“Amen, I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the Kingdom of heaven.” A well-known saying from Jesus, but what is it about children we are called to embrace for the sake of our salvation? Well, there is the trust children have in their parents–a trust which can shame any parent as we realize we are not always worthy of such complete trust.
There is humility–a factor emphasized in the verses following ours for today. Certainly (in Jesus’ time if not our own) children were humble, and they may have gotten far worse than the back of a hand if they were anything but humble. And Jesus was always telling us that the path to greatness in the Kingdom of God is the way of humility where the first are last and the last are first–where even God Almighty stoops to wash the dirty feet of men.
But today I want us to consider another aspect of children which the Brazilian theologian Rubem Alves believed Jesus had in mind when he said we must become as children if there is any hope for us. What do children characteristically do? No matter where we look in the world or in history, what do all children do? They play, and their play emerges from imagination.
When I was a child, within an afternoon in the woods behind my house, my friends and I played Robin Hood, Combat, Zorro, Cowboys and Indians, Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, Ben Hur, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, the Buckaneers, Superman, Cherokee Indians, and probably much more that I’ve long since forgotten. Each game had its rules and each kid had his role–but in the twinkling of an eye, the rules, the roles, and even the game itself could change. In play emerging from wonderful imagination, we were simultaneously actors and authors of the script of our play. And so we were free to change the script, adapt the roles, or throw the whole enterprise away and look for another at a moment’s notice. Every minute of the day was an opportunity for a new beginning – a new constellation of all the wonderful pieces that made up our lives. And all our play ended with a universal resurrection of the dead. (“Bang! Bang! You’re dead!” We would fall to the ground as though we were dead, and then jump back up to live and play again.) We were so free to imagine and to bring to possibility the impossible.
Today I worry about our children’s ability to experience play emerging from their imaginations. Perhaps I’m just out of touch with the “progress” of our era, but it seems to me that for many children, play has become a product of our consumption-oriented society. With toys that require sedentary skills and mindless repetition and whose rules change for no one, and with television programs where the scripts are as predictable and inane as a corny joke told over and over, play has become no more than passive entertainment and distraction–in the words of Ruben Alves, “the filling of empty time, escape from boredom, fun for the dwarfed imagination which cannot give birth to anything.” Of all the silliness and tragedy of our modern time, perhaps the loss (or at least the diminishing) of childhood is one of the saddest results of our consumption-oriented society.
But where children still play–where they create worlds of wonder from their imaginations and shape these worlds according to the desires of their hearts – where they look for rebirth, newness, life–where one square foot of ground can become a whole universe of potential and magic–where children can still be amazed by that which we no longer even notice — where tomorrow is anticipated as an authentic alternative and not just a tired arrangement of the same old pieces of the past–where the open-ended questions of “why” and “why not” are cherished more than the shallow questions of “how much” and “how soon” – where we are willing to let children take us by the hand and lead us home–there we will find God’s Kingdom. Only as we change and become children again can we enter that blessed realm.
I want us to explore what becoming like children and entering God’s Kingdom have in common. In his parables Jesus talked constantly about the Kingdom of God. Two characteristics of that Kingdom stand out above all others. First, Jesus said, God’s Kingdom comes in unpredictable, unanticipated, ever surprising, and wonderful ways. God’s presence and activity emerge when we least expect them. Often in the commonplace and ordinary, sometimes in the marginality and periphery of life, God’s Kingdom can be right under our noses–right before our eyes. But because we no longer see as children do, our imaginations and expectations have congealed into sterile formulas and logical equations. We have trouble seeing God in a Samaritan cleansing the wounds of a Jew in a ditch, or in a Father welcoming a lost boy home, or in a widow putting her last penny in the offering plate, or in the beauty of wild flowers which unmask all the gold and raiment of pompous kings as no more than cheap and gaudy tinsel. And maybe for all our talk to the contrary, we have trouble perceiving God – really understanding the significance of a God in a baby in a feed trough, in a Carpenter with dusty feet, calloused hands, and a motley crew for his followers, and in a convicted criminal on a cross.
The other characteristic of Jesus’ teaching about the Kingdom can be summed up in the word “reversal.” God’s Kingdom comes in such a way as to turn normal values, accepted perspectives, and prudent principles upside down and inside out.
In God’s Kingdom the first shall be last and the last shall be first.
In God’s Kingdom, those who serve are the greatest.
In God’s Kingdom the lamb, not the lion, rules.
In God’s Kingdom a little child shall lead all creation into the paths of peace and righteousness.
In God’s Kingdom each and every Lazarus of this world shall be held tenderly in the bosom of Abraham while all the arrogant and unjust big shots and hot shots of the world will take their turn at eating humble pie.
New Testament scholars tell us that Jesus told his parables over and over again to communicate this great truth: the Kingdom of God comes as a reversal of the rules, expectations, values, and perspectives we hold so dear. And so we adults who can no longer play and imagine–who, having long since lost the ability to create, have become content to be mere reactors to all around us. For us adults who let others write our scripts and who believe the way it is must be the way it is now and forever, God’s Kingdom comes as a shock. The possibility of a different world as a community of love and compassion, sharing and justice, joy and peace seems an impossible dream. And that’s why children who know the rules were meant to be broken–who organize their time and space according to the desires of their hearts–who can see as God sees, (for what is God if not the Eternal Child dreaming life and joy for us)–that’s why children can be our models and bring us to an openness to that dream of God seeking flesh and blood–that impossible possibility waiting to be born of a world shaped by freedom, love, and joy.
If we can change and become as children–if we can dream with God the Eternal Child–if we can become co-creators with Christ in the alternative community of God’s Kingdom, then maybe, just maybe, a future can emerge according to the shape love takes in inspired imagination.
So let’s let Kid Stuff become Kingdom Stuff as we play and imagine to the glory of God—and for our own salvation.