This is not the only place in Scripture Jesus points to children as an example of the right way to be. He said elsewhere, allow the children to come unto me, for of such is the Kingdom. It sounds lovely, until I hear the tantrum in the supermarket, or the whiney four-year-old, or watch the day care where one kid hits the other with a block because he wants the truck or cries loudly in the corner because she wants the doll.
Is this the way we are supposed to act in the Kingdom? Of course not. He was not pointing to the hitting, punching, scratching, crying, manipulating, screaming children who only learn all that from us – by observing us. And I also don’t believe he is pointing to the inherent flaw in all babies; namely, that newborns arrive thinking that they are at the center of the universe.
Newborns are like the ancients who put the earth at the center and saw the sun, moon, planets and stars all revolving around the earth. It took centuries, or in the case of babies, it takes several years before they truly learn otherwise (and yes, perhaps some never do). The sun is at the center of our solar system and the earth goes around it. So it is that children eventually learn to put others at the center. Mama is probably first, but soon enough that becomes the more abstract concept of family. Friends likely come next, and that leads to boyfriends and girlfriends which has a tendency to lead to more babies. Now granted, the self never gets far from the center for all of us, but there are some who make that final leap and realize that just as the sun stands at the center of our solar system and brings light, warmth and life to us all, so the Son stands at the center of all things and brings light, warmth and life to everything that is.
Yet, despite these obvious shortcomings of children, Jesus takes a child and sets it in the midst of the twelve and praises the child and says, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me.” But if it isn’t the childish behavior he is praising or the flaw inherent in every newborn, then I am left wondering what Jesus finds so good to suggest whoever welcomes the child in Jesus’ name welcomes both Jesus and God the Father in Heaven.
I believe the answer is found in the companion passage in the lectionary for this day which is James 3:13-4:8. James is not specifically referring to children, but I see much related to children in what he says. See if you follow me.
James begins by asking who is wise?
13 Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. 14 But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. 15 Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice. (NIV).
Wisdom is not a characteristic we would normally associate with childhood, but James goes on to explain that the wise live a good life and do deeds in humility. True, children learn from us how to act out, but despite all the bad behavior they learn from us, when they do something it is invariably done out of innocence, and nothing or no one could be more humble than that. What is more, children know nothing about bitter envy and selfish ambition. These are abstract concepts that require a certain amount of maturity to even understand. Rather, for a child, when they color a picture and bring it to their mama, they are likely to look up with their great big eyes and ask, “Did I do a good job?”
17 But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. 18 Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.
I see all this as the natural inclinations in children. They are pure and innocent, not inclined to filthy thoughts. They prefer peace in the home and are distressed when parents fight. They are considerate, liberal in their hugs, and submissive, willing to take a hand and follow along beside. Children have no need to lead. They are full of mercy and good fruit and able to overflow with love. They are impartial not yet being vested in this side or that. And they are sincere, sometimes saying things straight out that adults find embarrassing. These are traits we could all benefit from. These are the traits in children that I believe are pleasing to God.
Yes, children can misbehave and are no more perfect than the rest of us, but the bottom line for children is a willingness to love without holding back, and a willingness to learn from and follow and utterly trust the one they love. Would that we could say the same about ourselves.