“For to Such Belongs the Kingdom of Heaven”
“Then children were brought to him that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples rebuked the people, but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” And he laid his hands on them and went away.” (Matthew 19: 13-15)1
About once a quarter, Pastor John, a towering figure with grey hair and rosy cheeks, corners my wife and me in our church’s small lobby before Sunday service and says, “It’s your turn. The material’s in the office.” I say nothing, because my mouth is often full of the poppyseed lemon bread that the women of the hospitality ministry cut into two-inch cubes and lay out next to the coffee dispensers on flimsy paper plates. My wife, who is more courteous and better adapted to social environments, acknowledges John’s charge with a smile. Before leaving the church, she makes sure to pick up the large plastic sleeve that holds the books full of tear-out paper dolls and cartoonish coloring sheets we’ll use to teach Bible stories to children for the next month.
Well, the material she will teach. When we first got married and settled on a church, my wife, Jessie, joined a rotating crew of church members who “taught” the entry-level Sunday School class for very young children. I put “taught” in quotes because it’s mostly impossible to impress the nuance of stories like that of Mary and Martha on a 4-year-old who can’t figure out how to get his hand unstuck from a toy bus. At that age, Sunday School is more like wrangling on a ranch than legitimate education. Jessie is the chief wrangler, and I her lowly assistant cowboy. She organizes and teaches the lesson, and I sit on the floor and play with blocks as one of students tries to wrap himself around my neck like a scarf. When we moved to Oregon last year, we resumed pretty much the same roles at our new church.
We’ve been doing this for a few years now, and to be honest, I don’t know what the children are supposed to get out of their theological curriculum. A child rarely remembers a four-word Bible verse from last week’s lesson. They often forget the story we told them ten minutes prior. We present simplistic versions of Bible stories that many adults spend serious time pondering, and we do so with cutesy pictures of happy prophets and grinning sheep. Cartoony David never takes Cartoony Goliath’s sword and cuts off his Cartoony Head. I can only trust that the educators who designed these courses know what they’re doing, because I feel that I’m learning way more about the words of Christ than our students.
We don’t have children, so I don’t have an in-home reference point to study when Jesus says in Matthew 18:2 that I should become like a child. Instead, I have to study in the field as I help a pack of little girls build a replica of Elsa’s ice castle out of wooden blocks as they sing “Let It Go” over and over. (And I mean only “Let It Go”- just those three words, ad infinitum. At least “This is the Song that Never Ends” had more variation!) What is so enviable about these small, ignorant creatures? Why are they my model? I’m an adult. I know the real Bible stories. I’ve read commentaries on them. I can also build a way better ice castle—with real ice!
Therein lies the rub—Matthew 18:4:
“Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”
Children can be stubborn, disobedient, even rebellious, but they are always small—and they know it. To them, everything is great, grand, and huge. A disorganized little pile of splintering wooden blocks is a monument that scrapes the sky, and it is filled with wonders and joys and wholly innocent pleasures. Adults are giants that lumber through their land. A handful of Goldfish crackers is a feast. A nightlight is a flame that drives away the creatures of the dark. Their imagination transforms the mundane into objects of delight and in this way they see the world as God meant it to be: a world of light, joy, and creative power.
If you haven’t ever observed children in unstructured play, I recommend that you try it. It’s not only their imagination that makes the very young so wonderful. It’s not just their general cuteness, either. Kids love repetition. On mornings we teach (okay, she teaches), it’s a sure bet that a couple students will build a small tower, knock it down, and erupt into giggles—several times. Their eyes widen and their laughter echoes just as much on the fifth repetition as on the first. They are satisfied with simplicity in a way that adults rarely are. Children are sated with the humble provisions of life. If only Adam and Eve were satisfied with their apportioned fruits in the Garden.
I still don’t know what these little kids are supposed to get out our lessons. I do know what I’ve learned. If I want to obey Christ and be humble like a child, I must strive to be small and see the world as big. I must see the potential and wonder in every little thing God has placed on his Earth, and I must be satisfied—and joyfully so—with what the Lord shares with me.
I must also trust like a child. Children trust absolutely and with so much faith. I don’t think I’m alone when I remember being crushed by the broken promises of my childhood. They were over petty things, probably meaningless to the adults who gave them, but I still remember the sharp pangs of disappointment. When we become adults, we become adjusted to skepticism and cynicism. We assume that our leaders and the media are either lying or telling half-truths. Children trust everything; we trust nothing. Who are we to trust? What is truth?
“What is truth?” is the same question Pilate asked Jesus in the Gospel of John2. The Roman governor, the consummate adult, looked the Truth in the eye and did not accept him. Children came to Jesus, and he had to tell the adults not to stop them because adults could not see the truth as children did. Children looked upon a normal man and saw something glorious where the adults saw only the man. That is why Christ commands us to be like children—so that we may be true sons and daughters of God. As I stomp around the Sunday School classroom with a giggling child tucked under each arm, I feel like I hold both ends of Creation. I hold the innocence of Adam and Eve in the Garden in my left hand, and in my right I hold the purity and joy of redeemed man in the New Jerusalem.
It’s often said that children are our future. I think that’s truer than we know.
2. John 18:38.