Monday, February 12, 2007

Like This Child

In several places in the Gospels, Jesus places conditions upon entering the Kingdom of Heaven. For example, our righteousness must exceed that of pious legalists if we are to be saved (Mt. 5:20). One of these conditions is somewhat difficult to define, and hence seemingly ambiguous as to its practice, so we may rightly wonder if we are in fact heading toward the Kingdom. It is this one: “Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 18:3). Never.

What are we to make of this? Become like children? Ignorant, immature, disobedient, and petulant? Runny-nosed, dirty-kneed, noisy, and accident-prone? No, we are mostly all that already. Jesus explains it in the next verse: “Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” Now humility is probably not the first virtue we would think to apply to children. But children, in that time and culture, were practically non-entities, at least legally, and socially as well. They had no standing until they passed to the stage at which they were formally accepted as full members of the worshipping community. So to be like a child is to be of no account, self-effacing, small in the eyes of all.

(You may have noticed that I didn’t say children are cute, endearing, playful, and affectionate, but that’s only because those are not the criteria for being “like” them, as far as salvation is concerned. Can you imaging Jesus saying that we have to be cute as children in order to be saved? There would be nothing but a few echoes in the empty halls of Heaven!)

True to his usual style, Jesus favored those of no account, the humble and the humbled. He offered the children as examples of what one must be in order to be saved. He identified with them, gave severe warnings to anyone who would dare scandalize or lead them astray, and insisted that no one look down on them, for “in heaven their angels always behold the face of my Father” (18:5-11). The disciples were men of their time and had the common disdain for the presence of children in adult company. They rebuked the parents who were bringing children to the Master (Mt 19:13-14), who in turn rebuked the disciples. Jesus welcomed the children, saying that the Kingdom belonged to such as them.

We have to look at these passages as something more than quaint or sentimental affections for the little ones. For the Lord said we would never enter Heaven unless we became like one. He assumed that we are not already like them because He said we have to “turn,” that is, convert, and become like a child. We have to humble ourselves and become small in everyone’s estimation, even our own.

There is an important application of humble childlikeness. It is interesting to notice that the whole first half of chapter 18 of Matthew is about the little ones, and the whole second half is about forgiveness. It seems that the evangelist is trying to tell us that humbling ourselves in order to enter the Kingdom entails learning how to forgive—seventy times seven times.

In our pride we expect to receive forgiveness, but if we are to humble ourselves we had better be ready to offer forgiveness. The whole story about the merciless official (18:23-35) can be summed up in this line: “I forgave you all that debt because you besought me; should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” If we reflect even for a little while on all that the Lord has forgiven us, it should not be difficult to see how much less we have to forgive others.

Perhaps we’ve now come to the reason why those who are not “like this child” will never enter Heaven. We know that we cannot be saved if our sins are not forgiven, and the Lord teaches us to ask the Father to forgive us as we forgive others, declaring that if we don’t forgive others, the Father won’t forgive us (Mt. 6:14-15). If, then, we can only learn to forgive by first humbling ourselves, we have to become like children in order to receive the Father’s promised mercy. Otherwise, we will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

Jesus always knows what He’s talking about, doesn’t He! And everything He says is somehow directed toward the salvation of our souls. Let us turn, then, and become more humble so we can become more forgiving so we can be forgiven so we can enter the Kingdom of Heaven—for to such as these it belongs.