In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells his disciples, “Truly, I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (MT 18:2-4)
Traditionally, this passage has been interpreted as extolling the childlike virtues of humility, innocence, and openness – all of the things that the disciples (and for that matter many adults) struggled with.
However, recently I heard that my daughter noticed a two year-old new to the church had no one her age to play with, and so announced that she would go find her some friends. She ran down the hill to where she knew the neighborhood children gathered, and brought a gaggle of children back to the church with her. That didn’t demonstrate humility, it showed an awareness of stranger’s feelings, problem-solving, leadership skills, and an innate desire and ability to build community.
An attendee of the Homework Club recently asked to learn more math and science over the summer, and actively seeks out the tutor who can challenge them most with more math drills. That doesn’t show innocence. That demonstrates a keen sense of the importance of knowledge and a desire to acquire it.
I met a child who when I asked what I could do for their family, asked for a special blessing for their parent who was recently distressed and aggrieved. That didn’t show innocence nearly as much as compassion, awareness, sensitivity, and initiative.
During the presentation Remembering Selma: “I’m Walkin’ For My Freedom,” photographer Matt Herron showed a picture of an eight year- old black boy standing alone in front of a court- house in Alabama, holding a sign that said, “One Man, One Vote” with three imposing white police officers coming to arrest him, which they did.
Much to my surprise, Mr. Herron spoke of how it was the children who instigated the protests in Selma. While the adults were too afraid to engage the police, the children made signs, protested, and publicly lifted up their grievances and their demands for justice. It was only when law enforcement began incarcerating elementary school-age children that the parents’ anger brought the adults out to join the protests. To me this shows not humility, but fearlessness, defiance, a deep sense of justice, and downright spunk.
If we are called to build the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth – a just, peaceful, harmonious society where all are embraced and everyone has enough, and if we are to take Jesus’ words seriously unless you change and become like children, then I would look to the children in our community for examples. Noticing the stranger combined with building community. Compassion combined with initiative and loving kindness. An openness to learning combined with an articulate search for knowledge. A deep sense of justice combined with spunky but organized defiance. In each of these examples, we see integrity: thought, word and actions in alignment. We also see people who are willing to walk the walk, not just talk the talk.
I wonder what that small child so many years ago was doing during the time of the Roman Empire – a period of much unrest, of disenfranchisement of racial and ethnic minorities, a time of war and violence, a time of grief and fear, a time when most everyone either was a refugee and stranger, or lived among exiles as their neighbors. What was it that caught Jesus’ attention? What did he commend the child for doing, specifically? We don’t know. I imagine the child did what children often do when you praise them in front of a bunch of adults they don’t know: blushed and beamed, but mostly looked at the ground. So we are left only with one word: humility. But if that child was anything like these children, I’ll imagine that they were also fearless, full of initiative, compassionate, hungry for knowledge, and humble.
As we go forward over the next few months, we will be asking these children to become more active participants in the worship, ministry, and life of the church. I pray that God will bless them in their learning and participation, and that God will bless us that we might change and become like them.