Why would Jesus want us to be like children?

Matthew 18:3 – “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

I like kids. I think they have a number of admirable qualities. But for every positive quality they have (optimism, openness, honesty, etc), I could just as easily point out a negative side to that same quality (gullibility, selfishness, meanness, to name a few). So forgive me for saying that when I think of the ideal Christian, I don’t picture a 5 year-old.

Thankfully, Jesus’ endorsement of childlike faith came with an explanation of what he meant, found in the very next verse:

Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. (v. 4)

Jesus is not asking us to behave like children in all ways (or even in a multiplicity of ways), but in one specific way: live a humble life if you want to be great in Jesus’ eyes.

In the first century, kids were property of their dad, totally reliant on him economically, socially, and legally.  How is that different from today? There was no mandatory public school.  There was no Department of Family Services.  Your father could do anything to you he wanted, and no one stopped him.  After all, they were his “property.”

So when Jesus told us to have the humility of a child, that’s the world he was thinking of: just as children are totally dependent on their earthly fathers, so we ought to live life in similar humility before God.

The problem is that we don’t really like humility as Americans.  Imagine it this way: there are three friends who are about to move out of their parents’ home and get an apartment.  Sarah has been saving for months from her job at In ‘n Out, and works three nights a week there, til 2 in the morning.  She figures she can contribute $400 a month to the rent of the apartment. Melanie works at Starbucks every weekday, from opening til 10 am.  Thanks to her 4 am wake-up calls, she’s able to throw in $500 a month to a prospective apartment. Now the third roommate, Jen, does not have a job at all. She’s simply asked her parents to pay for her rent, and she has $900 a month to chip in, buying her her own room, while Sarah and Jen will need to split a room.

Whom do you respect least? Jen, right? Sarah and Melanie are industrious, hard-working women who deserve their own apartment.  Jen is just a mooch off her parents.

We want to live before God like Sarah and Melanie, hard-working and deserving of his love. Then, we want to be able to compare ourselves (favorably, of course) with deadbeats like Jen. 

But Jesus calls us to live like Jen. He provides all the grace that we need.  And not just us, but all around us, too, so there is not need to rank ourselves against one another (as Jesus’ disciples could never keep from doing).

Should we try to get people to like Jesus?

Recently I was listening to an ESPN podcast (Bill Simmons with Chuck Klosterman) in which the two hosts debated whether bringing one’s 5 year old daughter to an NBA game was appropriate. Klosterman then made a helpful point: The NBA is at its worst when it attempts to get people to like it who do not normally like it. Whether it’s the contrived contests during the breaks, the pop music going off in the background, or the creepy guy who says “The Laker girrrrrrls” (okay, I added that one), it’s all distracts from what’s actually there: a basketball game.

Klosterman briefly mentioned that this might be applied to other areas of life, including religion. And I think he’s right. Now, this seems weird coming from an evangelical pastor, I realize. We encourage people to “share” their faith all the time. But the idea of being willing to let Jesus stand on his own (without our “improvement”) is something very similar to what Jesus said: “And if anyone will not receive you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet when you leave that house or town.” (Matthew 10:14)

I desperately want people I know to become fascinated by Jesus, and I would go to great lengths to do so. But change him? Improve him? To paraphrase Meatloaf: “I won’t do that.”