Just the other day my son was playing with his silly putty while sitting on the toilet. A few minutes later, I heard little footsteps running through house…and then splashing water…and then a few clatters. Sure enough, my son’s putty was sitting right next to his recently evacuated poop. He thought it would be a great idea to fish it out of the toilet with a spoon from the kitchen. Now, although my wife and I have a blast with our kids, my son’s actions exemplify much of his decision-making existence. If it’s not fishing out poo-putty then it’s whizzing on the bathroom wall or punching his sister in the face. And his sister is no angel! She too adds to the mischievousness with her constant teasing and ruthless tattling.
Reflecting on the putty incident, I found myself holding this thought together with Jesus’ command to “become like children” (Matt 18:3) and his insistence that the “kingdom of God” belongs to children (Mark 10:13-16; Luke 18:15-17; cf. Matt 19:14, “Kingdom of Heaven”). I thought to myself, “Why in the world would I want to become like a child?!?!?” What did Jesus mean to convey when he encouraged his followers by using children as the model for discipleship? Are we to act with the naivety of a child? Perhaps, we are to have the trust (i.e. faith) of a child, an interpretation I’ve heard many pastors teach from the pulpit.
The Kingdom Belongs To Children (Matt 19:13-15; Mark 10:13-16; Luke 18:15-17)
In these verses, Jesus held a belief that children had a share in the kingdom of God. This thought didn’t sit well with his disciples who “sternly” rebuke the parents who are bringing their children to Jesus. The Gospels, thus, provide two models for faithful living: (1) acceptance of children, as parodied by Jesus; (2) and rejection of children, as parodied by the disciples. The former is commended and the latter rejected. In each Gospel, the rejection of a child was the rejection of Jesus himself (Matt 18:5; Mark 9:37; Luke 9:48). The disciples rejection reflect the ideas and ideals of their own cultural background.
The child in the ancient world, generally, was considered weak, deficient, naïve, and dependent (Plato Leg. 745b). Their status in society was marginal and certainly not glorified as in modern times. They were regarded as unreasoned (Plato Leg., 808D) and undeveloped adults. The customary practice of exposure (i.e. leaving an unwanted infant at a trash site to die) and infanticide are nods to the frivolity of a child’s place in ancient society (cf. Pausanius Descr. 2.26.4). However, children were typically abandoned for economic reasons, and not dislike. For example, Ovid recounts the tears of a fiscally poor husband and wife who would be forced to kill their child if a girl (Ovid Met. 9.675-84). Jewish and Christian traditions were unapologetically against infanticide (cf. Philo Spec. Leg. 3.110-19; Did. 2:2).
Judaism was steeped in a long tradition of children, as the continuance of the Jewish people depended upon them (cf. Gen. 1:28). Additionally, children were considered a blessing (Ps 127:3-5) in Judaism. However, in the Hebrew Bible children are clearly presented as subservient to the father (Ex 20:12; Deut 27:16), and only understood within the conventional social structures of patriarchy. These social structures continue well into the New Testament (Eph 5:21–6:9; Col 3:18–4:1) and are reflected in the disciple’s attitudes towards the children and their parents.
As a model for discipleship, Jesus reverses the cultural norms of his day by providing the child—and not the father—as the model to be emulated. However, it is not the actions, personality, or character of children that is to be adopted by Jesus followers, but rather their status. This is perhaps why the attitude of the disciples is pronounced. Jesus is making a corrective to the flawed system of child relationships in his society. The child, being less-than and second-class, is given a place of prominence in the Kingdom of God. The consideration is no less shocking than the first being last (Matt 20:16) or the least being great (Mark 10:43). In the Kingdom of God, the system of the world is shaken and adjusted.
So, being “child-like” doesn’t consist of acting childish or even having the most innocent faith and trust, but rather it requires the full renunciation of one’s heightened status—or desire for status—to be exchanged for a child’s lowly status. In other words, our Christian aim is not to overcome marginalization, but to welcome it with open arms. In our world where children are given cultural value it is difficult to remember the distinctly harsh realities of being a child in the ancient world, a reality Jesus calls all of his followers to live in daily.