Somewhere along the way of life, we adults lost a thing or two. Perhaps, it is part of maturation. But then again, maybe we simply lost something valuable. For the second time Jesus has announced to the disciples that he will suffer, die, and rise again after three days. What follows is either a remarkable calm, a stunned silence, an amazing lack of curiosity, a moment of “what did he just say” as a cover for lack of understanding, or maybe it is just fear. I always wonder that if a child had been there, curiosity would have piqued interest, especially that whole “rise again after three days.” I easily imagine a child saying, “You’re gonna’ rise from the dead? Cool! How’s that?”
Bible study with kids is always interesting. Cover the story of Noah and the Ark with adults and you might have questions about logistics, food supply, water navigation, etc. Kids what to know where the animals on the ark went to the bathroom and who had to clean it up.
Back to the disciples. I think they did not understand, they’re too afraid to ask questions, and so they argue about who among them is/will be the greatest. When Jesus asks what they are arguing about, an embarrassed silence is the only reply. Doesn’t matter. Jesus already knows. So, he brings a child into their midst and simply says: “Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but the One who sent me.”
I think we are prone to sentimentalize this gospel. More than one homilist has offered that Jesus likens children to God because children are so purely good, or unselfish, or accepting, or meek. I don’t think that is a basic description a parent would provide. Their kids are far more interesting. Their kids are feisty, clever, quick, fierce, generous, selfish, naughty, obedient, curious, bored, quiet, loud, challenging, funny, surprising, solemn, and exhausting.
Jesus does not say, “Welcome the child because it is cute, loving, huggable, sweet, and innocent.” He is trying to give the disciples a lesson about the Kingdom and about God. What Jesus is really saying is: Do you want to see what God actually looks like? Are you curious about the truest nature of divine power and greatness? Then welcome the child. Welcome the child, and you welcome God.
What does Jesus want us to know about God by welcoming children? This is by no means an exhaustive list; but here are some possibilities a parent (and also a theologian) offered:
Children teach us to honor our imaginations as pathways to God. You have to be amazed by the imaginative scope and power of young children. They can stack fifty Lego bricks together and see an entire city. They can cover a piece of construction paper in what looks like scribbles, and then tell a fully formed story based on the drawing. In this week’s gospel, Jesus invites the disciples to imagine a world where death doesn’t have the final word. Where inexpressible suffering gives way to irrepressible joy. Where resurrection is not merely a possibility, but a promise. But the disciples can’t make the leap. They’re bound by preconceived notions of who and what the Messiah must be, and they lack the imagination to envision a world as revolutionary as the one Jesus holds out to them. Welcome the child, open your imaginations. Return to the capacity for wonder, newness, and strangeness you knew as a child.
Children teach us to risk hard questions on our way to God. Kids aren’t afraid to ask awkward, challenging, and even impossible questions. They’re naturally curious, they’re not embarrassed by their ignorance. If they don’t understand something, they ask, and they persist in asking. In contrast, the disciples in this week’s Gospel story miss an opportunity to draw closer to Jesus, because they’re too afraid to ask hard questions. In telling them candidly about the suffering that lies in his future, Jesus offers his disciples the possibility of a deeper, more vulnerable-making intimacy with him. But they refuse the invitation. Perhaps they believe — as we so often do — that avoiding the uncomfortable stuff will save them. Whatever the case, their unwillingness to ask tough questions limits their growth and their fellowship with God.
Children teach us to trust God’s abundance. Young children generally expect that there’s enough to go around. Enough time, enough hugs, enough attention, enough love. (Also, enough Grahams Crackers, Goldfish, and other snacks!) It doesn’t naturally occur to them to fear scarcity unless they’re conditioned to do so; left to themselves, they assume plenitude. When Thérèse of Lisieux was four years old, she was shown a handful of colorful ribbons, and asked to choose one. She simply responded, “I choose all.” The disciples in this week’s story, though, don’t believe that “all” is available in the kingdom of God. Believing that what’s available to them is meager and inadequate to start with, they quarrel for first place to make sure they get enough. In response, Jesus points them to the un-ambitious, open-hearted trust of a young child. As if to say: “Stop racing. Stop competing. Stop scrambling. There is enough. I am enough.”
And finally, children teach us what divine power looks like. This, I think, is the most radical lesson of the four. A young child is the very picture of helpless dependence, of powerlessness, of need. At times socially invisible or legally unprotected. Children are at the mercy of those who are older, bigger, and stronger than they are. And this is the portrait Jesus offers of God. In the divine eye power and prestige accrue as we consent to be little, to be vulnerable, to be invisible, to be low.
We gain greatness not by muscling others out of our way, but by serving them, empathizing with them, and sacrificing ourselves for their well-being. Whatever human hierarchies and rankings we cling to, Jesus upends as he holds a tiny child in his arms.
Do we want to see God? Do we really want to see God? Then look to the child abandoned in the alleyway; in detention at the U.S border; a victim of abuse. Look to the child who can’t access healthcare, an education, or dinner. Look to the weak, the small, the simple, the vulnerable, and the helpless. Look to the ones who are not in charge. Look at the tiniest faces and see God.
One of the most central and amazing truths about Christianity is that God became a helpless human child. In this week’s Gospel story, Jesus underscores that stunning truth with another: all children everywhere represent God’s heart, God’s likeness, God’s power. To cultivate childlikeness is to be imaginative, to question, to believe in abundance, and to not grasp power. These are the great ones in the kingdom of God.
“Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but the One who sent me.”
The central idea and parts of the text from Debbie Thomas at “Journey with Jesus”