At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, ‘Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’ He called a child, whom he put among them, and said, ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.
‘If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea. — Matthew 18:1-6
Reading the passage today, I picture a Jesus sitting on a rock surrounded by his disciples, and with a small child sitting on his lap, looking at him trustingly and possibly with his head on Jesus’ shoulder, listening intently. I admit, my picture is based on the Sunday School illustrations which, while good teaching tools for me when I was a child myself, but which doesn’t really show life at that time. Besides, the idea of a child being humble is rather odd; most children with whom I have been acquainted (including myself, I must add) are egotistical little beings, sure that they are the center of the known world and their demands are to be met forthwith, beginning from the day they were born until they learn that the world doesn’t revolve around them (which, admittedly, some never do).
Children in Jesus’ time weren’t humble in the sense that we use the word; they were expected to act as miniature adults, helping with the family business or housework from the time they were very young. The rate of stillbirth was high and by the time a child got to the age of 16 he or she had already outlived 60% of children conceived at the same time they were*. During the years between birth and 16, however, children were at the bottom of the figurative ladder, the ones most helpless against disease, famine, war, loss of parents, genocide and abuse. They were loved and treasured, just as our children are, but that didn’t mean that life was easy, comfortable or even safe for them.
Children almost always have to accept what happens to them. They don’t have the knowledge or ability to fight back, to create for themselves a safe, nurturing environment where nothing bad ever happens, especially when there are things like famines and natural disasters or even the atrocities of human beings against other human beings. They have to rely on adults around them to provide safety. They have to trust that someone will be there to help them, even if it is another child and only a bit older than they.
Children in the US are generally privileged. Most have clean water, access to medical care and schools, toys to play with and leisure time in which to play with them, and parents to keep them fed, clothed and loved. Not all children in this country are so lucky, though. It isn’t their fault. Sometimes parents make bad decisions, but quite often it is other adults, those with power, who want to reduce the national debt by cutting survival programs for the poor and the helpless while looking out for their own benefits. Think about it. Who is being hurt by the cuts in programs that people need in order to survive and to care for the children, programs like health care for the poor, funding education programs, more resources for families in crisis? Who wins when the humblest among us are hungry, homeless and hope-less? Who ends up wearing the millstone of which Jesus spoke — the adults who have the power to cut the programs or the children and families who need them? How did they get such power? We as a nation handed it to them and tacitly approve of their doings by continuing to support them. We are all guilty, whether we accept that or not.
The disciples asked who was the greatest in the kingdom of heaven but I don’t think they liked the answer. We as a people, particularly Christian people, still don’t like the answer. Becoming as a little child doesn’t mean sitting on the floor playing with toys; it is about giving up competition for the sake of competition and then working to empower the powerless. Jesus is still asking us, “Who wins? Who loses? What did I tell you to do?”
I think I feel some chafing around my own neck right now, sort of like a rough rope and a heavy weight, and my feet feel a bit of dampness that wasn’t there a few minutes ago. I wonder — what kind of world would there be if we all felt that millstone and decided to do something about it?
The children can’t wait forever.
* Malina, Bruce J. and Richard L. Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels, (1992) Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 117.