At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
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.
“See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven.
“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.
Matthew 18:1-5, 10-14
Over the years, I keep coming back to this passage and it’s synoptic twin in Luke 19, marveling and wondering at the connection between owning our childlikeness and receiving the gift of the kingdom of God. I find this reality both irresistible and unbelievable at the same time. While I feel myself drawn in to the simplicity of entering the kingdom as a child, it also seems audacious, impossible, and goes against every success-driven instinct within me. And then I wonder at myself. Is it hard to believe because it seems too easy, or is it that chlidlike faith actually seems like a bridge too far? Is it possible that rather than esteeming childlikeness I have, as the passage suggests, despised it instead?
Yesterday, Pray As You Go (a lectionary-based lectio divina podcast) reflecting on this passage, posed this question:
Jesus insists that God our loving Father wants no [little] one to be lost. Our world is full of ‘little ones’ – people who count for nothing, who are routinely ignored. We also carry a child inside ourselves – the vulnerable person within. What is Jesus telling us about the way we treat fragility when we meet it?
When I heard that last question it struck me plainly how easy it is for me to despise childlikeness, fragility, especially in myself, rather than to see it as the gift Jesus claims it to be. Fragility, vulnerability, are scary. If I’m honest, I’m ashamed of those places that feel weak, powerless, unsure. But the passage made me wonder, what is Jesus’ invitation in those vulnerable places?
St. Thérèse of Liseux, who lived her short life in late 1800s northern France, described her own complicated relationship with childlike faith. On the one hand, she desperately desired to please God and to experience communion with him. At the same time, she felt her own weakness keenly, and wondered how she could even aspire to the great spiritual heights she so desired. The revelation she received from the Lord, and from that point sought to pass on to others, she described thusly:
...the elevator that would lift me up to Heaven is your arms, O Jesus! To reach perfection, I do not need to grow up. On the contrary, I need to stay little, to become more and more little. O my God, you have surpassed my expectations and I wish to sing of your mercies.
Rather than despise her weakness and limitations, Thérèse found encouragement to be reconciled to her childlikeness as that which would move her towards God and his gracious love. She found this freeing realization:
What pleases him is to see that I love my littleness and my poverty, it is the blind hope that I have in his mercy...That is my only treasure.
The image of the shepherd searching long and tirelessly for the one lost sheep comes to mind here. The Shepherd, does not despise the sheep’s waywardness, shows no signs of exasperation as he begins his search, but diligently seeks the lost sheep, sights set on the joy and happiness that will result when he finds that lost sheep and brings her home. Indeed, Jesus says, our Father in heaven is not willing that any lost sheep, lost child, would perish, but instead that each one should enter his heavenly kingdom, carried in the strong arms of the Great Shepherd of the sheep (Heb. 13:20).
I wonder if you have ever found yourself despising your own fragility.
I wonder what might happen if we admit that we are lost, and allow ourselves to be found.
Little children, lost sheep… the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. What might it mean for us to receive this great grace today?
Quotes from St. Thérèse taken from Jacques Philippe, The Way of Trust and Love, p. 10 and 64.