, they thought. Watching Jesus, they could perceive that He would go to any length to shield the little boy in His embrace from any harm.
They leaned in, wanting to capture every nuance of what Jesus was imparting. Their hearts too were beginning to burn. Somehow, they were also identifying with Eli. Hadn’t Jesus explained to them how good, how loving, how caring, how attentive the Father is? Ripples of revelation spread out through the crowd. Hearts’ eyes were opening to see the image of Daddy God in Jesus. How tenderly He held Eli!
Holy Spirit was breathing the meaning of the Teacher’s assertions deep into their core. Jesus was longing for them, too, to be held and cherished as God’s little ones, just like He was holding and cherishing the small boy. They thought about His words. “…One of these little ones who believes in Me…” He had said. Their spirits came alive with His implication – He was referring to every one of them whose newfound faith was springing forth as they listened to His captivating words! Each of the hungry hearts knew: they were His little ones!
Passionately Love-charged Admonitions
A few moments later, His tone shifted to that of a stern but compassionate fatherly warning. With intensity He urged, “If your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire” ⁴. Even in these serious words, the sons and daughters listening could sense the profound love in His voice. His overwhelming concern for the destiny of their souls was unmistakable.
Jesus looked back at Eli with deep tenderness. As He softly rubbed his back, Eli leaned his little head on Jesus’ shoulder. Jesus then made a sweeping motion with His hand, indicating His loyal followers that sat nearby. He expressed His next thought. “See that you do not look down on one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven” ⁵. His hand then returned to Eli’s back, which He continued to stroke gently. The day had been long, and Eli was getting sleepy. His head remained nestled into the crook of Jesus’ neck.
Receiving their Master’s affirmation, His disciples’ hearts warmed with pleasure. How they relished being called God’s little ones! At first, Jesus’ habit of referring to them that way had seemed strange. How could grown men be the little ones of a Man in His early thirties? But they had grown to cherish His loving tones when speaking of them that way. How they admired this Teacher whom they had left everything to follow! How He had captured their hearts!
They continued to voraciously absorb every moment of His illustrated sermon, watching how He ministered to Eli even as He continued to teach. Jesus’ rich affection for people had become a familiar sight to them, one they never tired of. He regularly lavished affection on them too. Although He did not hesitate to correct them when they needed it, they always knew how fiercely He loved them. That sense of living, tangible love never ceased flowing from His person towards them.
They also drank in His words about their angels. Looking at each other, their faces reflected wonder. Not even just one angel. Angels, plural. Multiple angels, no less, assigned to their care! Angels with direct, uninterrupted access to the Father’s presence. Angels constantly in communication with the General Manager of the Universe, receiving His immaculately attentive instructions on how to surround, protect, and uphold them moment by moment. How cherished they were! It was hard to take it all in, but every day with Jesus, the revelation of Father’s love for them sunk deeper into their hearts.
A Living Parable
They looked up as Jesus went on. Without letting go of Eli, He was telling a story now. What a masterful storyteller He was! The entire audience was captivated inside His words as He told of a shepherd with a hundred sheep who had lost one of them. All His listeners felt like they could almost see the devoted man searching high and low, hacking through treacherous forests, crossing dangerous currents of water, tirelessly pushing through the night to find His lost sheep. Jesus described for them the shepherd’s ecstatic joy when he finally found the little creature trapped under a fallen tree branch, bleating out his plea for help. Elated tears ran down his weathered cheeks as he untangled his treasure and carried him home!
Riding on the compelling energy generated by His story, Jesus then brought the mesmerized listeners to His conclusion. Locking eyes with them, He uttered with passion, “In just the same way, your Father in heaven does not want any of these little ones to be lost!” ⁶.
When He spoke that last phrase, “these little ones,” His gaze fell on little Eli again. The boy was asleep, cradled in Jesus’ arms. He had become a living parable. Jesus gently kissed his forehead. The entire space was silent as every person there drank deeply of what He had just imparted to them. Then softly, one by one, all of Daddy’s little ones dispersed and walked back to their homes.
¹ Matt. 18:3-4, ERV
² Matt. 18:5, GWT
³ Matt. 18:6, NET
⁴ Matt. 18:8, NET
⁵ Matt. 18:10, NIV
⁶ Matt. 18:14, TEV