Matthew 18:1-5 (NRSV)
At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 2 He called a child, whom he put among them, 3 and said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5 Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.
This passage is one that can truly be used as a weapon against a person’s faith. For a person eager to know how to “enter the kingdom of heaven,” the call to “become like children” can be taken several different ways. For example, I often thought this meant “Don’t think too much.” This passage has been used a number of times to get me to stop asking so many questions. The nature of Jesus, the Trinity, election and free will, the age of the earth, Old Testament violence, and my questions on other subjects are met with “just trust God,” “don’t worry about it,” and “become like a child.” After all, “Children believe what they are told,” or so we think.
This line of thinking was (and is) like a slow poison to my faith. I have always been the type to ask questions—additionally, I cannot accept the easy answers, I cannot help but doubt, I have to “think too much.” If Christianity can’t handle questions, then people like me aren’t very inclined to stay in the Church. How then can we “become like children”? I think the answer is found in actually spending time with children. I have been teaching in the children’s ministry of my church for the last year, and through this work, I realized something interesting. Kids ask a ton of questions. Kids don’t take anything at face value. I can’t even count how many times a child has asked “Why?” in a Bible lesson, or demanded an explanation for the rules during game time. So, it turns out that “become like children” doesn’t turn out to be “don’t ask questions.”
The truth is that Jesus actually explains what he means right in the passage. He references humility. Jesus says we should “become humble like this child.” I would suggest that humility is exemplified more in recognizing we don’t yet have all the answers, rather than being absolutely certain that we do. In children’s ministry, most of the kids want to learn more. They don’t believe they know everything, and they ask questions and exercise skepticism out of an innate desire to find truth. Further, children display humility in their faith in how they interact with each other’s beliefs. I have never seen a child break a friendship over a theological disagreement! Things that strike them as contradictory or puzzling (including in my teaching) are far more often met with humor than anger. Rather than hating me or each other over differing perceptions of the world, they laugh and love.
The more I have the opportunity to teach children, the clearer Jesus’ analogy seems to me. Perhaps, these are the qualities to which Jesus is referring in this passage. If we are to “become humble like this child,” then perhaps we should ask questions and doubt, but we should do so lovingly. Instead of directing anger or hatred towards others because we don’t agree on predestination or some other doctrine, perhaps we should agree to be as inquisitive as possible, all the while laughing and celebrating our differences. After all, I imagine we will have to get along in the eternal “kingdom of heaven”!
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Thank you for these insights, David! I would like to share this reflection with my Philosophy of Education students. May I do so with your blessing?