If you’re like me, you may have grown up feeling like you were not very important. It’s unlikely that you would have been able to put words to it – you were too young, too confused, and, quite frankly, too hurt. While some kids suffer incredible, disgusting, and/or frightening tragedies, many kids suffer more subtly – as second-class citizens, if you will. The effects of this are long lasting. Some of us turn to drugs, alternative lifestyles, work, relationships – all trying to escape the pain of feeling like we’re not good enough. What happened? What do we do now?
To be clear, being treated like a second-class citizen isn’t meant to sound dramatic. In the eyes of a child it’s very real. There are lots of things in our childhoods that we might be familiar with, but might not be associated with mistreatment because they always seemed like normal everyday life to us. Take food. We were told what to eat, how much, and when. Peas were forced down our throats. Our plates had to be cleaned, as if we were garbage disposals. My grandmother’s favorite slogan was , “Eat up, and give the house a good name!” My mother’s was, “What a waste – kids are starving in Africa you know.” Ego and shame – what a combo!
Education is another example. We were forced to go to school. Perhaps forced seems strong, but it is compulsory, isn’t it? And our parents played along trying to create excitement (where there was none) with the promise of new friends and discoveries. Off we went into a stuffy classroom with one adult (often scary) and twenty-five other kids (also scary) to learn things we had little interest in learning.
We were shuffled to church, events, holiday parties, family events and more with little input. We were talked over, talked about, talked at, but rarely talked to. Our emotions were disciplined rather than heard. Our pleas for our wants and desires were dismissed as unimportant, not possible, or silly.
We were, without our knowledge or consent, raised in a cultural system of might-is-right with a set of expectations put on us that we never asked for, wanted, or would have agreed to. We were told to be a good person, get good grades, so we can get into a good school, so we can get a good job, so we can make good money, so we can have a nice house, nice car, nice spouse, and other nice things.
But what our culture (and others) fails to recognize, even today, is that kids are really smart. They’re more in tune with life than we know. They may lack education and experience, but they know relationship/connection/trust/love. They don’t miss much. Kids see our hypocrisy. They know the difference between false love and real love. They know when we’re not present. They know when we’re not really listening. They sense our emotions – sarcasm, stress, worry. They pick up on our tone of voice. Kids may not always be able to put words to these things, but they know.
For many of us kids, the things we valued – connection, snuggling, play, imagination, passion, love – were secondary, sometime tertiary, to the demands of culture. We were rarely allowed to just be. There was little time spent on developing relationships where we knew we were loved deeply. Instead, we had to eat up, to get shuffled off to school, so we can make something of ourselves, so we can be….what? Happy? Successful? No one stopped long enough to question the system, or to find out who we actually were, or what we wanted.
Of course, parents do their best with the skills they have, and there are moments. But moments are hardly a way of life. Are moments of love and connection satisfactory when it comes to our kids? Sadly, for many, the answer is a heart-broken yes. Or, it’s a defiant, “I did the best I could!” though, deep down, in the quiet moments, they ache. Either way, us kids grew up on a healthy dose of “good enough.” Put another way – mediocrity. Why? Because our value was expressed with lip service versus actual belief that we were inherently awesome. Parenting was a pain versus a pleasure. We were inconvenient instead of incredible. We were trophies instead of treasures. All of this falls under the massive, yet barely noticed umbrella, of might-is-right.
Above are some of the more everyday experiences we endured as kids. Fortunately, (for all involved), Jesus had a very different idea about kids and culture. It was far more radical than anything in our day (and certainly his). Jesus spoke and acted at extreme levels of intimacy, connection, and love. When Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me…,” he was putting his finger on deep-seated cultural beliefs about the power structures that be. Here’s some context from the Gospel of Matthew:
Then people brought little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples rebuked them.
Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” When he had placed his hands on them, he went on from there.
This is one of those passages that, because of our own might-is-right bias, tends to get short shrift. Biblical commentary notes that children are symbolic in that they are seen as humble – versus proud – and thus meet the requirement to enter the Kingdom of God. Or kids are seen as helpless, which models total reliance that we’re all supposed to have on God. This is all true, of course. However, the messages from Jesus, and the context in which they were delivered, suggest something much bigger and far more glorious.
When we interpret Jesus in our authoritative mind-set, parents feel a biblical pressure to mold their children so they grow up “right.” Right? Isn’t this what we say to ourselves to this very day? Our kids need to behave. They need to be respectful. They need to have good manners. They need to be quiet. They need to say thank you. They need to do what they’re told. They need to obey. We need to “give the house a good name,” right? I am in no way suggesting that we shouldn’t care about raising our kids “right.” I’m suggesting we’re trapped in a fear-based approach that comes from our culture, not Jesus. Thus we miss the deeper teaching in this passage in Matthew, and elsewhere.
If we look at the context of the passage above, we have parents bringing their kids to some rabbi. This was a traditional practice of blessing children in Israel. No one knew who this particular rabbi was yet, but Jesus clearly had serious street creds, as the crowds were constantly swarming him. Do you think the kids wanted to go and be blessed? As a kid, did you “want” to go to the doctor? Maybe. Maybe the first century Palestinian kids were excited to get out of the house. Or, maybe they were content just playing in the grain fields with their friends. Either way, all involved (parents, kids, crowds, disciples) were in for a paradigm shift that many still wrestle with today.
What happened when the parents arrived with their kids? What happened was nothing new in the eyes of the little children. The disciples rebuked them. They basically said, “No way – kids are not important enough to trouble the teacher.” Even Jesus’ disciples operated under the might-is-right mentality. In their eyes, kids had little value – certainly not enough to trouble Jesus. Adults were far more important (they’re bigger, faster, stronger, smarter…etc). The disciples displayed might-is-right in action.
How do you think the kids felt as the disciples were yelling at their parents? How did they feel as they could see, once again, they were being marginalized and pushed aside. Perhaps they felt like the second-class citizens? Like all of us, they longed for love, acceptance, and connection – to feel important, special. It’s in this context that Jesus’ words, “Let the little children come to me…” begins to take on far greater significance. Jesus spoke out, “No, do not block them from me. They do belong. They are important. They are loved.” In a sentence or two, the world system of might-is-right was delivered a devastating blow. God’s Kingdom was breaking in.
One has to wonder what the kids thought when Jesus advocated for them. They were essentially kicked out of the party by the guests only to be singled out as the guest of honor by the host. The kids saw, that Jesus saw, the “adult hypocrisy.” Jesus called them on it. Like he often did, Jesus put his finger on the unspoken cultural views and said, “No!” I bet the kids were quietly thrilled! Perhaps this is why just a few chapters later, Matthew tells us it was the children in the temple who were shouting about Jesus, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David.’ The kids recognized something profound in Jesus that went far deeper than what the adults recognized. Kids are smart.
We might be tempted to push back, arguing that a “might-is-right” mentality, or an authoritarian mindset, doesn’t apply to us. After all, we’re smart, we’re educated, we’ve read the latest parenting tips, advice, and psychological findings. And we love our kids! I would suggest that, despite our best efforts, we’ve learned and applied all of this under the might-is-right umbrella. We are so heavily influenced by our internal drives for power, prestige, and control, we don’t even notice it to question it. We’re more like Jesus’ disciples than we care to admit.
To get at this a bit more, let’s look at the disciple’s operating motives with the above in mind. We can see the striving of the disciples. Matthew tells us this:
At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
This was not a question born out of a desire for knowledge of God’s Kingdom. The disciples were eager to take their places in the Kingdom. They were assuming Jesus was going to Jerusalem to reestablish the rule of God – to crush Rome. Hence, they wanted to know where they stood. Would they be in the Royal Court? What titles would they have? How much money would they make? Could they be seated next to Jesus? They truly did not know what they were asking. They didn’t understand the Kingdom Jesus had in mind. The disciples wanted to exploit the Kingdom for their own advantage.
It’s against this backdrop that Jesus makes it very clear that their striving for power, prestige, and prominence has no place in God’s Kingdom. To drive this home, Jesus gave them an object lesson. He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.
Jesus flipped the power structure – the social order – on its head. But Jesus didn’t stop there. He went on to warn his disciples not to mess with kids (e.g., whoever causes one of these to stumble is better off to take a dip in the sea with a large millstone around they’re neck.) This hyperbole was to drive home the value of kids and their importance. They are not second-class citizens. We can’t just push them aside, or ignore their needs – whether physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual. We’re to treat them with dignity, respect, honor, grace and love.
The Message drives this point home: “Watch that you don’t treat a single one of these childlike believers arrogantly. You realize, don’t you, that their personal angels are constantly in touch with my Father in heaven? In case we missed the point of his love for, and the value of, kids, Jesus continues with a story of a lost sheep…
“What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go to look for the one that wandered off? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he is happier about that one sheep than about the ninety-nine that did not wander off. In the same way your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish.
Jesus was simultaneously raising the value of kids, and radically shifting the social order. Just as no one could get their heads around a crucified Messiah, no one saw the shifting of the social constructs. Despite Jesus’ crystal clear teaching, they just didn’t get it. They could not get past their might-is-right mentality. They couldn’t “get over themselves.”
So we have this picture where the disciples held a very low opinion of kids – they just weren’t important. They were vying for positions of power. They were so caught up in themselves and their social hierarchy that they missed his teachings entirely. They had to be repeatedly reminded that their might-is-right framework has no place in God’s Kingdom.
Jesus used kids as an example to point out the error in their thinking. Think about it. What do children (both practically and symbolically) teach us about the kingdom of God?
Kids are not caught up in the power structures (not until they’re taught). Naturally, they seek connection first. When a group of kids get together and play, skin color, race, tribe, or socioeconomic status are not part of the equation.
Their cries are primarily desires for connection. They want to sleep in their parents bed. They want daddy to stay home from work. They want more play time. They’re crying out to express love. They don’t care about the things of this world. They care about their people. They don’t want grandpa to smoke. They don’t want their parents to fight. They just want to dance in the glory of laughter, love, hope, and joy.
Kids are alive, energetic, and passionate. They live in the moment. They get absorbed and engrossed in play or whatever project or thing they’re exploring. They’re honest in their emotions, crying out when they have a need or desire. They raise their arms when they want to be held, fully trusting mom or dad will pick them up and hold them, connect with them, love them. Jesus is saying, “Look at the children. Embrace them. Love them. See how much they have to teach you about God’s Kingdom. Do NOT hinder them!”
Thanks for reading,
~ Ted Olson