From To Act According to the Gospel
Even though Jesus blessed the little children, he did not thereby affirm that the reign of God belonged to them. Nevertheless, he held them up to his disciples as living models for them to imitate. In what sense?
Most readers of the gospels continue to follow the traditional interpretation, which the scholarly consensus also reflects: children are obedient and trusting, they provide an example of availability and are to be admired for their simplicity, innocence, and even humility. But the Biblical perspective is quite different: children are a sign of divine blessing and must be exposed to the realities of the faith, first by their parents and then by their teachers until they reach the age of religious majority (twelve years old for girls, thirteen years old for boys), which is to be celebrated by a bat or bar mitzvah in keeping with the law, because they represent the future of the chosen people. While they are never cited for their innocence, they are afflicted like everyone else with the common failing: they are without understanding.
In the eyes of Jesus, children are significant, not because of their innocence, nor because of their humility, and not even as an anticipation of Israel’s hoped-for future, but because of their capacity to welcome. Jesus received little children, unlike his disciples, who tried to turn them away:
People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But then Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the Kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them. (Mark 10:13-16)
Jesus took in his arms and blessed those who had no privileges according to the law, no doubt because they were so disposed to welcome others. This disposition makes children a model of the behavior Jesus expects of everyone.
The idea of “welcoming the reign” implies a personal response that connects the one who welcomes with the one who gives. Early Christianity freely used similar formulas. The verb “welcome” describes our roles: not to do something to seize the reign, but to become disposed to receive it as a gift. Welcoming the reign of God is analogous to the relationship between grace and free will. In any good deed, everything is of God, and everything is of humanity. It is not possible to distinguish which parts of the action belong to each of them. However, we can recognize their separate roles: the gift and the grace are God’s part; our part is to welcome.
So Jesus invites us to welcome the reign of God, and another saying of his permits us to specify of what this welcome consists. The saying is transmitted by two traditions that are probably mutually independent. According to Mark, we must imitate children who welcome, but according to Matthew, we must also “change and become like them.”
whoever does not receive the
kingdom of God as a little child
will never enter it. (Mark 10:15)
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. (Matthew 18:3-4)
Matthew, in his version of verse 3, adds the idea that change is a condition of entering the Kingdom of God. In verse 4 he gives an explanation: one must “humble oneself” (tapeinōsei) to the level of a child. Jesus requires his disciples to make an effort at “turnaround,” which here is probably not the equivalent of a “conversion,” but simply an invitation to present themselves as children would, without pretension. But does this mean that disciples must renounce their capacity as adults, or simply that they must not put on airs?
For Matthew as for Mark, the disciple of Jesus must act “like a little child” in order to be able to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. But Matthew makes the requirement for kingdom entrance stricter: it is not enough to think of ourselves as imitating the actions of children; we need to “change and become like little children.” The requirement is strict because the child whom we are to emulate has no rights, except that of being loved.