Jesus told us to enter the kingdom like children. In fact, he was stronger than that, saying that if we did not receive the kingdom of God like a little child, we would not enter it (Luke 18). We’re familiar enough with it, and it conjures up doe-eyed sentiments of pudgy-cheeked children.
Except, should it? What was Jesus actually getting at?
We could make some “be childlike, but not childish” statements and say some helpful and true things while missing what he was saying.
Jesus was surrounded by a crowd pressing in on him and the disciples are starting to get concerned for his time and perhaps his welfare. Parents are bringing young children to him to bless, and quite likely sick children in the hope that he would heal them. The disciples rebuke them, and Jesus utters the famous remark.
This is not sentiment, because these aren’t cute kids gathering around his knees and the disciples acting like absolute killjoys. This is scared and noisy parents, all concerned that their child needs Jesus’ help, creating a racket. It’s not hard to speculate that it was starting to escalate into something entirely unmanageable. I would probably have made a similar ministry decision to the disciples.
So, what is Jesus trying to teach us? First notice that Jesus is surrounded by babes-in-arms, that’s what the Greek word translated ‘infants’ at the start of the passage means. They’re helpless. They’re needy. They have nothing to offer.
Larry Crabb in his book Shattered Dreams points out that babies are fundamentally recipients, they don’t give anyone anything, nor can they take it for themselves. I’m sure they would take if they could—we come out of the womb selfish. They’re like this not simply because they’re selfish but because they’re helpless. To approach Jesus like little children is to approach him as one who is helpless and needs to receive. Crabb suggests that Jesus was recommending what we generally avoid: brokenness.
By brokenness he means an acceptance of the reality of our position, a desperate need to receive help, and a desire to ask for it. It often takes being broken by circumstances for these things to arise in us—that’s what Crabb’s book is about. The Bible talks about it a lot, though not using this language. I’d suggest a good, Biblical word for it (if we need one) would be thirst.
Which doesn’t sound like I’m saying anything beyond the usual run-of-the-mill Christian proposition: you cannot save yourself. Honestly, I’m not. Except, we need to reckon with this because plenty of signed up and saved Christians continue to struggle with this truth: Christianity is about receiving, not taking.
What’s the fundamental sin in the garden? I reckon we could spin it in a number of different ways—well, precisely ten different ways, as it happens, and God has done the work for us (Exodus 20)—but it is a theft. Adam takes from the tree.
It’s particularly egregious as the Biblical scholars suggest it seems likely that Adam would eventually have been given to eat from the tree, likely as part of his enthronement as King of the World. He would have needed that wisdom eventually, but only once he was ready for it.
Adam took instead of waiting to receive. All sin is like this, we get caught in spirals of squalid taking. If we would wait then we would receive the table of the Lord instead of hoarding the morsels we found in our foraging. Except we’re not equipped to forage, we’re little babies, so we’ve got a pile of poisonous mushrooms and something we pulled out of fox scat that we’re holding tight onto—Gollum-like—to attempt to eat while sat under a table that groans from the weight of the bounty laid on it.
Of course, it doesn’t look or feel like that to us, we would behave differently if it did. If only receiving were easier, but it is the hard road. Fredrich Buechner wrote, “It’s not only more blessed to give than to receive, it’s also a whole lot easier.”
That might seem counterintuitive, but I think he’s right. Watch Christian leaders and you’ll notice this dynamic. It’s easier to help than be helped. It’s easier to minister than receive. It’s easier to comfort than reveal your struggles. Giving is less vulnerable.
Which is why Jesus told us to come like little children. It is more blessed to give than receive, but just like infants dependant on their parents for food, we need to receive before we can give. In the Christian world we cannot give what we haven’t first received.
Jesus behaves the same with us. In his incarnation he came to be what Adam was not, to wait to receive rather than taking. Notice in Gethsemane (Matthew 26) how Jesus waits to receive from his Father instead of taking—in those hours of prayer he proved himself our rightful king, our not-Adam. Or, as he used to like to title himself, the Son of Adam (in Hebrew Adam is the word man—this sits behind Jesus’ use of the term Son of Man to describe himself, even though the New Testament is in Greek).
Then he let them nail him to the tree so that he could give us its fruit. He first received it from the Lord, then he gives it to us. Receiving precedes giving. In the Kingdom it’s always that way around, we never outgrow it.
You need to receive from God, which to those of you in churches like mine sounds like the thing you do with arms outstretched while someone else lays hands on you and the presence of God comes to dwell in and on you. Which it is. It’s broader than that too, receiving from God is what happens when we hear the word preached, when we worship him as the gathered church, when we eat bread and drink wine.
Our pride, and our never-ending avaricious taking, has to die if we want to receive from God. It’s like hacking weeds so a tree can grow. But we must receive, because that’s the path of life.
Blessedly we can fail because Jesus has received on our behalf. We are not Adam and do not face the King’s test. Blessedly we can pass because Jesus dwells in us by his Spirit, and we do face the Test.
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