Matthew 18:1-6 (RSVCE)
At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them, and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
“Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me; but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.
Jesus holds up a child as the example of one who will be the “greatest” in the kingdom of heaven. From the context we’re given, it’s a seemingly random child that Jesus called up to be his model. All the more perfect, really, to hammer his point home with the disciples. Remember the incident with the sons of Zebedee and their mother, when she asks Jesus which one of her sons will sit on his right, and which on his left. The disciples are still stuck in thinking of the heavenly kingdom as an earthly kingdom, where there are the powerful and the weak, the rulers and the ruled, and they want to make sure they will be counted among the powerful. That’s the heart of their question about who the “greatest” will be. Jesus turns the question on its head by holding up a random child.
But Guardini wants us to not be sucked into the romanticism of being “childlike.” It’s far too easy and even instinctual for us to associate “childlike” with qualities like innocence and malleability. Rather we need to look deeper into what Jesus is saying, past our own biases of what a “child” is, and really reflect on what it means for this child to be considered the “greatest” in the kingdom of heaven. Guardini separates this into particular points Jesus is making:
Whoever receives the child receives Jesus, meaning “to accept, to make room for, to respect.”
“Unconsciously we reserve such regard only for the person who is able to prove himself; who accomplishes something, is useful and important. The child can prove nothing. It is only a beginning, has not yet accomplished anything; it is still only a hope. The child cannot force the adult to take it seriously.”
-Romano Guardini ("The Lord")
Maturity has hardened us to view things in terms of their utility, in terms of what they have achieved and what they are able to achieve for us. Guardini is quick to note that this is not merely an opinion of strict realists, but that we see the same attitude toward children in parents. The parents become overprotective. The child is not worthy of the respect of a human being, and rather it must be shielded from normal human things. As adults, we respect only things which are able to assert themselves before us. We respect only things which demand respect from us.
Whoever causes a child to sin, it is better that for him to be drowned in the sea.
“The child cannot compete with the ableness, experience, greater knowledge of the adult, and is defenseless when a grown-up wickedly poisons its mind, confuses its conceptions of right and wrong, plays upon its helpless senses, and destroys its natural modesty or reverence.”
-Romano Guardini ("The Lord")
As adults, we sin freely. We lie, we cheat, we deceive, we tear each other apart every chance we get. Without devolving into cliché notions like “childish innocence,” as we know of course children also do these things. Any parent will have endless stories of how their children tried to deceive them. Children rely on adults for their guidance. By nature, they have tremendous instincts to trust others. They must do, for they are ignorant of most things. Just as we tend to view children as not worthy of our respect or acceptance, we also corrupt children with our own biases and sinful ways. We impose our sinfulness on them, mold them into our likeness, until they are just as lost as we are. Jesus warns us: one day, you will be judged for this. But it’s not just a warning. It’s also a calling: be like the children, and learn how to trust. Rather than being so concerned with self-assertion and pride, trust your peers, trust strangers, trust the Lord. We talk all the time about how children absorb knowledge like a sponge. It’s partly because of their ability to trust. But it’s also more than that.
We, as adults, have walked this world for many years. In that time, we’ve learned much about how to navigate it and its peculiarities, which is good. But we’ve also learned how to harden ourselves to its challenges, like living in a community of persons. We lie to each other all the time, and tell ourselves it’s better that way. “White lies,” after all, are just to protect the modesty of others, right? So really, we’re lying out of respect! But is it respect to hide yourself from others? Are they not worthy of knowing you? Children know no such modesty. Children are embarrassingly candid. They freely speak their minds any time their mind has anything on it. This is not saying we ought to be careless—far from it. Rather, we ought to deal with reality as reality, rather than try to hide ourselves and others from it.
That’s perhaps the biggest point to be made here. Children openly accept reality as it is, and deal with it as best they can. While we adults are constantly and tirelessly filtering reality through the lenses of culture, personal biases, religious rigidity, or whatever else, children merely walk through reality as it is and take it for what it is. Adults take reality only inasmuch as we think we can improve upon it.
“The Jewish people, the Pharisees and Scribes and high priests, how ‘grown-up’ they are! They examine, weigh, differentiate, doubt; and when the Promised One and prophecy is fulfilled, their long history about to be crowned, they cling to the past with its human traditions, entrench themselves behind the law and the temple, are sly, hard, blind—and their great hour passes them by.”
-Romano Guardini ("The Lord")
What we gather from this is what Guardini calls “Christian Maturity.” That is, being “like children” not in the sense of blind innocence or ignorance, but by washing away our rigidity and pride. By looking at the world, and indeed at ourselves, as it truly is, rather than filtering it through our obscuring lenses. By learning, once again, how to trust. That is Christian Maturity, and only those who are truly mature, as a child, will be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
Every day of Lent, I am writing a reflection piece on two chapters of "The Lord" by Romano Guardini. If you'd like to read or follow along, you can find the full calendar of where we're at below, or Click Here for the main landing page.