At that time, the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a little child and had him stand among them. And he said, “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven…” (Matt. 18:1-4)
I have wondered before why Jesus answered this question of the disciples in the way he did. They are jostling to try be in the front, so they ask their Master what is the secret to greatness. Jesus provides a live illustration for them. He calls a child and brings him in their midst. He draws their attention to the child and declares, “If you are looking for a model of greatness, don’t look to the kings, rulers, executives, and presidents; look at this child.” Huh? To be great, one must become like a child? Why would Jesus say this?
Certainly good answers have been provided. Children have a simple faith. They express absolute dependence. They are pure. Definitely faithful disciples should emulate these traits. But I think the key element here is humility. Children have little power. Especially in the first century, children were considered nuisances to be removed. Yet even today, children are ushered out of our worship services so as not to distract others. They sit at a separate table at dinner time to not interrupt the adults’ conversation. Their suggestions or ideas, while cute, are not taken seriously. We live in an adult world, and children have little to offer in terms of productivity in that world. Instead, children are often forgotten.
Two stories occurred recently in our neighborhood that reminded me of this truth. First, one of our church members who mentors children at the local elementary school was asked to chaperone a class field trip. The teacher asked him to sit next to one fourth-grade boy, particularly because he had a tendency to be unruly. This Christian mentor tried to engage this child in a hope-filled way. “What are you going to do when you grow up?” the man asked. The boy responded matter-of-factly, “I will probably go to jail.” The mentor was shocked by this answer and later, after the field trip, he shared that with the principal. After all, an administrator ought to know that one of their students believes he is on a trajectory toward prison. The principal admitted that the boy’s family contained no stable male in their home. The men he knew had all ended up in jail and so naturally, he assumed that he would too. While his mother works hard and tries to keep the family together, there is little hope in this child’s life. Despite being in an upwardly mobile world of all kinds of job opportunities and educational options, this child has been forgotten.
Second, around the corner in our neighborhood lived a family with several children. They walked to the nearby neighborhood school regularly. While the family was quite poor, the children were very bright. Despite working hard at low-wage jobs, all the parents could manage was to rent their dilapidated house. Yet, the children were doing well in school; they developed friends, won awards at school, and felt at home in the neighborhood. But with property values rising because of re-development, the house owner saw an opportunity. He sold the house to make a profit. The family was forced to leave. It all happened pretty quickly and the best rental property they could find was zoned to another school. Without adequate transportation, the kids must ride the bus … which goes to a new school. Because of a quick business transaction, the world of these children was now turned upside-down—new school, new friends, new neighborhood. They had no choice in the matter. In a world of profits, real estate development, and business deals, the children were forgotten.
Children are victims. Without any social or financial capital, they have little choice in what happens in their lives. Adults make seemingly everyday choices that dramatically affect their lives and often the children are forgotten. A divorce is filed, a house is sold, a career is jettisoned, a crime is committed, and the children are forgotten.
This is the humble and powerless position to which Christ calls us. Instead of the upward trajectory of wealth and influence, the downward route of service is the path of the Christian. The way up in Christ’s kingdom is to go down. A good way to begin this transformation is by learning to welcome, instead of forgetting, children. “Whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me” (Matt. 18:5). Childcare is the starting point in learning Christ-like humility. Someone has said, “How we deal with children is a signal of our fellowship with God.” True disciples of Christ do not push children away, but bring them close. They do not avoid kids, but celebrate them. They do not forget children, but value them.
As disciples of Christ learn to love, bless, and honor the children among us–both our own and those in our neighborhoods–we learn the spirit of Christ and cultivate the heart of Christ. This is where true greatness lies. May it never be said of Christ’s church that the children near us were ever forgotten.