Jesus rightly cautions his disciples against putting too much value in seeking after greatness, but why didn't he just remind them of one of his sayings about humility? He had quite a repertoire to choose from—the first shall be last, don't take the seat of prominence at the table, the greatest among you is the servant, and so on. I think it's because he realized that the disciples' problem was not that they lacked a proper theory of humility; their problem was grasping after leadership and shame at being followers. Jesus invites them back into followership with what they no doubt found an insulting suggestion—that they follow a child. Becoming like a child means to be healed from your shame at being dependent on others, at your utter lack of originality, and to find joy once again in your inborn God-given ability to follow.

A dire warning follows this invitation from Jesus, a warning that all those who seek to pass on the faith need to take to heart.

"If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of stumbling-blocks! Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the stumbling-block comes!"

The stumbling block, the obstacle to faith in Jesus, is to become infected with shame about being a follower. Children are unabashed admirers of adults; their following us is total. They imitate us in words and intonations, in gestures and behavior, in likes and dislikes. Unfortunately, we can infect them with our shame as well. In our daily interactions with children, we may find ourselves insisting on our own greatness, asserting our power to conceal our own childlike need and dependency from ourselves and from them. This is the realm of the power struggle which, if too persistent a part of a child's life, damages a child's ability to have faith in the benevolence of adults and therefore in the benevolence of all models, including Jesus.

This is why Jesus responds with his dramatic warnings of woe to the world, which I referenced above, more of which appear in the following verses. Matthew follows the warnings with the Parable of the Lost Sheep, a parable I think we read too metaphorically. This story contrasts the children whose faith in Jesus has not been harmed with the one child who has been caused to stumble. Please notice how the ninety-nine, confident that Jesus would never abandon them, are able to wait patiently and calmly for him to return. The lost sheep is the child who has been caused to stumble and so has lost his ability to follow the Good Shepherd.

"Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven. What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost."

Let us inhabit the space of passing on the faith with the humility of a child, without shame at our dependence, and without grasping after greatness. For it is the will of our Father that not one of the little ones entrusted to our care should be lost.