Unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the Kingdom of heaven.
“Who is the greatest in heaven?” the disciples ask Jesus in today’s gospel. It is a question with which they seem almost obsessed. The brothers James and John ask Jesus to sit in the greatness of his left and right in the kingdom (Mk 10:35-37). In Matthew’s gospel, it is their mother who makes the request on their behalf (Mt 20:20. Jesus responded with a powerful visual aid, a kind of living parable to drive home his point. He placed a child in their midst and said: “…Unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the Kingdom of heaven” (Mt 18:3).
I do not think the disciples were ready for Jesus’ answer. I am not sure we are either. We hear Jesus’ words and at once think of our innocent, trusting children who love us unconditionally. Jesus obviously must be using children to show us how he wants us to be. And why not interpret Jesus’ message this way? Our culture places great importance on our children. In the way we treat them, with love and protection, we show unmistakably that they hold high status within the fabric of family, society, and its institutions, such as education. Such, however, was not the case in the first-century Jewish world. Children – and women – held low social status. They were subject to the authority of their male elders.
Remember those disturbing words in the Gospel of Matthew when Jesus multiplied the loaves and fed the large crowd? “Not counting women and children, there were about 5,000 men who ate” (Mt 14:21). Women and children were among the thousands who followed Jesus, and whom he fed. Nevertheless, they did not count – at least not in the view of the evangelist. They were invisible, insignificant, inconsequential, the no-counts in a stubbornly patriarchal world.
Returning to the disciples’ question, “Who is the greatest in the Kingdom of heaven?” Jesus hit them between the eyes with his shocking answer. “Turn and become like children.” Turn, that is, repent (metanoia), be transformed, turn your eyes, your minds, and hearts, to see as God sees. God sees these children, these women. They are the greatest in the kingdom. In a flashing moment of revelation, the young Mary, both child and woman, proclaimed that which Jesus taught his disciples. “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord…He has cast down the mighty from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly” (Lk 1:46-55). This is Mary announcing the great reversal. This is Jesus overturning our values like a clutter of tables in a temple.
Today’s culture still prefers to count a bad census, so to speak, refusing to or unable to recognize the unimportant, the invisible among us. Jesus challenges his disciples – and us – to undergo a radical reorientation in how we view the kingdom right here on earth. He calls us to reject the worldly views of greatness and importance, to humbly become like children, the insignificant by the world’s standards. This is not a warm and cozy message Jesus gives us today. He is blunt. He hits us between the eyes. Unless we turn, repent, and become like children, there is no entering the Kingdom of heaven.
Deacon Manuel Valencia is on the staff at Mater Dolorosa Passionist Retreat Center, Sierra Madre, California.