Like a Child
by Robert Hamerton-Kelly
October 8, 2006
Scriptures: Hebrews 1:1-4; Mark 10: 13-16
“Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it ” –Mark 10:15
I shall be briefer than usual today because most of you heard me yesterday at Myrtle’s Memorial Service and are therefore due some relief. In any case the lesson Jesus wants us to learn this week is simple, simple as a child. How shall we understand this?
Look first at the context of our saying in the gospel: it is a series of debates; about who is the greatest in their little band (9:30-37), about whether those who do not belong to their group should be allowed to cast out demons in Jesus’ name (9:38-41), about divorce (10:1-12) and about the right use of riches (10:17-31).
The theme of children occurs more than once in this context. In 9:36 Jesus points to a child and says, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me…” In 9:42 he warns that whoever causes a child to sin, it were better for him that a millstone be tied around his neck and he be drowned in the depths of the sea. In 9:13 he rebukes his disciples for keeping away the people who brought children to him for blessing; “…When Jesus saw it he was indignant, and said to them, ‘Let the children come to me, do not hinder them; for to such belongs the Kingdom of God 910:14). Clearly the gospel writer has gathered together several of the sayings of Jesus about children and clustered them here; one might assume that in the oral stage of the tradition of the teaching, sayings were remembered in groups, like “children,” “family,” “rivalry,” and “riches.” What may we learn of our Lord’s view of children from this cluster, and what may we learn for our own edification and purification?
It’s simple: we learn that children are especially precious to him, that he identifies with them and so the way we treat them is the way we treat him. Therefore it is especially serious if we lead a child astray. Then, as a climax in the exposition, he says that we must receive the Kingdom of God as a child receives the love of his/her parents, that is, naively, simply, with trust.
Alas we see too much abuse and exploitation of children, by international wars and famine, by the clergy of the Christian churches, and latterly by the member of the House of Representatives who chaired the sub-committee on the matter of exploited and abused children. What should on say to this? Stop it! Whether it be war, insurgency, or just email, stop it!t matter,
I don’t want to moralize here. Our human perversity and frailty is all to well-known to us, and we should always include ourselves with the sinners in any moralizing we do. So, if I am not to moralize, what shall I say? Let me try to understand what it might mean for us to receive the Kingdom like a child.
I prefer John’s word for “Kingdom of God,” namely, “Eternal Life,” so let me recast the saying as follows, “Whoever does not receive eternal life like a child shall not enter it.” This immediately takes us to the theme I dealt with in Myrtle’s memorial sermon, namely, the way we receive resurrection life just like we receive life in the beginning. When we were born we were utterly dependent on the creative love of God working through our parents to bring us into being, when we receive eternal life we are similarly dependent on the creative love of God. The divine love that lifted us from the womb to mortality lifts us from the tomb to immortality. So the children Jesus has in mind might not be toddlers or older, but babes in arms. We might imagine mothers bringing their babies for him to kiss, like politicians have their handlers arrange for them.
If this is the case it is not anything about the disposition or moral state of children that might guide us to Life, but the simple fact of the sheer dependency of babies. Unless you realize that in this matter of eternal life you are as totally dependent as you were when your parents conceived you, and your mothers pushed you out into the world, you are missing the point and the privilege. Your first contribution to your life was a loud cry of indignation at being shoved into a cold world, a protest against the struggle that lay ahead. Let your last contribution not be a similarly uninformed one, but rather a joyous realization that the same divine love is waiting to receive you and give you life again.
So Jesus here as everywhere is teaching us who God is, at least as far as we are concerned. God is that divine love that encompasses our life from our beginning and forever. We can rely absolutely on that love, as a baby depends on its parents. This is more than just a metaphor, because we in fact all relied utterly once and will all rely utterly again, and the only question is, can I trust those outstretched arms? The question really is otiose becaue we have no option here, nevertheless, God deigns to answer us and Jesus says that when we receive it as a babe in God lives through us forever.