Scripture can be found here...
We’ve been hearing the stories of Jesus as told in the gospel of Matthew since the beginning of the year, and last week I preached what I thought was my valedictory sermon from this gospel. Well, I thought I was done with Matthew, but, as it turns out, Matthew wasn’t done with me. Though I had initially planned an entirely different sermon for today, something in me wanted us to hear from Jesus today on the subject of children.
The passage I’ve just read is a well-known one. Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven, Jesus’ disciples ask. You can almost see them, crowding around Jesus, jockeying for position. You know that certain names are running through their heads. Well, Peter is the obvious choice, but maybe he’ll go with John or James… or even Peter’s little brother Andrew? He would be an out-of-the-blue candidate… but not so wildly unexpected as Matthew. The tax collector. Can you imagine? Nah, that’ll never happen.
And then Jesus breaks through the little closed circle, and walks up to a mother who has three gathered around her. The littlest one is clinging to his mother’s robe, holding on for dear life. He calls the little one by name. Maybe a two-year old. “Avram, come with me,” he says gently, in a voice that is trustworthy. The child looks at his mother, who smiles and nods. The boy walks with Jesus and stands in the middle of the circle, holding onto his hand. The disciples look down. The child looks up.
Jesus speaks: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” ~Matthew 18:4-5
And we think, aww. That Jesus. What a guy. Of course he loves children. And, we’re right, he does. But what I think we miss is how absolutely off-the-charts shocking this was to the disciples who were gathered around, expecting something else entirely… expecting, maybe, to be validated in how faithful they were, or how trustworthy, how spiritual or wise. How great.
Jesus is operating on another plane entirely. Jesus has another view of what constitutes greatness.
It helps to understand how children were viewed in the ancient world.
When Jesus walked this earth preaching, teaching, healing, and offering God’s radical welcome, children were viewed very differently than they are today. For one thing, they had no status or inherent rights. The father, the head-of-household, had all the rights, including the right of life and death over his children. Don’t misunderstand me… families loved their children. They were considered a blessing from God, and a promise for the future. But the culture that views babies and children as significantly different from adults did not exist. By the time they were age 7, children were considered mini-adults, and were put to work in whatever way the family needed to survive.
And yet, Jesus says, Here you go. You want to know who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven? Just look right here. This small, vulnerable, entirely dependent little child is the image of greatness in God’s kingdom.
The shock of this claim is even clearer in the passage I read as we began the service of baptism. In that passage… which takes place after this one, and I like to think, after Jesus’ love of children has become the buzz as he travels around… in that passage, children are actually coming to Jesus, to be blessed by him. And the disciples still don’t get it. Jesus’ message about children’s inherent “greatness” in God’s reign has been lost on them. They are chasing the children away, and yelling at their parents, or whoever thought it a good idea to bring children to Jesus. And Jesus is emphatic. Let them come. These little ones? They OWN the kingdom of heaven.
On Ash Wednesday I talked about one of the things that seems to be at the heart of Jesus’ reading of little children: their humility—which translates to, their knowledge that they don’t know everything, their ability to learn, their willingness to say “I’m sorry” and to ask for help. But that’s not all. Jesus is preaching a paradox here. These children are the smallest and they are the greatest, simultaneously. They are the weakest and that is their strength. They don’t know everything, or even much, and they know that they don’t know. So they cling to their parents, like every one of us has either witnessed or experienced firsthand.
They cling to their parents. They hold on for dear life.
I think Jesus wants us to cling to God.
Children cling to their parents for all sorts of reasons. In the world as God intends it to be, they cling because they know their parents will protect them. They know their parents will nourish them, feed them, give them something to drink. They know their parents will respond to their cries, will pick them up and hold them when they fall.
I think Jesus wants us to cling to God.
We believe that God will protect us. We know that God will feed us with the bread of life and the cup of salvation. We have learnd that God hears our cries, and will lift us up and hold us when we fall.
But there’s more.
We cling to God in other ways as we grow into our identity as members of this body of Christ. We cling to God when we live as Jesus taught us to live. We cling to God when, as Jesus says elsewhere, we provide food to the hungry and a cup of cold water to the thirsty, when we visit the sick and imprisoned and lonely and sad. We cling to God when we advocate for the weak and powerless in our world, like Drew and Michelle advocate for preterm babies and their families through the March of Dimes. We cling to God as we strive to live in loving relationships with our neighbor… and you know what Jesus says about our neighbor. There is no one who is not our neighbor.
Truly. I tell you, Jesus says. Even as we raise children and help them become adults, become more like us, it is for us to change, and become like them. This is a paradox at the heart of our faith. We learn to unclench our hearts from those things that don’t give us life, and cling with all our might to God. We hold on for dear, dear life. And we find that we are already in constant and joyful communion with the one who protects us, who nourishes us with the bread of life and washes us in the living waters, who hears our cries, and lifts us up, and holds us close. Like a father. Life a mother. Like one who loves us, and who loved us before we even came to be, and who will never let us go. Thanks be to God. Amen.