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. . . Whoever Does Not Receive the Kingdom of God as a Little Child Will Never Enter It


Mark 10:15

There may be some dyed-in-the-wool romantics who maintain that children are innocent, pure, always and everywhere nice like sugar and spice.  Such romantics, however, have never been parents or schoolteachers or police officers. Anyone who has lived with children or worked with children knows that children aren’t innocent. Children are cruel; they will gang up and pick on another youngster.  Children are devious; they will invent “explanations” without end to extenuate themselves when their wrongdoing is exposed.  Children are manipulative; they know how to set one parent against another, how to extort something they want from playmate or adult.

Jesus never pretended that children are innocent. He insisted that no one was spared the Fall. He wouldn’t have disagreed with William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, a book that details the savagery of socially privileged adolescents. (Lord of the Flies, the title of Golding’s book, also happens to be the English translation of the Aramaic word Beelzebul.  Didn’t our Lord speak of Beelzebul throughout his public ministry?)

Jesus isn’t a romantic.  He doesn’t pretend children are guileless or guiltless.  Nevertheless, the gospel story tells us that Jesus picked up a child, set the child in the midst of adults, and said, “Now look.  If you are ever going to enter the Kingdom of God you must receive the Kingdom like this child.”  Plainly our Lord is urging us to be childlike (but not, we should note, childish.) He says that unless we are childlike with respect to the Kingdom, we shall forfeit the Kingdom.

The Kingdom of God , needless to say, is the Kingship of God. The Kingdom of God isn’t a territory such as the Kingdom of Great Britain or the Kingdom of Belgium . To live in the Kingdom of God is to live under the Kingship of God.  It’s to acknowledge that he who is our Father is also the Royal Ruler. Israel ’s greatest king was David, and David was a shepherd.  In other words, according to Jewish understanding the Shepherd of Israel has to be King or else his shepherding is ineffective; and the King of Israel has to be Shepherd or else his kingly rule promotes misery. The Shepherd who is King is the effective shepherd; and the King who is shepherd is a ruler who wants only to rescue and bless his people.

When we enter the Kingdom of God we enter upon, enter into, a relationship with that Shepherd King whose royal rule over us serves only to remedy whatever is wrong with us.  We enter this Kingdom, says Jesus, only as we become not childish (infantilism is never to be venerated) but childlike.


I: — What’s involved in being childlike? The child receives everything as gift, sheer gift.  In first century Palestine the child had no legal rights. There was no International Year of the Child reminding forgetful parents that every child has rights. The child had none. The child lived only by the good pleasure of its parents.  Anything the child received, then, it received as gift.

Have you ever noticed how many images in biblical thought concerning the Kingdom are pictures drawn from family life? The apostle Paul speaks of adoption, the sheer gift of a new parent who provides a new home whereby the wandering waif or orphan becomes full son or daughter, and is given all that the newfound parents have to give.         According to Luke Jesus speaks of a father who is so happy to see his defiant, disobedient son come home that he gives him shoes, ring, robe, party. All the gospel writers speak of the meals people share with Jesus.  Do they eat and drink with Jesus because at the end of the meal they’re going to purchase something from him?   The whole point of these eating episodes is that at the end of the meal these people are given what they never expected; they’re given what will find them forever different and forever grateful.  Scripture speaks consistently of Christ’s Kingdom ministry as a ministry characterized by gift.

Surely we all agree that genuine friendships are gift. The relationship between two persons that isn’t gift isn’t friendship; it’s a contract. Contracts are one instance of bartering wherein someone has something we want or need, and we have something she wants or needs.  The two persons interact for the sake of mutual convenience.  When mutual capacity to supply the other’s need disappears, so does the barter-relationship. It doesn’t pretend to be friendship because it never was gift.

I’ve never liked the expression “make friends.” I don’t think friends are made. That person who can comfort us when we are shredded and bandage us when we are haemorrhaging; who can see the anguish in our heart when we’ve managed to keep it off our face; who knows what profoundly delights us when others have no idea; this person isn’t made. This person is given to us.

To be childlike is to recognize that we who have no rights at all before God; we are yet those to whom he gives good gifts, all of which are summed up in the gift – of himself – as he seizes us and holds us fast and cherishes us and wants only that we should find in our intimacy with him and our obedience to him a satisfaction so satisfying that we’d never think of looking anywhere else.

And yet, tragically, there are those who don’t appreciate the gift as gift.  They think it’s their responsibility to earn it or merit it or achieve it. They confuse gift with contract.

“So what” someone says.  “Is a minor theological mistake all that important?  Does anything harmful arise from confusing gift with contract and remaining before God?” The truth is, the error isn’t minor, and something harmful does arise.  What exactly? There arises either anxiety or pride or self-loathing.

The anxious are those who will live and die uncertain of their standing before God, since they have always suspected that they’ve never “measured up.”   Their God, whether they are conscious of it or not, has always been the Grand Examiner. “Religion”, loosely called, has always been for these people an occasion of anxiety. But in view of the anxiety that laps at everyone’s life, does anyone need the additional burden of religious anxiety? Could the gospel ever be good news if it multiplied disquiet?  The anxious are always left wondering if their “good” is good enough.

The proud, on the other hand, are those who are not only convinced that standing with God is something they can merit; they’re also convinced that they’ve merited it.  Their rectitude, their dutifulness, their diligence – it’s all been sufficient. Their superiority, evident at least to them if to no one else, guarantees them whatever they might need on Judgement Day.  Jesus, however, deprecates this attitude and speaks against it repeatedly. In the parable of the Tax-Collector and the Pharisee the latter fellow, the Pharisee, reminds God, “You have to be aware that I’m not like this religious incompetent beside me. Religiously, morally too, he wouldn’t know his right hand from his left.”         The God of the proud is always the God who is supposed to recognize and reward self-important superiority.

The self-loathing, in the third place, are those who regard themselves as religious failures.  Preoccupied with achieving, they differ from the proud in that they know they haven’t measured up; and they differ from the anxious in that they are beyond wondering if they’re going to measure up.  They know they don’t measure up and they’ve given up.

The anxious, the proud, the self-loathing; while they appear to be remarkably different since their misunderstanding of God is so different, in fact are “birds of a feather” just because at bottom their misunderstanding of God is the same: they’ve confused the giver who gives gifts with a negotiator who finesses contracts.

The eager child at the birthday party standing in front of the table piled high with gifts for her; this child isn’t thinking of anxious self-examination or proud superiority or self-rejecting self-loathing.

Theological errors are never harmless.  Theological errors of such a magnitude hold people off that blessing wherewith God longs to bless them; namely, that gift of himself which is nothing less than his arm around our shoulder and his smile looking us in the face and his Fatherly word of pardon and peace – and all of this giving rise to our heart overflowing in gratitude and gladness as we want only to obey him and love him forever.

How important is it be childlike?

How important is it to know the difference between gift and contract? “Whoever does not receive the Kingdom like a child shall not enter it.”


II: — There’s another respect in which we must all become childlike: a child is always eager to grow up. All children crave becoming adults. Why else would the three year-old girl scrape her mother’s high-heeled shoes across the floor, teetering precariously with every step, asking her mother at the same time when she will be allowed lipstick and pierced ears? When the child is four he can’t wait until he’s five and can begin school.  When she’s four she can’t wait until she’s old enough to go to Brownies. When he’s 15 he’s dreaming of the day he’s 16 and can drive.

Peter Pan, the fellow who never grows up, is pathological.

Everywhere in scripture the leaders of God’s people are concerned with the threat that immaturity poses to God’s people. The prophets lament that so many in Israel prefer the childish to the childlike.  Childish as some are, their understanding of God is infantile; they can’t distinguish between their redeemer and a magician; they can readily be deflected onto the wrong road by any smooth talker whose enticements the immature can never recognize and resist; they are petulant and whiney before God as any three year-old is soon petulant or whiney.

The leaders in the young church have to contend on the same front. Peter urges his people, “Keep on growing in grace and knowledge.”  Paul pleads with the Corinthian congregation, “In thinking be mature.” Luke finds it important to tell us that even Jesus increased in wisdom as he increased in stature.

The day before I was ordained I had to attend a rehearsal for next day’s service of ordination.  Following the rehearsal two middle-aged ministers took me aside (I was 26) and told me that learning had very, very little to do with ministering. Most church people, they told me with the confidence born of 30 years’ experience, had the understanding of a twelve year old.

I was suspicious when I heard it then and I’m angry when I hear it now. In the first place, it simply isn’t true: the people of Schomberg Presbyterian Church do not have the Christian understanding of twelve year olds.  In the second place, to think so and worse, to say so, is to regard the congregation with contempt.  In the third place, a minister who thinks a congregation’s understanding is fixed at a twelve year old level will soon have a congregation sophisticated in all matters except faith.  The congregation’s stunted growth in matters of faith will be self-fulfilling prophecy as the minister’s contempt guarantees the spiritual impoverishment of his people.

Jesus deplores childishness in his followers. He insists on childlikeness. Immaturity characterizes the childish. Eagerness to grow up characterizes the childlike.


III: — Then what are the signs, or at least some of the signs, of our growing up?

[1] One sign is our coming to understand the truth that God has promised to bear us through our suffering. He hasn’t promised a way around it. For many reasons – not least because of widely-disseminated broadcasting – many people absorb what the childish will seize readily.  When Maureen and I were in Washington last November, I turned on the hotel room TV while Maureen prettied herself before we went to church. Mr. Joel Osteen was preaching. He is preacher to the largest live congregation in the USA . (Fifteen thousand people throng his building every Sunday. This figure doesn’t include the TV viewership.)   Osteen was preaching on “Guardian Angels”.  When he was a youngster he and his family had guardian angels.  He and his four brothers played high school football – and not one of them was ever injured.

Many things can be said about this.  At the level of the trite, it’s plain that I lack a guardian angel, since I’ve been injured many times and hospitalized three times. At the level of the profound, what does Osteen think he has said about his Lord?   Jesus survived several years as a carpenter, but survived only months when he began his public ministry.  The Sunday morning I watched the Osteen telecast I noticed the cameras moving over the live audience.         Everywhere in the building people were nodding in assent.   They all agreed with the speaker: to have a guardian angel is to be spared injury and mishap and misfortune throughout life.  How many were going to find their “faith”, as it were, shaken when life’s turbulence left them thinking God’s promises were hollow?

Faith isn’t an invisible shield that fends off disappointment, grief, betrayal, or pain.  Faith binds us to our Lord who knew that even for him there was no “way around” even as there was certainly a “way through”.

God has promised never to fail us or forsake us. He bears us through our distress as he holds us fast to the Son whom he has borne through. The way through pertains to faith. The supposed way around pertains to magic.  The childlike person who is growing up knows the difference.

[2] Another sign that we are growing up: Jesus tells us we are to be innocent as doves, yet wise as serpents. Serpent-wisdom is our understanding of the fallen world we inhabit: how it operates, how it beguiles, what treachery it traffics in, where it can threaten the unwary Christian. There are Christians whose zeal is not to be doubted, whose intentions are the best, and yet whose naiveness resembles that of the child who can’t discern the danger that the candy-offering stranger brings with him.  It isn’t enough to be innocent as doves; we also have to be wise as serpents. Maturity is crucial here.

[3] It’s a sign of maturity that we are eager to balance what I call the vertical and horizontal dimensions of the Christian life, and eager to ensure that they intersect. The vertical dimension of our Christian life pertains to worship, prayer, meditation, study. The horizontal pertains to our concern for our neighbours, specifically our suffering neighbours. If the vertical is isolated and thought to be the totality of the Christian life, it becomes an insular pietism, a self-indulgent inner “trip” unrelated to life. If, on the other hand, the horizontal is isolated it becomes a pagan “do-goodism” that soon finds itself resourceless, discouraged – and, worst of all, embittered. Maturity means we can perceive why both vertical and horizontal are necessary and how they intersect.

What other signs of increasing maturity are there? We could mention dozens. No doubt you have several in mind that I have never thought of.  What matters is that we are always maturing in our understanding, trust, love, and obedience.


We began today by noting that children are certainly not innocent.  Therefore we are never to emulate their depravity.  Children are also childish. Childishness isn’t going to help any adult. Adults will be helped, however, as we pursue being childlike.

The childlike receive God’s good gifts as just that: gifts. The childlike want nothing to do with an achievement mentality or a reward mentality or a meritocracy of any sort.  They never lose their amazement and wonder that the gifts they are given have their name on the gifts.

The childlike are always eager to grow up.  They are zealous for greater wisdom, obedience and love.  The know that God has loved them since the foundation of the world. After all, did not our earthly parents love us even before we were born?


                                                                                                   Victor Shepherd       

January 2007