Sigmund Freud once wrote: “Children are completely egoistic; they feel their needs intensely and strive ruthlessly to satisfy them”. In many ways he was right. Even the smallest of babies have only one thought – and that is number one! Yet there was an occasion when Jesus regarded the actions of children praise-worthy. That was when Jesus blessed children and said: “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a child will never enter it” (Mark 10.15)
Probably most people, if they had to picture this scene in their mind’s eye, would picture parents bringing squealing babes in arms to Jesus. Baptists tend to associate this incident with a ‘dedication’ service: indeed, I read this passage at a recent dedication service I was leading. Other Christians tend to associate this passage with a font. But look again at the story. Jesus does not say: “Let the babies be brought to me” but “Let the children come to me”. In a dedication service or at the font the only thing a baby normally does is to yell its head off or, even worse, sick up over the minister – otherwise the child is totally passive. Yet here Jesus envisages children actively coming to him. I can imagine Jesus shouting to the children: “Come on kids – I’ve got all the time in the world for you – don’t worry about those men – come over here and see me”!
It is important to realise that “the children” concerned were not all babies. Maybe some of the parents had their children in their arms, but probably most children were simply holding onto their parents by the hand. Unfortunately some English translations are misleading: for some translations say “he took them up in his arms” (so NRSV), whereas in fact all the original Greek says is that “he took them in his arms”. Almost certainly we are to imagine Jesus seated in his normal teaching posture and receiving children of all ages by putting his arms around them.
A French Roman Catholic theologian commented: “To receive the Kingdom is to receive Christ, the Gospel, grace. In a word the reign of God is an invitation, a call. Children respond at once to a call from people they know and they run and throw themselves into their arms. Those who will have responded will enter into the Kingdom” (M.J.Lagrange). The children set an example by coming of their own accord to Jesus – they responded to his call.
Furthermore, when those children came to Jesus, they came to him with childlike trust. One of the saddest features of present-day society is that we have to tell our children not to trust other people. From the earliest age we teach children not to speak to strangers. But that doesn’t come natural to a child. A child naturally trusts others. A child naturally believes the best about others. Part of growing up is having your illusions shattered. By contrast to come to Jesus as a child is to exercise childlike trust.
Matthew records Jesus saying on another occasion: “I assure you that unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the Kingdom of heaven. The greatest in the Kingdom of heaven is the one who humbles himself and becomes like this child” (Matt 18.3,4). Religious people often try to come to God trusting in their own self-righteousness – “Lord, I’ve done this, that and the other for you”. But it is only those who come trusting Jesus – and in him alone – who can enter the Kingdom of Heaven. In the words Eduard Schweizer, a great Swiss New Testament scholar: The children “cannot count on any achievements of their own – their hands are empty like those of a beggar”. Or in the words of the old hymn: “Nothing in my hands I bring, simply to Thy cross I cling”.
Needless to say, such childlike trust need not rob us of our critical faculties. To become like children is not to engage in a childish game of make-believe. There is a considerable difference between behaviour that his child-like and behaviour that is childish.
We sometimes say to a person behaving childishly – “oh do grow up”. Strangely, to exercise childlike trust is a mark of growing up. So many people run away from the real issues of life. Whereas Christians face up to the real issues – the issues of life and death, good and evil. Far from running away from God, we need to come to God, exercising childlike trust in the Jesus who died and rose for us.
Many years ago, as a school governor, I attended a viewing of a film to be used with infants and/or juniors as part of their relationship education (often known as sex education). I hope this film or its equivalent is still in use. What impressed me was that there was no ‘stranger danger’ or ‘don’t talk to strangers’. Instead the emphasis was on children listening to their own feelings so that if something happens which makes them feel uneasy or uncomfortable they are encouraged to find a policeman or the nearest adult (who probably will be a stranger) and ask for help. That seems to me to be far more relevant to the realities of life than scaring children about anyone they don’t know. Especially given that most danger comes from people they do know and often do trust.
In our society over many generations (although perhaps this is changing now) we have been taught not to trust our own instincts but to think rationally about and analyse everything. And boy, have we lost out because of it.
As for Christians facing up to the real issues, my experience is exactly the opposite. To give a somewhat trivial example, a Christian friend of mine recoiled when I suggested that we are both old, saying, ‘Don’t say that!’. This friend is in their mid-80s but is clearly unwilling to acknowledge the truth of that (and one can speculate about what underlies this reluctance). Reflecting afterwards, I began to wonder whether many Christians aren’t stuck in a rather cosy world where they protect themselves from the realities of life around them. Which simply makes it a whole lot easier for those who do serious harm to children and other vulnerable people to get on with their damaging activities while those who might be able to help and support their victims, turn a blind eye because they find the realities of life too difficult.