At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
Then Jesus called a little child to Him, set him in the midst of them, and said, “Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore whoever humbles himself as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
We are often told that we need to “become like little children” to enter the kingdom of heaven. The phrase most often used to describe this change is “faith like a child”. The faith we possess now is the reasoned, complex, and doubt-tainted faith of a scarred and skeptical adult. Our maturity has backfired on us and made our love or belief complex and fragile. If only we could be like little trusting children and put away our big books of theology and express a very simple trust, then we would be following Jesus in the way he really desires.
That is how this passage is often explained anyway. To overstate the case – we think too much for our own good. We need to be more stupid and and simple and love God like someone who’s reasoning capacities are immature. In this sense, to become like a little child, when “done right” is something that happens in your head. Through an “emptying” of your higher abstractions, you become like the young child in the Gospel account who just intuitively loved his Lord and sat on his lap.
I recently discovered, in the writings of Brennan Manning, a different take on this scripture. He points out that the primary characteristic of children, when it comes to adult work, is that they are incompetent. They aren’t stupid, but they are clumsy, forgetful, and small. It’s not that there is something wrong (or superior) with their heads. In addition, they may also have very good intentions, but they just can’t do the job. They can’t move that 100-pound bale of hay. They can’t cut the careful dovetail joint in that wood. They can’t prepare six dishes in the kitchen and start them all at different times so they finish simultaneously. They can write a short letter, but not a 50-page court legal brief. They can handle a small dog but not a team of horses. They are (currently) incompetent. Give them hard adult work to do and they just can’t do it.
We are like these very children, though we may not realize it. Our father God gives us adult work to do – loving our husbands and wives, tending a huge planetary garden, and ruling nations. And we can’t do it. We are clumsy, forgetful, and small (though our tools are increasingly sharp). We miss the mark. We fall short. We sin, not just in our obvious misdeeds, but in failing to do the good that we have not even begun to consider due to our youth and incompetence.
So when we come to Jesus “like little children”, we come as a people that can’t get the job done. We have no works we can boast in. We can’t do the work. We see that work needs to be done, but we can’t do it – even those of us who appear the highest achieving.
But His love for us has absolutely nothing to do with our effort or accomplishment. It is unilateral and independent of our poor track record and ongoing failure. He will lead us, passing through death, to one day grow up.