Saturday, January 14, 2017

To such as these the kingdom of heaven belongs

"Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs." (Matthew 19:14) Jesus reproaches his disciples for thinking that the kingdom of God is primarily about adults. On the contrary, he insists. "Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 18:3)

Yet Paul's rhetoric is always the other way around. "I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food." (1 Cor. 3:1-2) "When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways." (1 Cor. 13:11)

So which is it? I am genuinely puzzled. Jesus also said, "Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 18:4) Are children humble? Are they not mainly concerned with their own needs, desires, and feelings? As a new parent myself, I have many words to describe our beautiful baby boy, but I'm not sure "humble" would be one of them.

Or maybe there is humility in always screaming when one is in need, or even when one feels in need. The psalms are full of complaints which seem to abruptly transition into praise. Those who truly pray to God do not hold back. Even if their cry is entirely irrational, just like the cry of a young child ofen is, the comfort of knowing God hears is what counts.

Is there an ironic sort of maturity in this? The "wise" in Paul's are sometimes those who are wise according to the world, sometimes those who are spiritually wise. In Christ everything gets flipped upside down. "God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong." (1 Cor. 1:27) This resonates much better with the sayings of Jesus.

Sometimes, I have learned, children's cries can only be calmed by subtle reminders of their parents' love. Our baby had quite a lot of difficulty learning to fall asleep alone. It was necessary to let him cry, a lot at first, less and less over time. Not that we were ever absent. We went into his room to gently remind him of our presence. It just wasn't what he wanted. He wanted to be in our arms, and especially to drink his mother's milk.

Maybe prayer is like that. At first we believe we need "milk, not solid food." In time we realize that the whole purpose of life is to gradually mature. Sometimes our prayers are only answered in the most subtle of ways. We cry ourselves to sleep at first, but we soon learn that we are truly not alone.

But it is not spiritual maturity to stop crying. The world is full of sadness, injustice, oppression, horrors of every kind. If we refuse to cry, it is only because our souls have forgotten that we have a Father in heaven. "If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!" (Matthew 7:11)

Once again, the Christian life is a paradox. It means becoming more human by becoming more divine, more mature by becoming more childlike.

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