Read Matthew 18:1-5
Quite often during Jesus' ministry, there were arguments among the disciples over who was the greatest in the kingdom. On one occasion James and John even had their mother campaigning for the top positions in the kingdom. It is another such occasion - a moment when the disciples are concerned for status, importance, power, and influence - that begins our text.
Jesus replies by showing them that the way to greatness in the kingdom is to change and become like children. Now what seems odd to me is that the disciples seem to be acting very childish already wouldn't you agree? They are arguing over "whose the boss" and "who Jesus likes best" - isn't that what children do? So why does Jesus instruct them to change and become like children?
We may mistake Jesus' teaching if we think that Jesus is instructing the disciples to take on the qualities and characteristics of children. Jesus is not calling for "childish behavior or childish mentality." Notice that in verse 4 he says that the greatest in the kingdom takes a humble place - like a child. In the kingdom of heaven, "the little ones" have importance and value.
In the world of the disciples children were the lowest ranking members of society. Some of it was for logical reasons - children are dependent on adults after all. But some of it was for rather brutal and cold reasons - children are the weakest members of society and were seen as a sort of commodity - their value as potential adults was their only value.
That may be a bit difficult for us to grasp because in our culture we value children - at least we say we do. I wonder if as a culture we truly value children simply because they are children?
There are few places in our culture where children are valued for being children. Maybe it is only the church and Chuck E. Cheese where a kid can be a kid. And I hope the church never abdicates it all to Chuck E. And let's be careful, because even in the church we can get the wrong idea about what it means to value children and to be like children.
Take George Barna for an example. Barna is a churchman and believer. In his book, "Transforming Children into Spiritual Champions" he confesses that he missed the mark when it come to children and the church: "In my mind, children had always been part of a package deal: we want to reach adults with the gospel and then help them mature in their faith in Christ, so we have accepted the kids as a "throw in." ... Like most adults I have been aware of children, fond of them, and willing to invest some resources in them, but I have not really been fully devoted to their development, In my mind that were people en route to significance - i.e. adulthood - but were not yet deserving of the choice resources." (pp. 7-8)
There's a lesson here for the way we regard and minister to children ...
In the kingdom of heaven, we don't serve people based on what they can do for us. Nor do we target people based on what they can do for the church. In other words, there are no prize "catches" in ministry. That's worldly thinking. It is the sort of thinking James discourages when he warns the church not to show favoritism between wealthy and poor people (James 2:1-4).
When Jesus speaks of the little ones and the child-like he means more than children, but don't think that he doesn't mean children also. The disciples must have thought Jesus teaching was metaphorical - or they didn't get it. For later, they are turning children away from Jesus. Why would they do that? Well in their mind Jesus has important business. He has a messianic movement to plan he has an army to equip and a government to establish. And yes, kids are important but they can't fund your movement, they can't fight in your army, they can't provide wisdom and counsel. So you folks leave the teacher alone, he's had a hard day and he doesn't need all these kids clamoring about. "Let them come near me!" shouts Jesus. "The kingdom of heaven belongs to them too!"
In the kingdom, children matter simply because they are children. I am afraid that as much as we love children we might segregate them too much. I know they need some special attention - I realize that. But do we have assumptions that children have to have "their own kind of church" and we have to have another. Well what a disappointment it must be to turn 18 and have to enter into the boring adult sector of the kingdom of heaven. Some good soul with a clipboard and manual greets you with a manual and says "Now from this point on there's no more of that clapping, laughing and joyousness. And forget about retreats and games, you'll have too many meetings for that. Give your offering, stay out of trouble and by all means find something to worry about." I hope that when we get like the disciples and make their well-intentioned mistake of throwing up barriers between children and adults that Jesus will knock them down. Let's help him do that - and let's do more than just get involved in children's ministries, let's invite them into some of ours. Could we get children to participate in some of our so-called business meetings? Could we ask them what they think about the way we adults do things? Maybe we could invite them into our gatherings and share ourselves with them? I know it seems odd, probably because it challenges our assumptions about control, status, and importance ...
There's a lesson here for the way we regard status - and thus the way we behave in the kingdom ...
Just after Jesus blessed the children, Jesus met a rich young man - some say he was a ruler of some sort - a man of authority. I know those "kingdom-minded" disciples must have been considering what this fellow could do for the movement. Here's a wealthy fellow, young and strong, and moral and upstanding too - why he's kept the commandments faithfully. But there's just one hindrance to his entry into the kingdom says Jesus, "If you want to be perfect, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come follow me."
Jesus asks him to become like a child - dependent on the father, trusting in his riches, not our own. Jesus asked this man to change and become like a child.
Do you want to be perfect? Do you want to enter into the kingdom of heaven?
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