In the minds of some Scripture scholars, today's Gospel passage is one that has often been misunderstood. Many have mistakenly assumed that both "paragraphs" of the passage refer to children. (The English translation is divided into paragraphs while the original Greek used no such conventions.) Instead there is some possibility that Jesus is not talking about children at all. Rather he is talking about his followers, his disciples, whom he called "little ones" on more than one occasion.
The first part of the Gospel says that if we wish to enter God's kingdom, we must become like little children. Many of opined that this means that we must be as innocent as little children or that we must be as trusting as children or that we must display any of the many different characteristics that could be used as a means of describing children. What we fail to grasp is that in this particular culture and at this time in history, children would have been considered last in the social structure. No more than fifty percent of children reached the age of adulthood at this time in history. Disease and malnutrition claimed the lives of at least half of the children born. Consequently, until a child reaches maturity, the family did not invest much by way of love and concern for him or her. Only after he or she had reached puberty would a child be considered at all. So when Jesus counsels that we must become like little children, he is actually saying that we must count ourselves as worthless and of no account. It is simply another way of saying that the first shall be last and the last shall be first, a familiar and oft repeated statement in the Gospels.
However, Jesus follows this up by making the claim that anyone would despise a little one – in other words, one of his disciples – the angels in heaven, which guard of all of his disciples, would protect them from all who would do them harm. In other words, each of us is seen as valuable in God's reign. Each of us, even the sinner, is precious in the eyes of the Lord. Our station in life matters not. Our ability to produce matters not. It matters not whether we are as "useless" as children were to the first century Judean; we are still valuable in the eyes of our God and Shepherd. Though the parable is used differently by both Matthew and Luke, the message is the same. All who place their faith in Jesus are beloved in God's reign.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M.