Is there a record of any other person in antiquity whose love of children and interest in them equalled that of Jesus? His love was such that he held up a small child as an example that adults must, in some way, choose to resemble. This is a bold challenge, and yet Jesus’ references to childhood are all too easily sentimentalized. Jesus is indeed full of compassion and love, but he stands in the truth, and his compassion and love express themselves in hard, almost ruthless sayings and demands. Familiarity with Scripture can blunt this sharp edge. We must learn not to take these challenges lightly.
All three writers of the Synoptic Gospels reveal Jesus’ insistence on the necessity of becoming as little as a little child in order to enter the kingdom of God. This is a sharp-edged utterance and, when understood, is likely to provoke as strong a reaction as when Jesus insisted: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.”
“This is a hard saying,” many exclaimed; “Who can listen to it?”(Jn 6:60). And they deserted Jesus. We are wise to reflect and consider if we too, confronted with the full reality of becoming as a little child, are severely tempted to “walk no more with him.”
Jesus’ disciples left the security of family, home and livelihood to throw in their lot with Jesus. In regard to this world, they are poor and powerless, little ones of no account, and Jesus is grateful for their loyalty and courage. However, he has no illusions: their self-interest has merely shifted from this world to the mysterious kingdom that their master is inaugurating. What gleaming crown awaits them?
What Is the Kingdom?
To reach a deep understanding of this “hard saying,” we have to ask what Jesus means by the kingdom of heaven. He is not talking only about the heaven awaiting us when we die; he is talking about the now. In his own historical context, he understands that the work his Father has given him to do is to draw Israel back to God, to renew it and shape it to become all that God intended it to be for the salvation of the nations. In his person the reign of God begins.
“Our God reigns! Our God reigns,” we sing lustily enough, but does he? Does God reign fully in his Christian people? Does God reign in our hearts, every day, every hour of the day in every circumstance? To acknowledge God as king, to enthrone God in our hearts means accepting to be spiritually helpless, to be little, unimportant, totally dependent. It is to dethrone the ego. To become as a little child has everything to do with the first and greatest commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God, with your whole heart, with your whole soul and with your whole strength…and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
“I believe in one God,” we say in the Nicene Creed. But in every human heart without exception, God has a rival in the ego. No one can serve two gods at one time. Jesus tells us that it is impossible to see the kingdom, let alone receive or enter it, without a radical renunciation of our natural self-possession and instinctive self-glorification. Given the world as it is, given the way we are, God’s kingdom cannot come without renunciation and suffering.
Only our Creator knows who and what we are and the glory and blessedness God destines for us. On our own we cannot know any of this and certainly cannot achieve our proper fulfillment. It can come about only by self-surrender in total trust to our Creator, doing God’s will, which has no other object than our blessedness. As I understand, there are two major effects of the Fall: spiritual blindness and the terror inevitable to our condition of contingency, blind as we are to the protective, nurturing, utterly faithful love of our Creator, in whom we live and move and have our being. We instinctively dread the loss of “me,” of who I am, my “self”; we dread diminishment, dwindling into nothingness and unimportance.
To a great extent, nature has ways of anaesthetizing this painful awareness. It persists nevertheless and irresistibly urges us to protect with all our might this fragile self. We are told that we must assert our supposed independence, be ourselves the arbiters of what is happiness and glory and go for it. We are desperate to keep control; we watch lest others threaten our rights. In other words, we insist on being our own god. Good, noble, virtuous in all manner of ways, we remain in control. We believe there is no problem in giving generously of the fruits of our vineyard, so long as the vineyard remains our own. And yet it is precisely this jealously guarded self-possession that must be surrendered. I do not think that we ourselves can make this absolute surrender. God himself must do it for us, must wrest us from ourselves. Nevertheless, if God is to achieve this ultimate triumph, we must do all that is within our power to help.
“The Son of Man came, not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mt 20:28). Jesus himself, the humblest of humankind, is the model for what he is asking of his disciples. Mark’s picture of Jesus holding the child close to him illustrates the point. Jesus is the perfection of spiritual childhood. The stringent unless of turning and becoming as a child in order to enter the kingdom of heaven is another way of saying that to seek to save one’s life in this world is to lose it. To sacrifice one’s life is to gain admittance into the kingdom of heaven.
In Ascent of Mount Carmel, St. John of the Cross wrote: “Oh that someone might show us how to understand, practice and experience what this counsel is which our Saviour here gives us concerning the denial of ourselves, so that spiritual persons might see in how different a way they should conduct themselves upon this road than that which many of them think proper.... Oh that someone would tell us how far Our Lord desires this self-denial to be carried!” This lament is addressed to us “spiritual persons,” who claim to be Christ’s friends.
What Jesus asks is always possible. The stern, uncompromising injunction to “deny thyself” is not a call to strip ourselves of earthly goods, to take on a life of rigid austerity—the ego could grow fat on that sort of thing. It is not things but self that has to be denied. Our Lord addresses each one of us in our particularity. There can be no pattern. We must want to follow him, want what he wants for us and died to give us. Enlightenment is progressive. Once we really give our attention to the matter, we see more and more how powerful, how tenacious is our selfishness. Every day offers small occasions for surrendering self-interest, our own convenience and wishes for the sake of others; for accepting without fuss the disappointments, annoyances, setbacks, humiliations that frequently come our way. The battle is largely fought out in relations with other people. “By this we know love, that [Jesus] laid down his life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for one another” (1 Jn 3:16).
Although Jesus’ word is addressed to all, historically his words often were addressed to those who were chosen to hold authority in the community he was creating, preoccupied as they were with precedence. There is nothing more contemptible than arrogant abuse of spiritual authority, and surely it is sacrilegious to use what has been given for the service of others to further self-interest. A careful, heart-searching reading of the Gospels and the New Testament letters is indispensable. Be servants of one another, we are told. Consider other people’s welfare rather than your own. Think of yourself as unimportant and other people and the reign of God all-important. Get rid of all anger and bitterness. Watch! Pay attention to thoughts, words, behavior. We soon realize how difficult it is to get rid of our innate self-centeredness. We find our ego lurking behind even our most generous efforts.
Paradoxically, to accept humbly and trustfully the impurity of our motives, seeing ourselves far from the loving selfless person we would like to be, is choosing to be little, admitting our helplessness and unimportance—provided, of course, that we are doing our utmost. Childlike, we surrender our autonomy to our Lord who, we now see, must do everything for us, and we find a happy freedom in the knowledge that he is everything we are not and he is all for us. When we no longer insist on being god to ourselves, every one of our doors is thrown open to the king of glory. Our sustained, earnest effort is important, but what God does is infinitely more important and decisive.
Genuine prayer—how poor and unsatisfactory it can seem!—never inflates the ego but always induces humility, revealing as it does our spiritual helplessness and dependence on grace. Patience, meekness, a lowly opinion of self and deep respect for others must always characterize the people God has chosen for his own. The Gospel of John shows us the inner reality of the Father’s perfect child. “The Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees his Father doing” (5:19). Jesus joyfully accepts to be powerless so that his Father can be all in him, and thus he is the perfect human expression of the Father. Through Jesus’ surrender the Father can achieve his loving purpose for humankind: “I do always the things that please him” (8:29).
We see Jesus as pure receptivity for all that the Father would give or would ask. How splendidly, gloriously human he is in his perfect obedience! Jesus had a human will and knew conflict. We see him distraught, torn in the temptation to refuse the revolting, fearsome chalice held out to him. “My Father!” Yet my food, the only meaning of my life, is to do the will of my Father. I am not alone, my Father is with me, and so, “Your will be done.” Not only is he our exemplar; Jesus, through his own perfect obedience, is the source whence the Holy Spirit comes to us to enable us to do what is impossible: “For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Mt 7:14). To glimpse something of the blessedness that is ours in the surrender of self is to cry out to God from the heart: “Take me from myself, wrest me away and take me to you.”