Applying our senses, to a reading of Matthew 18:1-5

Anne F. Elvey utilises sense, as the lens for reviewing a text in her book the Matter of the Text.[1], a study on the book of Luke. She states,“This gift of the text to sense invites a reading of the text through, or in conversation with, the senses.” [2]She asks to consider not just the words in front of us but how we interact with the text through our senses, both in their physical deliverance, (the medium we have in front of us from which the words are delivered, such as on a small screen, i.e. tablet, a book, it’s feels and look, even the age of the book will affect our interaction with it), but especially through our interaction with the images the words create for us[3].

It requires bringing ourselves, our histories to the words that we are reading. Piaget’s[4]work on learning or knowledge identifies the first stage of knowledge, and hence the building block to higher knowledge as the sensorimotor stage[5]. If we are to “become like children” (Matt 5:3)[6], we cannot discount this building block to learning as a way of accessing God’s word. Thus, I bring the freedom of my childhood in northern Victoria Australia, catching yabbies in the irrigation canals, running through the high grasses and down the dusty unsealed country roads. How would the child experience it when placed in the middle, what would s/hehave tasted, seen, touched, heard, smelt? What comes to our mind as we think about this.

If we were to take Elvey’s method and apply it to Matthew 18:1-5, it might look something like this. In both Matthew and Mark, we are told that they are in Capernaum, while Matthew indicates that they have come from Galilee[8]. It could be possible that the disciples may have walked through dusty roads to reach the town by the water. As the child was placed amongst the disciples it does not take much to imagine that the disciple’s clothes could be laden with dust from the journey, which when they moved may have shaken around the child.  It is possible then that the child may have tasted dust. The less physical experience but still one of metaphorical taste is the idea that the child tasted fame, importance, expectation even honour,[9]as he was called by Jesus and then in responding is placed here to hear how important he is rather than these grown men. Even if he could not grasp every word he would have grasped intent,[10]and if feeling valued, may have savoured the feelings of being honoured.

Continuing in this vein. What would the child see? He was in the presence of large people, maybe with hairy legs, and dirty feet. We do not know the age of the child, though he is probably not in his teens and possible not younger than one[11]as he was placed amongst the disciples, so possibly old enough to stand. What would he have made of Jesus’ words? Would he have been too young to imagine? Piaget[12]would suggest that between 2 and 7 years, a child’s imagination would be strong. It is possible that the child, placed among the disciples is old enough to imagine, so what would he have made of this Kingdom being discussed. In my imagination, this kingdom may have filled the child, with thoughts of a faraway place with gleaming white streets, and protective walls. A physical place different to where he was.

As these men were fisherman by trade, I wonder what a child might make of the smell of these men, fish, food, fullness, satiation, are thoughts that come to mind.  Yet they are being told that they are wanting (v.3). They may have smelt of food, but metaphorically they were “a little off”, they had not grasped the finer aspects of Christ’s message[13]. It is possible that the child would have felt this confusion in them.

In the Matthew text, we are told that Jesus placed the child among them. To do this we assume Jesus must have touched the child. In Mark we learn the child is held (Mark  9:36) and in Luke the child is placed beside Jesus (Luke 9:47) . Elvey notes that “Touch is the primary sense insofar as all senses depend on touch”[14]If Jesus had not physically reached out he did at least attract the child’s attention and by doing so embracedthe child. We know nothing about how the child felt about this situation, whether he felt safe or what terror he may have been concerned of for himself, to be placed among such grown men. In the light of the Royal commission on Child Safety we may be concerned for the child’s safety.The Matthew text is the only one that uses language of empowerment[15]. V.5 could be read as addressing this issue, as Jesus statement appears to clarify that this child is to be welcomed, and reading further past the nominated pericope to verses 6-9, these verses too clarify the importance of not harming a child. Boice, goes further to explain the metaphorical, rather than just literal interpretation of the verse, “Jesus is concerned about and warns about harming such believing persons spiritually” [16]Regardless, Jesus separated out this child for this honour.

What we hear from the text is the silence of the child, Berryman[17]draws our attention to the contrast of the silent child and the noisy disciples, who are vying for attention. This contrast in accepted norms “suggests that there is something significant about the child’s silence”[18]and raises the question as to whether it is an intentional metaphor.[19]Berryman concludes that the child’s silence echoes God’s presence.

In reverse, what did the disciples see through the child. They saw a reflection of a previous version of themselves[20], to which they are being asked to effectively return. They heard Jesus’s words yet they were as incomprehensible[21]as a very young child’s attempts at language. They felt the sting of Jesus’ words even if they failed to comprehend them. Instead of tasting the honour of being first they are reminded of how lowly they are. They had touched Jesus, by reaching out to Him to answer their question. Matthew is the only Gospel where the disciples approach Jesus, in Mark and Luke’s version of this pericope, it is Jesus that interrogates the disciples. Their response at this time was ignorant of Jesus’s plan, they were “off”, in their thinking.

[1]Elvey, Anne F. The Matter of the Text Material Engagements between Luke and the Five Senses (2011, Sheffield Phoenix Press, Sheffield).

[2](Elvey, p.190)





[6]James M. M. Francis, Adults as Children: Images of Childhood in the Ancient World and the New Testament (Bern, Peter Lang, 2006) p.113.

[8]Boice, 2001, p.376 Ascertained from traditional exegesis source.


[9]Whether the child was exploited or validated was debated by Group 2 in the Cambridge Consultation p.9.

[10]See Boice , 2001, p.381 for the reverse argument of how the disciples failed to grasp the significance of Jesus’ teaching.

[11]Gundry, Judith M. “Children in the Gospel of Mark, with special attention to Jesus’ Blessing of the Children (Mark 10:13-16) and the Purpose of Mark” in Bunge, Marcia J. (ed), The Child in the Bible(Gundry 2008), (Michigan, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2008), p.146.


[13]Boice, 2001, p381

[14]Elvey, 2011, p.78

[15]check Francis

[16]Boice, 2001, p.378

[17]Jerome W. Berryman, Becoming Like A Child: The curiosity of Maturity beyond the Norm, (2017, New York, Church Publishing)

[18]Berryman, 2017 p.79

[19]Which Berryman defines as a parable of action(Berryman 2017)p. 78.

[20]find source

[21]Boice, 2001, p. 381.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.