People even brought babies to him, for him to touch them; but when the disciples saw this they scolded them. But Jesus called the children to him and said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. In truth I tell you, anyone who does not welcome the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.’ Luke 18: 15–17
In a recent blog post I shared the above scripture and using the title of the post I asked, is this a cute story or important theology? If you are like me, as you hear this passage you might recall images of Jesus kneeling down, smiling, and looking at the face of these children thanks to the iconography of the Roman Catholic tradition. We must set aside these cute images and look at this passage with fresh eyes because I think it is important teaching.
The passage above in Luke comes after Jesus tells a parable of a Pharisee and tax collector praying. The Pharisee prays, thanking God that he is not a sinner like the tax collector, while the tax collector continually beats his breast asking God, “be merciful to me, a sinner!” Jesus ends the parable saying, “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humbled themselves will be exalted.”
Why does Luke follow the parable of the Pharisee with this interlude about people bringing children to Jesus? Perhaps the passage that follows after it provides a clue to the answer.
Luke follows the passage about children with another parable about a rich ruler. A wealthy man comes to Jesus and asks what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus quotes the commandments, to which the man replies that he has kept all of them since his youth. Jesus then says there is one more thing for this man to do, sell all he owns and distribute the money to the poor. The man becomes sad and Jesus says, “How hard is it for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”
The Pharisee believed he was better than the tax collector because he fasted and tithed, and the ruler believed eternal life came through keeping the commandments. Neither of these men were particularly bad, they in fact were simply living with in the norms of their society. It seems to me given the context of the parables of the Pharisee and the Rich Man, Luke has Jesus teaching us about something different than the norms of society as it was in his day and as it is for us today, and here are two important points to consider.
First, for me after 52 years of living to become like a little child I must unlearn many things. A child doesn’t know much about science or laws or medicine or business or religion; all these things I must unlearn. If this is true, then my practices, my religion if you will, must be one of continual emptying. Most importantly, I must empty myself of all that which I think I know about the world around me and of how I think of God.
In other words, and this I think is the second point of this passage, I must release all of my beliefs. No child is born believing anything, a child has no concept of belief or disbelief. Belief is something taught to children, and unfortunately the “eating of the apple moment” for most children occurs when they learn that Santa Claus or the tooth fairy is not real. We don’t learn about belief until we learn about lying. How ironic it is that this usually comes from parents who later implore their children not to lie to them, not realizing they are the very ones who introduced the concept of lying to their children!
What every child, in fact just about every mammal, is born with is trust. It is instinctual, we trust that to which we were literally connected to during the first nine months of our existence to protect us, to feed us, and to take care of us. Time and time again from infant through childhood our trust is reinforced, and trust reinforced over time is love. Such love, which John says is God, is what we all need to live through our encounter with the tree of good and evil.
Do you now see the truth in what Jesus is saying in this passage? To get to the level of trust into which we fall into agape, which John says is God, we must let go, unlearn, and release our grip on beliefs and open ourselves back up to our childhood. So simple it takes a lifetime to learn.