I miss having little children. I miss the trips we took when my two daughters were small. We figured out within a few years that long trips, like the ones we frequently took from Connecticut to Virginia, went much better if we could start at about four o’clock in the morning while the girls were still sleeping. After we packed the car, I would lift each one of them from their beds and carry them out, packing them carefully into the back seat. With luck, we would hit New Jersey or maybe even Maryland before they woke up. From the back seat every once in awhile came complaints. Somebody was kicking somebody else. “Make her stop.” One morning about the George Washington Bridge we heard, “Stop.” Silence. “Stop it. Now.” One of us parents checked to see what the problem was. “Mom, make her stop!”
“Make her stop breathing.”
Jesus’ disciples were not children, but they apparently had their difficulties with each other on trips. Several references in the gospel refer to an argument that apparently was fairly serious. The issue was who was the greatest. In Luke’s account of the last supper, a quarrel broke out among the disciples there about who was the greatest. Did they squabble about this all the time? I don’t know. What I do know is that if they did, they were not alone. Human beings seem preoccupied with that question and frequently worry about it, fight about it, and spend enormous time and sums of money trying to make sure that one’s status is secure and protected. All of these efforts are versions of the argument about who is the greatest. I suppose we won’t be through with it until some Cosmic Mom or other actually makes our competition stop breathing.
There is a difference between acting like children and becoming children. To say that an adult is acting like a child is not exactly a compliment, and Jesus might well have put his disciples down by saying exactly that to them, had he wished to slap their wrists for wrangling with each other. But instead he uses a child as a model, a touchstone for aspiration, a living example of what the Reign of God is like. Mark’s story has it that Jesus, having taught his disciples privately about his own impending passion and death, responds to their arguing about who is the greatest by saying, “Whoever would be first among you must be last of all and servant of all.” Then he takes a child and places it first among then, then takes the child into his arms and says, “Whoever welcomes one such child welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
Matthew’s story is a bit different. There, Jesus predicts his passion, and as in Mark, comes to Capernaum. When they arrive some of the temple tax collectors approach Peter asking if his teacher pays the temple tax. Peter says yes. A bit later, at home, Jesus asks Peter, “From whom do kings take toll or tribute? From their children or from others?” And Peter says, “From others.” Jesus says, “Then the children are free.” Clearly he is referring to himself and his band of disciples and possibly others who identify with him. But he does not stop with that. He tells Peter to go cast a line into the sea, and to open the mouth of the first fish he catches where he will find a coin that he can use to pay the temple tax. Now there’s a great story for you! It is one of the places in the gospel where Jesus’ sense of playfulness is fairly obvious—unless of course you prefer to imagine Jesus as deadly seriously about everything.
And that may have something to do with what follows, this playfulness. For, in Matthew’s story, the disciples then come up to Jesus and ask him who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, a question that seems to have enchanted them endlessly. Jesus responds by calling a child, whom he puts in the middle of them, and says, “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. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” He then goes on to say that anyone who puts a stumbling block before one of these “tiny little ones” would be better off to have a great millstone draped around the neck and be drowned into the middle of the sea.” Now that sounds pretty serious. Jesus is not joking when he warns against being stumbling blocks to “little ones” who give their hearts to him.
Luke’s story is much like Mark’s. There the disciples are arguing about who is the greatest and Jesus, knowing what the argument is about, takes a child, places it by his side and says, “whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me; for the tiniest one among all of you is the greatest.”
John has no story about any of this, but does have a major story about Nicodemus, a leader of the party of the Pharisees, coming to him for a conversation. In that dialogue, Jesus tells Nicodemus that the way one enters the kingdom of God is to be born “from above,” and he speaks of that birth as birth by “water and Spirit.”
Take all of this together and you begin to see a pattern. First of all, Jesus is not talking about what takes place in an afterlife. To think otherwise is completely to miss the point of the disciples’ question as well as Jesus’ response. No doubt Jesus expected the cataclysmic end of history as we know it, and the beginning of a new creation. But for Jesus the “kingdom of God” is a matter of right relationships, between God and humans and among humans and other humans. The substance of the kingdom is life lived differently. It involves a radical change. It entails total transformation. No person on the planet more aptly depicts that state of the kingdom than a child. Why? Don’t be fooled by the romantic and sentimental notion that some people have that children are innocent, or that they are obedient. Anybody who has been to elementary school (or pre-school, for that matter), or anyone who has had children knows that children are hardly innocent past being able to walk and talk, and are born naturally and totally self-centered for survival purposes. And anyone who has ever been in charge of children knows how all children are naturally obedient. What Jesus is saying here is that children are powerless. His argument is precisely that the child does not count. The child is “last and least.”
You and I don’t understand that because in the two millennia since Jesus, thanks to a God who did not in fact bring the world to a screeching halt, we have made some progress in treating children at least somewhat and sometimes a bit better than they were treated back then. But in Jesus’ day and for a long time afterward (and still in some parts of the world today) children are absolutely without power or influence or station. And his point is that if we want to share the life of God, we need to divest ourselves of status, image, privilege, and all the things like money and possessions and influence that prop up those things.
I think he means something else as well. I think he quite possibly means that the kingdom of God is more about play than it is about working for rewards. Now I could be wrong, but I consistently notice one thing about children no matter who they are. And that is that they are forever playing. They play with toys even if they have to make them. They play roles. They play little games seeing how far they can walk on edges without falling. They play with things in their mom’s pocketbook when she is trying to check out in front of me at Giant. They walk down the street playing with things that bounce or roll or make noise. Adults generally don’t play quite the same way. In fact it can be said of many adults that we simply have forgotten how to play. We take ourselves seriously. We “play” the stock market or we “play” music or we “play both ends against the middle.” See what I mean? Sometimes our plays are deadly. And I think that none of that has a place in God’s realm.
Robert Quinn, in his book Building the Bridge As You Walk On It, contrasts the normal state and the state of leadership. In the normal state we tend to be driven by our egos, putting our interests ahead of others’. We are internally closed, wanting to stay in our comfort zones, denying external signals for change. We tend to definite ourselves by how we think we are seen and by how well be achieve. And we like comfort, much preferring so solve problems that get in the way of our comfort than living in something besides a reactive state. Quinn posits that there is another way to live, which he calls “the fundamental state of leadership.” When we live in that state, we transcend our egos, and begin to put others’ welfare above our own. We move outside our comfort zones and being risking, seeking real feedback, moving towards higher levels of discovery and awareness. We move towards examining our own hypocrisy, closing the gaps between our behavior and our values. And we are purpose-centered, full of energy, pursuing meaningful tasks.
Now that might not sound much like children to you. But I wonder if what Quinn is driving at isn’t quite close to the irony of what Jesus is saying about welcoming children and becoming like children and being born from above. I wonder if we don’t see in all this a connection between his prediction of suffering and death and the ironical argument among unreconstructed disciples about who is the greatest. Life in the kingdom, or eternal life, or the life of God, or the Presence of heaven, has to do with giving, with emptying, with returning to that place where the speedometer and all the other meters is at zero. It is at zero where there is nothing and therefore no limitation. And where there is nothing, then all is possible. At zero, with zero striving, zero achieving, zero competition, zero power, zero influence, we are children newly born. We are just beginning. We have heaven before us and we have earth beneath us. We can live completely differently from any way we have ever lived before. We can pour out or lives for those who are barely living, spend our resources serving the cause of those who have no claim on us, give ourselves to those who can’t pay a cent to tip us. And the kingdom of heaven, says Jesus, is like that. Welcome that state as if you are embracing a little child (the child is you!), and right there at zero you are welcoming me, and the one who sent me.
I want to live in that kingdom. Do you?
© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2012