When Jesus’ disciples asked Him, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” our Lord answered, “Unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”(Matt 18:3). It’s a clear message that aiming for greatness and prestige is not going to help us when it comes to the Kingdom of Heaven. He redirected the disciples to aim low – to the level of a child. But in exactly what way are we to become like children? As I want to enter the kingdom and you probably do too, we’d better get this right! What, could He mean?
Little children are small and cute. The theory of many a parent is that God made them cute so we’ll take care of them and help them continue to live—especially when doing so might not otherwise seem worth it, like when they take all your stuff and don’t let you get a good night’s sleep for three years. But, clearly, that’s not what Jesus meant, because grown-ups trying to be cute have the opposite effect. So, we’d best look for other features and behaviors of little children that we are to emulate in order to enter the kingdom!
What do children do? Babies spend a lot of time—all their time—eating, filling diapers, learning and sleeping. Mostly sleeping. Nice life, but surely He didn’t mean that we should limit ourselves to those activities either. It doesn’t jive with the whole rest of the Gospel message.
Perhaps you have heard someone wax lyrical about the difference between childishness and child-likeness. I live with an ardent admirer of G.K. Chesterton, who likes to point out that children are filled with wonder and see God’s creation with a sense of magic. Well, as much as I love Chesterton and his own sense of wonder and magic, I must be contrary and point out that G.K. Chesterton did not have any children, so what does he know about them?
I only have two children, but you only need to live with one from its infancy to dispel the notion that they float trough their days awed by the wonder of creation, in a ray of golden sunlight, emitting the lilting laughter of delight when the sun comes up on another day, or when they encounter a beautiful flower. More likely they’ll pull the flower apart and attempt to eat it.
Let’s remove the romantic, soft focus lense from this Hallmark inspired picture and find the reality of child-likeness. What are real children like?
Little children are demanding! By which I mean they require a lot of care (feeding, changing, clothing, making sure they sleep enough, loving, and speaking to so they will learn). A nursing mother may feel that her infant is literally draining life out of her! She pours out from her own self and body, part of what she is, to enable the child become who he or she is designed to be. It doesn’t even matter if she is feeding her child at her breast; she will be drained.
They are also demanding in that they loudly demand this care if we happen not to meet their current need immediately! They are not patient creatures. When they do not get what they need at the moment the need arises, they cry and scream. That feature was put there by God to ensure their needs are met and that we parents learn to overcome our self-centeredness. Demanding is in their job description.
Clearly, these little creatures expect us to do these things. They are not customers, who will say, “Here, here, if I don’t receive better service than this, I shall take my business elsewhere!!” They are children, who look at their parents and simply expect us to provide for them—because it’s what we are supposed to do. They can’t get to the fridge on their own legs to satisfy their hunger, so they simply expect our legs (and hands, and body) to be at their service. If anyone else assumed that we existed in their life to serve them like this, it would be outrageously rude. But when it is a child in our care, our heart is moved by love and responsibility to get up and do the thing, whether we feel like it or not.
An expectation like this signifies boundless trust. Babies don’t use question marks. It’s never, “Would you mind feeding me, Mother?” or “Will you please change my diaper when you have a minute?” It’s always simply “I thirst!!!!!” And the parent, who knows to whom this demand is directed, never has to ask, “Who me?”
Even older children demonstrate amazing faith in their parents’ love and care. Whether it’s a tantruming toddler or a back-talking school-age child, in the very midst of rejecting you, they often come to you for comfort. It always astonishes me when my child can say, with utmost sincerity and love, at the end of a day filled with contention, “I love you, Mama.” It is a love and trust that entails forgiveness of my failings and assumes my forgiveness of hers.
This unabashed trust and confident dependence on one side and limitless providence and love on the other defines this relationship between parent and child. The relationship demands it.
We all know it is a great evil when a parent betrays this relationship. A betrayal of a parent toward a young child is more than simply a failure of duty, or a lack of respect for the dignity of a person. It is a lie told about God.
Saint Paul tells us in Ephesians 3:14-15 that parenthood is derived from God’s fatherhood. This makes it more clear what it means to turn and become like a child. It lies in our relationship with God, who is our Father. Our Lord wants us to demand, expect and trust in Him for those things we need. And He will not fail to provide. He says, “And I tell you, ask and it will be given you; seek, and you will find, knock, and it will be opened to you. . . . What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent? . . . If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:9-13).
Lest you think that God is there to be our vending machine of goodies, remember, He did not say, “What father among you, if his son asks for a bicycle, will give him a serpent?” Babies demand what is good for them, according to their nature. We must do the same.
Babies know the secret to entering the kingdom of heaven. They have the password – and they don’t hesitate to us it loudly! It was given to them by God, as Jesus tells us: “I thank thee, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to babes; yea, Father, for such was they gracious will.” (Matt 12:25-26)
He teaches us to become like children in the way He taught the disciples to pray, saying, “Our Father, who art in heaven . . . give us this day our daily bread.” (Matt. 6:9-13). Father is who He is to us.
So, turn. Turn and become like little children, whether it’s a cranky, colicky baby or a contentedly sleeping one, Our heavenly Father is attentive to our needs with limitless providence and love. Know that He will not abandon you.
St. Augustine said it like this: “Our Father: at this name love is roused in us . . . and the confidence of obtaining what we are about to ask . . . What would he not give to his children who ask, since he has already granted them the gift of being his children? (CCC 2785)