One of the most frequently told stories of my childhood in a Southern Baptist Sunday School was of “Jesus and the Children.” Matthew records two events in back-to-back chapters.
In Matthew 18, Jesus uses a child to answer the adults’ adult question, “Who then is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” We see some adults today who are obsessed with being “the greatest” or “the best.”
Jesus answered the question by calling a child to stand beside him. “Here’s the ‘who’ you were asking about…and if you don’t change and become like this child, you won’t even enter the kingdom much less be the greatest in the kingdom.” Whoa. Probably not the answer the adults were expecting.
In the next chapter, Matthew records the disciples acting like Jesus’ gatekeepers, rebuking parents for bringing their kids to Jesus. The disciples must have thought Jesus had more important people to see than children. Jesus came back with, “Your thinking is wrong. Let the children come to me. Stop stopping them. For the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”
As a child, these stories gave me comfort – “Jesus loves me!”
As an adult, these stories give me pause – “What does Jesus mean?”
I don’t know. Do you?
My experience with my 8 year old lunch buddy helps me a bit. “Lunch Buddy” is a program of the Big Brother’s organization. He and I have been “buddies” for 4 years.
We were playing “Go Fish” and I asked him if he liked to play games with his family. He said he did but that his uncle gets mad when he loses the game and throws things.
“What do you think about that response?” I asked.
“I think it’s stupid,” he answered.
“Why is it stupid?” I probed.
My lunch buddy, in a matter-of-fact manner replied, “Because it’s just a game. Get over it.”
A wise 8 year old.
Children often show more wisdom than adults.
A 3-year old said, “It’s ok if she isn’t kind to me. I can show her how.”
After seeing a spider web, a lady said, “That’s a pretty web. I don’t like spiders, though.” Her 6 year old nephew, in a serious tone replied, “You have to appreciate the spider to appreciate the web.”
A 2-year old said to her mom, “Mommy, I make you happy; you make me happy too. Everybody should make everybody happy.”
Children seem to have a goodness, a sense of fairness, a generosity, a wisdom, an innocence that adults have lost. Is Jesus telling us in these events recorded by Matthew that there is something good and pure at the core of our being that needs to be re-discovered and nurtured?
Is that the conversion Jesus describes in Matthew 18:3 (change and become like children)?
Thomas Merton puts it like this: “For me to be a saint means to be myself. Therefore the problem of sanctification and salvation is in fact the problem of finding out who I am and of discovering my true self.”
I saw in my lunch buddy who I wanted to be.
I saw in him who my true self is.
That’s the kingdom.