“Like a Child”
September 10, 2023
Dr. Daniel L. Migliore
“Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”
- (Mk. 10:15)
For the past several weeks, our Scripture readings have concentrated on the teachings of Jesus found in the Gospel of Matthew. In thinking about my sermon for this morning, I noticed that the Scripture readings skip over a passage that tells a story about Jesus and children. It happens to be one of my favorite passages and maybe yours too. People are bringing little children to Jesus so that he might bless them. The disciples try to prevent this because they think the presence of children is an interruption of the really important mission of Jesus. But Jesus rebukes his disciples, saying “Let the little children come to me, do not stop them.” The words of Jesus that come next are our text for this morning: “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”
It's that little phrase, “like a child” that gets our attention. Are we to take this phrase seriously? Is Jesus indulging here in a bit of sentimentality? How does being “like a child” have anything to do with entering the reign of God?
Well, maybe we can start by agreeing that Scripture views children as a special gift of God; that they bring joy into their parents’ lives; that they should be loved and cared for; that people of faith should tell their children the stories of the mighty acts of God and of God’s steadfast love and most certainly of his love of children. The Bible also knows well, as do we, that when a child dies, the grief and loss that it causes is perhaps the most painful of all human experiences. Remember the inconsolable weeping of Rachel because her children had been killed or carried into exile? We can all agree that in the world of the Bible, children are precious, and their loss is devastating.
And I’m sure we can further agree that Jesus loved and welcomed children. “Whoever welcomes a child in my name welcomes me,” Jesus says. “Let the children come to me, for of such is the kingdom of God,” he says. And then there are the words that are the text of this sermon: “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”
Christian congregations around the world--and certainly the one gathered here this morning--cherish theses sayings and acts of Jesus. In his name, we welcome children. We baptize them, we pray with and for them; we promise to love them and bring them up in the knowledge and love of the Lord. We sing to and with them: “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world; red and yellow, black and white; they are precious in his sight: Jesus loves all the children of the world.”
It's a simple and lovely song. But, sad to say, it’s hard to sing it without becoming tongue-tied when you come across pictures of terrified children in migrant camps in many regions of our world, some of whom will die on the dangerous trek of their families to hoped-for places of refuge from war or abject poverty; or when we are read stories of hungry and abused children in our own country or even our own city; or when we try to absorb the fact in our world today there are 150 million malnourished children under five years of age. As Christians we cannot ignore these grim and heart-rending realities. They sadden us and fill us with shame when we recall the words of Jesus to welcome and love the little children.
My message this morning, however, is not primarily about our moral duty to love and care for children—ours and other children too. Instead, my focus is on that arresting phrase of Jesus--the one about receiving the kingdom like a child as a pre-requisite for entering it. I want us to hear in this phrase “like a child” more than a call to do our duty, more than a moral obligation to welcome and care for children. Instead, I want us to listen for the gospel, the good news, in these words about receiving the coming new world of God like a child.
Now right off I want to erase any suspicion you may have that I am going to take you down the path of sentimentalizing and idealizing childhood. In fact, I’ll tell you a little secret. I am always a little uncomfortable when we sing the Christmas hymn “Away in the manger,” because I know we will eventually come across the words “no crying he makes.” What? Wasn’t Jesus very God with us in the fullness of our humanity? Did he not experience hunger and thirst in the wilderness where he was tempted? Did he not feel pain when the nails were driven into his hands and feet? Did he not cry out to God when he hung on the cross? Why in the world would we think he never cried as a baby? Is it not simply part of being human that as infants leaving the warmth and darkness of the womb, we cry as we are thrust into a strange, cold, brightly lit world. And if perchance we don’t cry at that moment, we surely will have our times of crying in the days ahead. Then when we become toddlers or preschoolers, we may not only do our share of crying but times of being moody, obstinate, peevish, maybe occasionally even downright mean. I see no basis in Scripture, or in our lived experience, for portraying the state of childhood as perfect, let alone angelic. The Apostle Paul puts it bluntly: when we were children, we thought like children and acted like children, but when we grow up-- when we become adults--we have to stop our childish ways. Please note, however, that the same Apostle also frequently and fondly speaks of the followers of Jesus as adopted children of God.
So, you may ask, which is it? Are we to leave childhood behind and become adults as the Apostle Paul says? Or are we to become, in the same Apostle’s words, adopted children of God, people who know that, in Jesus’ words, we must become “like a child” if we want to enter the kingdom of God? The answer is: both are true: We are indeed to leave behind childishness--if by that we mean throwing tantrums and the like when we don’t get our way--and grow up into the full humanity of life in Christ. But being “like a child” is not the same as childishness. Being like a child as Jesus speaks of it belongs to the very definition of our humanity and of our right relationship to God.
So just what is this childlikeness of which Jesus speaks? Why is it necessary to receive the kingdom of God “like a child” if we are to enter and be participants in the reign of God? Here are three suggestions.
First, the child confronts us as one in need. This little one cannot survive and certainly cannot flourish without the help of others. The child, in brief, is vulnerable. Moreover, the child is aware of its vulnerability. The child may not know this “with the top of her mind,” so to speak. She may not be able to articulate her feeling of vulnerability in the words of a grownup. But the universal fear of children to be separated from their parents is unmistakable evidence of the child’s real and deep sense of vulnerability.
Now, my friends, it is surely not only the child who is vulnerable. We too, as adults, middle age or old age, are also vulnerable. We never outgrow this fact. We are vulnerable physically, emotionally, mentally. We are vulnerable to diseases, plagues, injuries, and the loss of loved ones. We are vulnerable to outbreaks of violence in our streets and acts of war among nations, We are vulnerable to the effects of climate change, to the beneficial but also the damaging power of modern social media, to the results and continuing presence of social injustices. Not to mention our vulnerability to personal feelings of inadequacy, anxiety, remorse, and guilt. Lurking underneath it all is our knowledge that our bodies, however robust they may be now, will eventually give out, and we will die.
Of course, we spend a good deal of our lives as adults denying, or camouflaging, or trying to protect ourselves against our vulnerability. But we are never more than partially successful. The vulnerability of the child reminds us of our vulnerability and our need for the help of others. And it may also remind us of the gospel declaration that God in Jesus Christ condescends to take on our vulnerability for our salvation.
So being “like a child,” far from commending childishness, means to be aware that we too are vulnerable.
No matter how secure we may think we are, however convinced we are that we can handle life entirely on our own, we too are needy like a child, not of course in exactly the same way the child is needy, but nevertheless truly needy, needy of God’s grace and forgiveness, needy of the help of friends and strangers, needy of God’s coming new world.
Becoming like a child has another element. I have in mind the trusting receptivity of the child. Recall the word of Jesus, “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child cannot enter it.” By “receiving like a child,” Jesus is describing the child’s natural trust in its parents; even as he is assuming, as the child assumes, the trustworthiness of their parents. “Is there anyone among you,” Jesus asks in the Sermon on the Mount, “who, if your child asks for bread will give a stone?” The only decent answer is, No, of course not. Because of this deep bond of trust in the relationship between parents and children—the children’s trust in their parents, the parents’ trustworthiness in their dealings with their children—when parents offer a gift to their child, the child is ready and eager to receive it with joy. For a child, the offer of a gift from a parent is a moment to be surprised by joy. That’s the way, Jesus is saying , we are to receive the proclamation of the inbreaking reign of God: like a child, eagerly and with joy.
Surely, this joyful openness to receive the gift of the coming reign of God is part of what Jesus meant by saying one must be “born again” to enter the kingdom of God. Being born again, being like a child again, is joyfully receiving the invitation to take part in God’s coming new world.
It is one of the hazards of adult life that this childlike joyful reception of the coming of God’s new world atrophies. Life becomes routinized. Our vision of what is real and what is possible hardens. We drift into boredom. Our receptivity and openness to the new and the surprising things God is doing succumbs to the resignation of Ecclesiastes. Its author is world weary, convinced that there is nothing new under the sun.
The author has many followers today. Too often the contemporary sophisticated adult lives with the conviction that nothing ever really changes: what has been, is what will always be.
I wonder whether the child’s readiness to joyfully receive an unexpected gift is linked to the child’s capacity to become engrossed in an enchanting story, to enter excitedly into its depiction of a different world, to become, at least in imagination, a participant in that other world. It’s not only children who can dream of another world. Martin Luther King’s famous “I have a dream” speech in 1963 was a call to share a dream, a call to the American people to be open to a new and better possibility for our common life, to be like children ready to receive with joy the beginning of a new America. “I have a dream,” King said, “that one day black children and white children will be able to join hands as sisters and brothers.”
It is true, of course, that from the standpoint of Christian faith, even if Martin Luther King’s dream of a new America were to be realized-- and it still remains far from realization—even then it would not yet be the arrival of the reign of God which Jesus proclaimed. But would not the realization of King’s dream of a new and more just America be at least a kind of sign and foretaste of God’s coming reign? And would not our failure to receive King’s dream of a new America joyfully, like a child, guarantee that we will never see it or become participants in it? “Unless you receive the kingdom of God like a child you shall not enter it.”
And finally, a sure mark of childlikeness is living fully in the present. No doubt all of us have noticed how children live almost entirely in the present moment. True, memory is not altogether missing in the life of a child, nor is hope entirely absent. But it is above all the present that occupies the child’s attention.
When Jesus says that unless we receive the kingdom of God like a child we cannot enter it, he is speaking of the coming of God’s reign arriving here and now.
It is possible to see small beginnings of it now, to see hints of its arrival right now. So, like a child, we should pay attention to what is going on here and now and want to become participants in the beginnings of God’s reign. When estranged individuals or groups are reconciled; when the hungry are fed; when strangers are welcomed, we see and can participate in beginnings of God’s reign right now. To receive the reign of God like a child means to value every moment of life as a unique opportunity to live fully the life God has given us and to joyfully render the service of love of God and neighbor for which God created and redeemed us. When God summons us, it is always to respond right here and now.
What the child’s attention to the here and now means for us adults is refusing to be paralyzed by the failures of the past or enslaved by our fears of the future. Our living fully in the present moment will of course will not be identical with the form it takes in the child. As adults, we cannot ignore the failures of our past or be indifferent to the challenges that confront us now and those that will come in the near future.
But just as the child is focused on the now, so the childlikeness in receiving the coming reign that Jesus speaks of is also focused on the now. During the Covid years, when like many of you, I was sequestered in my home, I decided to write a commentary on the Lord’s Prayer. One of the things that struck me about this familiar prayer is its focus on the here and now, on today The word today is explicit or implied throughout the Lord’s prayer. “Hallowed be thy name.” Hallowed right now, is the prayer’s meaning, not sometime in the distant future. “Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done.” Now, is the implied meaning, not next year or next century. “Give us our daily bread today,” not next week or next year but today, right now. The Lord’s prayer has this sense of urgency throughout. Unfortunately, our routine and sometimes mindless use of the Lord’s Prayer tends to deaden our sense of the urgency that runs through the entire prayer, its plea for God’s presence and grace and coming new world today.
Yes, the reign of God is erupting in small ways here and now. Receive its coming, Jesus says, receive it joyfully like a child who lives primarily in the present, not in the memory of a glorious past that never really existed, or in a far off, fantasy future that ignores the grace and summons of God to joyfully receive and take part in the inbreaking reign of God here and now.
It all comes down to this. When Jesus says whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it, this is not just a reminder that children are precious--which they are--nor is it simply a moral obligation laid on us to love and care for children--which is indeed our duty. No, like a child means more. By this call of Jesus to receive the kingdom of God like a child, we are primarily reminded of who we really are—children of God--and of God’s grace and promise to us all.
If--like a child-- we are ready to acknowledge our vulnerability, and with it to recognize our need of God’s grace and our need for the help and friendship of others and their need for our help and friendship; if--like a child-- we are open to receive joyfully the proclamation of God’s coming new world; if-- like a child--we are ready to trust in the goodness of God as we pray and work here and now for justice, reconciliation, and peace in our time; then we too are ready to become participants in God’s coming reign, loving God with all our heart, and serving our neighbors, especially our most needy neighbors, especially the needy children next to us, or wherever they may be.
Receive the kingdom like a child—hear this word of Jesus, my friends, hear it to be sure as a summons, but also and first of all, hear it as gospel, joyful good news. Amen.