“Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, will never enter it.”
That verse is often read at our celebrations of baptism.
And as it comes in a passage in which Jesus is being approached by parents with their little ones, the charm of this little episode is distracting, especially to those who hold their own children in their arms. However, what Jesus says about one’s attitude, one’s spiritual disposition necessary to participate in the kingdom of God should not be missed.
He is speaking to everyone, not just the little ones; and he’s calling us to adopt a “child-like” state that is twofold in its significance for us. First, and you may be familiar with this, is that in the ancient world children really did not enjoy what you call “full status” as members of the community. The world was, well still is, a harsh place; and children died in rather large numbers, infant mortality was high, child mortality too. And while parents did love their children, and people basically kind to little ones, the community generally didn’t value them as they did young adults who could contribute to society by their labour – children were a net expense (as they still are) and sadly were an uncertain investment (and I suppose they still are!).
Jesus tells us, so too are we all an uncertain investment, at least considered from a worldly perspective – we’re not a sure bet, our value must be demonstrable in immediate material terms. But God loves the little children, Jesus calls them to himself. There is no measuring our worth in God’s eyes that involves our utility to the world whether we are six, twenty-six or eighty-six. And so, there’s a call to both humility in our estimation of our worth, but also to the confidence that a little child has when he knows he is loved.
Secondly, what is being asked of us is a faith in God marked by the essential quality of trust – trust like that of little children: the faith they have in parents, in the other adults in their life, the faith they have in the environment that surrounds them; that it is going to be safe and nurturing.
Of course, what we know is that children will eventually be disappointed in that faith. The first, or second, or fifteenth time they fall and hurt themselves teaches them not to trust so much that the world around them is completely safe – they learn they have to watch out, to be careful, to be mindful of hazards, they also need to learn to assess risks so that they don’t live their lives in paranoid fear. They learn the world can be dangerous, but it can also be wonderful.
Sadly, we know that children are often disappointed in their faith in those to whom they’ve been given for care. Good parents lay a basic foundation of confidence for a child. Neglectful parenting makes them more uncertain in themselves; abusive parenting destroys, not only their confidence, their faith in humanity, but we know it makes faith in God, in ultimate goodness, very difficult, perhaps impossible.
We are not to put our faith in the world, in human beings. This isn’t to be an ethic of mistrust; but “faith” as truly understood as an absolute conviction, an ongoing affirmation can never be given to anything of this world.
Faith is to be put in God, in his angels and in his saints, and of course, in his Son, Jesus Christ, and in the power of the Holy Spirit.
We are asked to believe in God, in ultimate good and trust in Him as would an innocent child trust a loving parent, but even moreso. We must put our confidence in mercy, justice, service, forgiveness with the same trusting obedience as a child has when told it is a good thing to clean one’s room, to be polite to guests, to be respectful to one’s grandparents, to be kind in general, to say one’s prayers at bedtime, and so on; that these things are foundational to one’s becoming a successful human being in one’s own right, but also a valued person in the community. Yet as we grow older those bigger concepts, those virtues that the faith teaches are really the key to life, to eternal life, and are expressed in those good habits and behaviours learned as a child, but now must be built upon.
We live in a time of disillusionment. One might argue that this is a legacy of the 1960s counterculture that rejected authority in its many forms, including organized religion, the Catholic Church being the preeminent example of it. Yet authority in one’s life never disappears; it just shifts location. No, as a society we ceased in putting our faith in the Gospel, in the ultimate good as perceived in the eternal mystery of God as represented to us in sacraments, in scripture, in tradition. But as it has been said, “you’ve got to believe in something.”
So, faith shifted to expertise, to science, to ideological systems, economic theories, and the predilection of so many people to pick and choose from the buffet of world religions and philosophies a customized but incoherent system of personal belief. I’ve spoken of this before. All things, including the most high-minded human philosophies and ideologies are subject to corruption; some degenerating faster than others. You can see this where all values contrary to the gospel come into view, vices become celebrated as virtues, the encouragement of them regarded as the “realistic” approach to our problems – so we see immorality become the norm in our popular entertainment; public policy indulgent of sloth and dissolute living even as we see so many people robbed of authentic life by inactivity and addictions that are thriving with now renewed force.
Where there is threat of violence, bullying coercion, insult, you know that the authority of God is absent and its poor worldly counterfeit is at work.
Where leadership is marked by a lack of integrity, hypocrisy, and avoidance of accountability, Christ does not reign.
Where there is no longer conversation, discussion, but the kind of one-way communication typical of the legacy media that just delivers the talking points of those in authority, the fellowship of the Holy Spirit will not be found.
A substantial portion of today’s reading is obviously about marriage and divorce. But I don’t think there any point in trying to tackle that, untangle that in today’s moral climate. The problem of marriage’s effective demise as a meaningful social institution lies far deeper than be reached in a few minutes of homiletic. A society fast on its way to de-civilizing itself is not disposed to renew its institutions.
Now it does occur to me that some might say that I am a man who has grown jaded, disillusioned and so despairing of the world and so I paint a bleak picture.
If I am disillusioned about the world, I count that a good thing. And that is something I have been going on for almost thirty years.
It all came in a crisis of my own making, made by my arrogant presumption that having become a man I could put aside the childish thing that is religion and prosper. Rather, what I was called to do was put away childish religion and naïve faith in the world, and really begin to put my full faith and confidence in the gospel; that it my salvation lies in believing in mercy, justice, forgiveness, truth and integrity, and all those things I see incarnate in my Lord Jesus Christ, divine qualities worthy of my attention, study, contemplation and emulation in my life; a task that will remain incomplete no matter what my length of days are to be; but the work to which I earnestly believe we are all called to. Should I suffer for this the world’s scolding disapproval, so be it; there is greater joy in that suffering than the world’s pathetic approval.
We must put our faith in Christ, and in those qualities, those virtues he instructs us in – our faith in these, our keeping of them in faith, with nourishment of sacrament and attentiveness to his word, these are the means by which he sanctifies us, makes us one with the Father, makes Christ proud to call us his brothers and sisters.