Updated: Apr 24, 2020
It's clear, Jesus never had a child. Otherwise he would have never said we should be like them. I'm joking, I'm joking! But seriously Jesus, what on earth are you talking about?
“Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” - Matthew 18:3 NIV
It's been a long, hard day. My daughter was “full” at every meal, but begging for snacks in between. She decided to see if I really meant “no” (and I did!) and wheedled and whined until I was ready to pull my hair out. My son came home from school tired, fighting over every toy, and screaming at his younger sister. I got “the sigh” when I told my teen that five minutes of flute practice isn't the same as fifteen. I ended my parenting day by sending the same child back to bed half a dozen times.
Yet, Jesus said I am to be like a child.
My eleven-year career as a full-time childcare provider has given me plenty of moments to appreciate the tough side of childcare. Kids who love to instigate drama like they're running the Hunger Games. Kids who wait to pounce on a toy the second the other person lifts a finger and demands, “my turn!” Kids who say “I know” to everything, even when they clearly don't. Kids who insist “I do it!” and make everyone wait fifteen minutes to go to the park while they work on their zipper.
I'm not saying kids are bad. Of course they aren't! They're learning. They're figuring out how they fit into this big ol' world and how their lives make an impact on those around them. These years are precious and full of special moments that make your heart nearly burst. But man, oh man, are these years exhausting! It's a good thing kids come with snuggles, I love you's, sticky kisses, and fistfuls of dandelions, or there would be far fewer parents.
Yet, Jesus said I am to be like a child?
Put your stubborn, independent three-year-old to bed and the go Google why Jesus says we are to be like children. It's absolutely hilarious to me what people come up with.
“Because they're so trusting, fully reliant on their father.” (Maaaybe, but more like, “I do it!”)
“They are so meek.” (Yeah, tell me that after they've said “I know!” a hundred times.)
“They love everyone unconditionally.” (Tell that to their sibling when they've pushed them to the ground.)
“They're simple in their desires, living in the present.” (Christmas lists year-round, anyone?)
“They're humble and innocent.” This one is getting closer, but I think it needs a tweak.
I have to say, I think I often act very "childlike" in my faith.
I tell God that I can handle it. That I know all the answers. I fight with my Christian brothers and sisters. I think of all the things I want and ask for them constantly. Hmmm. This can't be what Jesus meant!
Do you know why I think Jesus said to be like children? Because they were the lowest on society's roster.
Children have a high status in our day and are fiercely protected. It wasn't always that way. Go read Oliver Twist, or Nicolas Nickelby to get a picture of what status a child had not that long ago. You could work them long hours, or almost starve them, and no one said boo.
That doesn't mean children weren't wanted and desired in Bible times! It's just that they pretty much had no rights. Whether a parent wanted to educate them, work them sunrise to sundown, marry them off, or sell them to pay a debt – these kids had no say. That isn't to say that children weren't a blessing eagerly anticipated by most parents. Some of our biggest Bible stories feature men and women praying for a child of their own with a yearning that breaks our hearts.
So how are we supposed to become like children? If we look at the verse in context, we see what was going on here.
The disciples are asking Jesus who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, and Jesus points to the lowest ranking person in the room!
He's said things like this before, remember? The Beatitudes throw away the world's view of powerful, mighty men as those who run the world, and says that the poor in spirit, the gentle, and the peacemakers will be rewarded in heaven and will inherit the earth. (Matthew 5:3-11)
Then later, they are again squabbling about rank. Jesus tells them that whoever wishes to be great among them must become their servant, just as Jesus came to serve. (Matthew 20:25-27.)
Jesus was pointing to one who was humble, not always by choice, but by who they were.
I don't think Jesus was holding a child up as a moral example, telling us to act as they do.
He says if we want to be great, we should think of ourselves as no more important than someone who is served last, is told to do their chores, goes where they are sent, learns what they are taught, and is wholly dependent on another's will, authority and goodness.
While there is much to be said for a child's simple faith, in the context Jesus is speaking of I think he's teaching us to be humble and lowly instead of seeking prestige and recognition.
When Jesus ruffled a child's hair or smiled into their eyes, I think he loved them completely, childish flaws and all. God loves my children even more than I do myself, as hard as that is to comprehend. Children are wonderful gifts and we are honored to be entrusted with these precious ones, to raise them up to be Godly men and women. Our role as adults is to emulate a child's dependence on an authority greater than them.
When Jesus said we are to be like a little child, he was telling us that those who desire to be great, must humble themselves to serve.
What do you think? Do you agree or disagree with my interpretation? Please let me know in the comments!
If you enjoyed this post, take a deeper look at the honor and shame culture of the New Testament world!