Israel Valued Their Children
Children were seen as a great blessing in Old Testament times and were not viewed as a burden or a nuisance, but rather as a great blessing from the Lord. During Jesus’ day, half of children born never reached puberty. They died of diseases and malnutrition. Israel was well aware of the value of their children and allowed them free reign of the extended family compound. Psalm 127:3 says, “Children are a heritage from the Lord, offspring a reward from him.” This Psalm also tells us that blessed is the man who has many children (Psalm 127:4-5).
Become Like Little Children
When Jesus said, “unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven,” he was not speaking of immature faith. Nor was he speaking of the traits of children all too evident on playgrounds: bullying, competition, whining, tattling. What, then, did he mean? Tucked into a sermon by Frederick Buechner and notes by Rev. Nathan Carlson, are traits of childhood that may well hint at the meaning of childlike, as opposed to childish, faith.
What is clear is that in Matthew 18 (see below), the “child” subject moves from representing a literal child to represent disciples.
When the first disciples argued about who of them was the greatest, Jesus called them to reorient themselves to become like children again. While following him and having their questions answered, they exhibited a childlike posture, but Jesus reminded them that an ongoing transformation of the mind and heart is required for the entrance into the Kingdom which happens as we continue to return to childlike humility before Jesus. It is a developmental construct – to begin again as a child begins.
Children are Humble
The meaning of the saying of Matthew 18:3 is clear (see below)– to become a child has nothing to do with innocence, simplicity, or sinlessness. Rather, verse 4 proves that it has everything to do with being humble. So, what does Jesus mean by this saying as regards humility?
John Chrysostom called humility the “mother, root, nurse, foundation, and center of all other virtues.”
One scholar points out that children cannot plan far enough into the future to scheme for advantage or find a way to become greater, as did the first disciples. A child simply accepts being where he/she is.
Other scholars point to the openness and spontaneity of humility.
Children are Believers
Children, says Buechner, have no fixed preconception of reality. Several children, on hearing the Chronicles of Narnia read aloud as bedtime stories, have taken up hatchets and hacked away at wardrobes in search of the secret entrance. Many more children have peered with anxiety up a blocked chimney wondering how Santa Claus or St. Nick or Father Christmas will make it through such a tight space.
It took childlike faith for a centurion to approach Jesus about healing his servant, for a paralytic to talk his friends into lowering him through a roof, for Peter to step out of a boat onto a lake, for disciples to recognize the man standing in their midst as the same Jesus they had watched die. Meanwhile, adults of the time who knew better, rounded up witnesses to try to convince a once blind man that he could not possibly see, hatched a conspiracy to kill poor Lazarus yet again, and paid hush money to Roman guards who had testified of Jesus resurrection.
The centurion’s faith that astonished Jesus had a disturbingly childlike quality, because as we read the gospels we are convinced of our own lack of childlike faith. Too easily we settle for lowered expectations, holding out little hope of change, not believing that God can heal wounds in us that we have learned to live with.
Children Know How to Accept a Gift
Dependent since birth, children receive gladly and unselfish-consciously. They do not debate whether they deserve the gift or worry about the etiquette of reciprocation. They tear off the wrapping paper with gusto and start to enjoy the gift. To receive the Kingdom as a little child is to allow oneself to receive it, because one knows one cannot claim it as one’s right or attempt to earn it.
Children have taught us most of what we know about praise and thanksgiving. They have no problem giving thanks every day for the family dog and the squirrels who play outside. “Give us this day our daily bread,” Jesus taught us to pray. Only a childlike spirit allows us to receive God’s ordinary gifts each day without thinking them ordinary. And the same childlike spirit allows us to open our hands to God’s grace, which comes to us free of charge, unrelated to our performance.
God must share this “childlike” quality, for God has no problem accepting gifts, as the Old Testament makes clear. While on earth, Jesus also accepted gifts: expensive gifts from the wise men as a baby, a gift of perfume from a woman who poured it over his feet, the gift of time and commitment from his disciples, the gift of adoration from Lazarus’ sister Mary.
Children Know How to Trust
A busy street holds no terror for a child who has an adult’s hand to grasp. Indeed, children must sternly be taught not to trust strangers, for distrust goes against their instincts.
When Jesus prayed in the garden of Gethsemane, he used the term Jewish children used for daddy. “Abba, Father,” he said, “everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” He made a conscious decision to trust God regardless of what lay before him, a childlike dependence that held true even on the cross, when he prayed, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” According to Joachim Jeremias (1900 –1979), a German Lutheran theologian and scholar of Near Eastern Studies, to become a child means to learn to say ‘abba’ again, a sign of affection.
To become as children is in effect to ask people to begin their religious lives afresh; to replace their childish faith with the child-like faith that Jesus spoke of. A life new in the Kingdom needs a new beginning. Unrealistic expectations are replaced with an open-minded faith, legalism is replaced by grace, unhealthy dependence is replaced by childlike trust. The difference is crucial; one kind of faith keeps us in perpetual infancy while the other leads towards a mature relationship with God. In essence, we learn to live in this new Kingdom as we had to learn to live in the kingdom we were born into the first time.
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Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (Matthew 19:14).
At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ 2 He called a child, whom he put among them, 3 and said, ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5 Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me. (Matthew 18:1-5 NRSV)
33 Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, ‘What were you arguing about on the way?’ 34 But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. 35 He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.’ 36 Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, 37 ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.’ (Mark 9:33-37 NRSV)
Notes of Rev. Nathan Carlson
Reaching for the Invisible God by Philip Yancey