On January 9 1998, CBS aired the first episode of the short-lived TV show, Kids Say the Darndest Things. The show featured brief conversations between the host and children, which always included the kids’ quite humorous response. In 2007, Fox premiered the hit show, Are you Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?, a gameshow pitting a 5th grade contestant against an adult. This also made its mark by the silly actions of the adorable kids. New programming with this basic premise of ‘kids being kids’ continues today—my family watched Kids Baking Championship just this week. These shows aren’t going anywhere and it’s easy to see why. Scroll through your Facebook or Instagram feed for a moment and what is a consistent theme? Photos and videos of our kids. Their cute, sweet, innocent and entertaining selves are everywhere. We’re proud of them and pleased with them. Not a thing is wrong with that. I mean, even Jesus himself loved the little children as well, remember?
Right after two parables on approaching God and just before a dialogue with a guy who loved money, Luke records in his Gospel account a brief interaction involving Jesus and young children:
Now they were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them. And when the disciples saw it, they rebuked them. But Jesus called them to him, saying, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”
Luke 18:15-17. This short scene is also recorded in Matthew 19:13-15 and Mark 10:13-16. We are told that “they” (meaning the crowds of people) were bringing him “even infants.” These children placed into the hands of God incarnate were young, often the youngest of the young. And that is is what makes Jesus’ statement so powerful. It is children like these who belong to God’s kingdom, which Christ ushers in. More than that, he says to enter the kingdom of God we must “receive” it just like them.
At this point, our modern day American minds (filled with TV and social media as mentioned above) jump to a quick conclusion on what Jesus is saying. He means that we must be “childlike” in our faith, right? We must never question nor struggle with the adult-like problems of life, being almost cute in our sweet innocence and obedience before the Lord. Here’s a bubble burst: That is not his point, and what he’s really saying is far more shocking both then and now.
First off, the idyllic picture of our kids as sweet, innocent and obedient is, at best, true on rare occasions. Can I get an amen?! I mean, I really love my kids and think they’re great and they add much joy to my life, but parenting is hard. Their innocence, obedience and sweetness often lasts less time than it will take you to read this sentence. Don’t get me started on car trips … Plus, kids are needy and whatever they have is because we provide it. How about another, amen?! The younger they are the more dependent they are on us for everything—food, shelter, protection, direction—the very necessities of life itself. Because of all this, we should not read into Jesus’ words a largely false idyllic picture of children. Kids are a handful and kids are receivers more than they are achievers. That was true then and it still is today.
We receive God’s kingdom as a child and he, by graciously allowing us to enter, shows that we matter.
Second, we live in a time where the tendency is to worship our kids—making them the center of our universe and our lives. Under the guise of wanting to “give them the best” we make major decisions and set daily schedules around our kids’ happiness and giving them “opportunities.” In 1st century Palestine, however, things were pretty much the opposite. Children, especially young children, were widely considered a burden unless and until they could work and contribute to the family. They were viewed similar to property in the Roman world and could be done away with—you read that right—at the whims of the parents.
So, what does Jesus mean when he says we must receive the kingdom of God like little children? To begin, Jesus means we come to God initially not as innocent and obedient, deserving a place in his kingdom. On the contrary, we must come recognizing our infinite need. “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23). The Bible teaches that we are sinners in need of grace and forgiveness. Apart from Christ, we are spiritually dead (Ephesians 2:1). As the great theologian Jonathan Edwards said, “You contribute nothing to your salvation except the sin that made it necessary.” We come to God simply as receivers of his kingdom, not achievers of it. We depend upon him for everything—the breath of life today, forgiveness of sin throughout, the Holy Spirit to transform us, and eternal life in the age to come. Also, Jesus’ statement means he actually cares about us even though the world does not. At a time when children were of little importance, Jesus loved and healed many (see Matthew 9:18-26, 15:21-28, Mark 5:21-43, Luke 9:38-43 among others). He had compassion on them and he cared for them. This, in that society and at that time! Jesus reverses the fortunes of children, showing how much they (and we) matter to him. He has reversed our fortunes as well.
We receive God’s kingdom as a child and he, by graciously allowing us to enter, shows that we matter. This comes not because we have earned anything, but because we—being like little children—recognize our need for his forgiveness and grace. Isn’t that amazing?!! We are given the right to be called his children (John 1:12). May that fill our hearts with joy and drive us to works of love in the name of Christ. May we love our children, not in an unhealthy worshipful way, but by teaching them of their great need for the only Lord and Savior. May we proclaim to all that will listen that they, too, can come as a child in need and receive the kingdom of God.
Just a child along with you,