Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it (Mk. 10:15). What does Jesus mean here, entering God’s Kingdom “like a child”; indeed that one must enter, the only way to enter God’s kingdom is like a child?
There is a more modern tradition that sees Jesus as referring to the character of children here: they are innocent, open, filled with wonder. So they have a kind of trusting, simple faith. Just what we all need. And we probably do! But this tradition of reading Jesus’ words is really built on a relatively recent culture – 19th century maybe – one out of which Sunday School eventually evolved. “Gentle Jesus, meek and mild, look upon thy little child”, and so on. Children as little lambs. I doubt, however, that this is Jesus’ point. After all, Jesus compares redeemed sinners to lambs (cf. Jn. 21:15), not children.
In any case, children are hardly paragons of innocence. Certainly, no one thought so before the Victorian age. Books like William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies, or earlier, Richard Hughes’ A High Wind in Jamaica (1929), or even earlier in a less realistic mode, Peter Pan and Wendy (1911), all retrieved a long standing view that children, while not as destructive as adults, are frequently driven by the same envy, mendacity, and cruelty, often to the point of murder itself. The child soldiers of Liberia and Northern Uganda, in the past decades – shooting and maiming others (often having been horribly abused themselves) are a shocking reminder that children can do awful things; and do them over and over again in a smaller scale, as our own culture’s bullying and social-media attacks and cyber-assassinations among the young display. Yet, “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it”. So what does Jesus have in mind?
It should also be said that children do have a special place in human society. The 1949 Geneva Convention dealing with war stated what had long been assumed (Article 77; Protocol I): “children shall be the object of special respect and shall be protected against any form of indecent assault.” Why the special singling out of children? It’s actually complex. But at the least we can say this: in war, we are to protect children because children are more vulnerable than adults; they can’t “fight back”; they have no access to weapons or ability to use them well. In short, children are weak.
And of course, we all know this. Children, to put it bluntly, die more easily than everyone else: war, disease, famine. It all takes a much worse toll on the young. That long established life expectancy average of around 40 years (or less), that obtained universally in the human race until about 120 years ago, was driven mostly by horrendous infant and child mortality rates; followed, of course, by that of their mothers in delivery. While sentimental hymns of children began to appear in the 19th century, so too there remained the much longer tradition of children’s prayers and hymns focused on dying. Who doesn’t remember the folk prayer for children, to be said before bed: “now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” What an odd thing to teach a child to pray each night, we might think! Yet, in a world of fevers and hunger and sudden and violent events prowling about, dying before one wakes was hardly a fantasy. And our older Anglican hymnals still have hymns that reflect this reality.
Think of Job, a book we are beginning to read portions of on Sundays this week. The Lectionary leaves out the bulk of Chapter 1. Well, it’s disturbing, to be sure. Satan insists that Job is a good man only because his life is easy. “Take away everything he has”, Satan says to God, “and I bet you he will become bitter and curse you.” And so, in fact, Job loses everything, first and foremost his children. They are older children, to be sure; but they are all gone, in a moment, and Job and his wife are left bereft. Only then, does Satan now assault Job’s body, as we hear. Children first, parents next.
No: I think it fair to say that “entering the Kingdom of God like a child” did not mean, for Jesus, adopting a character of innocence, wonder, and simple and joyful trust, desirable though these qualities may be. It meant entering the Kingdom as an utterly defenceless creature.
In Matthew’s version of this saying, Jesus says “Unless you turn yourself and become like children …”: “turn” here is a word pertaining to very physical actions of laying oneself open or “bare” to the world: “ if any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Mt. 5:39). “Becoming a child” here is thus about being completely exposed and, as they say, “liable” before others and the world. Children are subject to another’s control, including forces of deception and corruption, as Paul writes (cf. Eph. 4:14). But also liable and exposed, as it were, before God.
This is hardly a cultural value these days. Never was, actually. Its declaration here by Jesus is astonishing not only in its stark contrast to our values, but also in its confirmation of what we are all trying to escape and, in the end, know we cannot: simply belonging to God, without any final capacity of our own to belong to ourselves alone, to protect ourselves, to escape from the world and from others. Accept this!, Jesus seems to say – accept the “whatever” of your exposed lives; welcome it! Shape your life around this fact so that that it becomes a calling, and discover who God really is, God’s Kingdom. “Thy Kingdom come!”, Jesus tells us to pray; not, “build the kingdom”.
Although I won’t focus on this now, do note that Jesus words just before this discussion about children entering the Kingdom, deal with marriage and divorce.
It’s as if Jesus is saying: do you want to know what this marriage is, the marriage of man and woman, in which divorce makes no sense, that I am talking about? Then listen to what I have to say about children entering the Kingdom, exposed, liable, and defenceless!
To be married is for husband and wife each to become like little children in this respect. Something we know well, surely, as the platitudes – but also deep truth – which we often repeat about relationships makes clear: “to love is to risk”, risk hurt, risk the unknown, risk having our own tightly-held possessions of self taken away. “To love is to be vulnerable”, C. S. Lewis (The Four Loves), and hosts of Hallmark cards have, rightly, said.
In fact, a consistent interpretation – among Jews and Christians both (cf. Chrysostom) – is that the “one flesh” that husband and wife “become” refers, not simply to the sexual act they perform, but to the child to which their common life gives rise: “they shall become one flesh” means that their lives finally take the form of a child, in the flesh in terms of procreation, but also in their own selves, in terms of their new vulnerabilities. It’s not an unrealistic thought, in fact. This past year I have had four of my closest male friends, along with my sister-in-law, lose their spouses. They’re all my age; and I have just come back from the funeral of Chris Seitz’ wife, Elizabeth, aged 56. Disease, heart-attack, covid. Just like it has always been in human history. And my friends are all overwhelmed, Job-like, by the wrenching exposure of their lives to what? to the world, to existence, to what it means simply to be a human being. Not the exposure of life, only; but of love, wrapped up in another person. Suddenly, it seems, my 60-year-old plus friends are, as it were, standing in the face of reality like children, once again. It makes me tremble. But it is inescapable, surely.
So, says Jesus: enter the Kingdom just like this; be willing to come to God, to stand before his being, truth, and grace, like this. Since, after all, this is who you are; so that I can be for you who I really am. What is that? We won’t know until we are turned to Him just so, just as the child is turned to the world.
Defencelessness, dare we say it, is a good before God. It is not a “virtue”, however: in the world, of course, we must protect ourselves; I wouldn’t say otherwise. But if protecting ourselves becomes our mode of being, we are also destroyed, much as are the “wicked” David speaks of in today’s Psalm (26), people driven by bribery, lies, and violence, all modes of self-protection after all. For self-protection is, in the end, a wall that keeps us from the truth: the truth of others, the truth of God. If you are married – and if you are a child (they are similar) Jesus says, Good! Be that way and, in a sense, stay that way. Because in this defenceless mode of husband and wife exposed to the vagaries, foibles, challenges, transient loves of each other, and in the mode of children let loose in a world they cannot control, you are opened up now to one another and to God: the walls are down, the fortifications (ever so paltry and useless anyway) are crumbled. You will take what you are given, and finally see it for what it is: a gift. Job will say, “naked I came from my mother’s womb, naked will I return; the Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord” (1:21). By which he means it is all grace.
And here Job offers one of the great summaries of the Gospel within the whole Old Testament: it is all grace that comes to us, just as it is all God who comes to us in the flesh of Jesus. So Job will declare, so resoundingly in Christian terms: “For I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth; and though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God” (Job 19:25-26). In this way, I shall enter the Kingdom and finally “see” my Lord.
That is the point of becoming child: seeing God. Don’t misunderstand here: entering the Kingdom of God “like a child” is not an answer to a problem, a solution to anything, like suffering. It is rather a statement of the truth, pure and simple: that is, to see God, and when we see God – here now or later — we will carry no weapons, will wield no tools, brandish no books, rely on no grand intelligences and ideas. We will simply “be”, by the mercy and grace of being God’s own, first and last. God has made us; hence, “this” – right now – “is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it” (Psalm 118:24).
So entering the Kingdom like a child is not a solution, but a place, as it were, a place of defencelessness opened to the “just isness” of being God’s. But this place carries with it concrete consequences, practically. Such gracious defencelessness does in fact mean that the hardest travails of our existence — as children at the hands of wicked adults or of wicked children both, or in the face of the burdens of scarcity and uncontrollable biology; or as adults, in marriage, and their wrenching pulls and endings of what we love; or as those who struggle within this narrow isthmus that joins childhood to adulthood, making its fragile way through marriage and parenthood somehow, for how else did we get here? – in the travails of all, we are not being so much crushed as brought into the presence of God. Take that seriously: we are not being crushed. “In all these things, we are more than conquerors” as St. Paul writes, not in ourselves, but as children, as those gathered “in him that loved us” (Rom. 8:37). So maybe entering the Kingdom “like a child” does have something to do with trust. Trust, not so much as a state of mind, but as a stance through which the living God who has given himself absolutely to us in Christ, does so again at just this space opened by our outstretched feeble arms. He has, as Hebrews tells us this morning “brought many children into glory” (Heb. 2:10), he who dares to call us, not children only, but “brethren” (12).