Greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven

He called a child over and placed it in their midst and said, ‘Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the Kingdom of heaven.

ʺWho is the greatest in the Kingdom of heaven?ʺ He called a child over and placed it in their midst and said, ‘Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the Kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the Kingdom of heaven. And whoever receives one child such as this in my name receives me.ʺ

It is hard to believe that it has been 35 years since the birth of my oldest daughter and 31 since that of my youngest daughter. What joy they brought into our lives. I remember holding them, looking into their faces and being humbled by the pure beauty of their innocence. Watching them grow from infants into inquisitive crawlers, then into the greater independence of unsteady toddlerhood, was a true source of meditation for their mother and me. They kept us grounded, calling us out of ourselves to meet their constant needs for care and deepening our love and concern for their health and well-being. Now, as a grampa, I am getting that privilege all over again as I watch their own children move through those same stages. And it is in being present to their child-innocence and their joy in it that is always so joyously humbling. They do not judge. The whole world and everything in it is a matter of wonder to them. When do we lose this?

As we grow into adulthood, we are sometimes jaded by our life experiences or our choices. We may even develop prejudices, or become self-centered. As we grow into our adult lives we are challenged more and more by the realities and responsibilities of adulthood. This adulthood, too, is a part of life. Some learn to take on those responsibilities with courage, commitment, faith and honesty and discover that it enriches their lives, despite the sufferings that often come with adult responsibilities. Others choose, for whatever reason, to avoid the responsibilities of adulthood in an attempt to avoid the sufferings that come with it. The difference is a matter of choice. Indeed, our faith, in order to achieve its fullest and most effective purpose in our lives, requires us to mature into it as adult believers. It is in our maturing relationship with Jesus Christ that we come to know the deeper meanings and purposes of our human lives, and of creation itself. In this mature relationship we learn to take on our natural duties to truth, goodness, and beauty. And it is in this adult faith that we begin to have the courage that it takes to love one another as Jesus did and commanded us to do.

This idea of ‘turning and becoming like this child’ needs to be understood clearly. This message could only be delivered to adults. Because the message is rooted in both understanding and in choice. We get stuck sometimes in the image of a child and we lose sight of what Jesus is challenging us with here. We are not to be children, but to be as humble and open as children to the mystery, the wonder, and the call of God in our lives.

This is the paradox of our Christian faith in a nutshell. We are to be, at one and the same time, adult believers who have seen the wisdom of willingly and happily submitting to God’s love like children. We are to take on the roles of adulthood and the responsibilities of our faith with the humble innocence of children. Our belief in God’s love is to be like the love that children have for their parents, a love that never doubts the love that their parents have for them. Of course, I am using an image here that comes from a healthy understanding of parenthood and childhood. There are some who have not had such an experience of childhood. Indeed, their memories of childhood might be filled more with anger for having had their innocence crushed in its bud. In either case, I think this is why we need to focus on the penultimate sentence of Jesus’ message in this passage: ʺWhoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the Kingdom of heaven.ʺ

The ‘innocence’ that Jesus is talking about here is a virtue that can can only be chosen by an adult. Because it is a virtue it implies that it has to be worked at, that it has to be consciously and constantly practiced over and over again, until it becomes a habit. A habit is something that has been practiced so well and has become so familiar to us that we no longer have to think about it. Jesus is telling us that it is the habits of humility that make us more like the child. Pride was the reason for The Fall; humility is the way back to heaven. This, I think, is Jesus’ challenge for us in this passage. The child is innocent by nature. The adult becomes innocent by choice. It is when we, as adults, come to the wisdom of humbly choosing to relate to God and his magnanimous love and his infinitely generous forgiveness, without question, without doubt, like a child, that we become ʺgreatest in the Kingdom of heaven.ʺ

Lord we ask you to help us turn from the ways that prevent us from recognizing our true relationship with you and those who are important to us in this life. Help us to mature in our faith, so that we can be courageous and responsible in living it out in the world. Give us the graces we need to turn to you, like children, with humble and contrite hearts. For we know that it is only in you that we find our deepest happiness. We pray in your name, Jesus. Amen.