A Childlike Innocence


Those of us who are old enough can remember the great boxer, Muhammad Ali, after his defeat of the then reigning champion, Sonny Liston, shouting over and over again, “I am the greatest! I am the greatest!” Well, in an earthly sense, in a very small subset of the world’s countless professions and experiences, he was, indeed, for a brief time, “the greatest.” The idea of being the greatest, of being recognized, or being famous, is an obsession for many in our culture. Our culture today is deeply enamored with the cult of celebrity. There are whole magazines and television shows dedicated to the vicarious following of Hollywood, or sports, of wealthy celebrities and their lifestyles with incredible detail.

Well, truth be told, none of this is new. We see here, at the beginning of this 18th chapter in Matthew’s gospel, that the disciples themselves were momentarily moved by the desire to be “the greatest,” or to at least know who among them would be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. They actually had the temerity to ask Jesus that very question, and Jesus, with his usual patience, answered them in a way that they had not expected. He called a small child over and put the child in their midst and said, “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” I like to imagine what their faces looked like when they heard these words from Jesus. It must have stunned them, as it should us. What does Jesus mean here?

When I hear Jesus say something like, “I tell you the truth,” or, “Truly I say to you,” my brain snaps to attention. Remember, Jesus told us that he is The way, The truth, and The life. Jesus is, as we say, the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. When we hear him open a comment with these words, we are given a very clear clue to listen to what he is about to say with every part of our being.

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What, then, is the true meaning of this passage? Are we, as adults, to be ignorant in the ways of life, like a child is? Are we to be irresponsible and naive, like a child too young to know better? No. He is addressing the disciples (and us) as adults. What about a “little child” does he want us to adopt? What is it about our “adult” behavior that we must shed? Is he not challenging us to be free from sin, like the little child? Is he not telling us that we should be, like innocent children, free from guile, or cunning ways? Is he suggesting that we should be able, like little children, to take simple, uncomplicated joy in all things that are good, true and beautiful? A little child is free from moral wrongdoing, is pure, is not moved by evil intent or motive. Is this not what Jesus is saying? Is this not the Truth? Jesus is holding a mirror up to us in this passage. If we do not see a child looking back at us in the mirror, then we should hear Jesus’ challenge personally and take heed.

A child has no natural interest in being the greatest, or in being number one. If a child does have these interests it is because they have been imposed on him or her by the “adults” around him or her. The child is naturally humble. Its humility is not contrived, nor is it worn as a mask to deceive. It is this natural humility that we are to recover, or, more appropriately, to retain in us as adult followers of Christ. This is a consistent theme in the scriptures. The world tells us to do whatever is necessary to be number one, to be at the top, to be famous. Jesus is telling us that childlike innocence and humility is what really, in truth, makes us great where it counts the most, in heaven. This is the Truth coming at us straight from the mouth of Jesus. Listen!

Lord, help us to be more like little children in our love for you, your creation, and toward all of our brothers and sisters in this world. We pray in your name, Jesus. Amen!

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Dan Doyle is a husband, father, grandfather, Vietnam veteran, and retired professor of Humanities at Seattle University. He taught 13 years at the high school level and 22 years at the university level. He spends his time now babysitting his granddaughter. He is a poet and a blogger as well. Dan holds an AA degree in English Literature, a BA in Comparative Literature, and an MA in Theology, and writes regularly for The Veterans Site blog.