Even a brief, cursory reading of the Christian Scriptures can give us a deep appreciation and invitation to the teachings of Jesus and unlock a call to conversion and holiness that lasts a lifetime. From a perspective of evangelization, this universal accessibility to understanding the Gospel certainly reflects the timelessness of the Word of God and the call to preach it to all the nations. No doubt there is spiritual meaning and value to reading the Gospel within the context of one’s contemporary time and place, but in doing so does one run the risk of not fully understanding who the person of Jesus was historically or what it was that he was preaching? To take a person out of his or her temporal and environmental space can often distort the radical depth of his or her teachings and message. The way in which our modern understandings of language and patterns of thought have certainly done this to Jesus, both to his full humanity and to his full divinity, has altered his message in such a way that the radical inclusivity of the Reign of God that humanity to has been invited to is devalued. For me, Jesus’ teaching for us to be like children (Mt 18: 1-4) has wide-reaching consequences for my community, not just my own personal spirituality.
Albert Nolan, in his book Christianity Before Jesus, contextualizes how scandalous it was for the people of Jesus’ day to hear “unless you become like little children you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” For many, the popular image of a smiling Jesus surrounded by young, clean-cut children is a heartfelt reminder for us to return to a simple, joyful, and anxiety-free childhood. One imagines Jesus’ rebuke to his disciples to be akin to someone telling us to “take it easy” and be more light-hearted. But Nolan is quick to point out that “there is no evidence whatsoever for the popular opinion that that the image of the little child is an image of innocence” (Nolan, p. 69). In fact, the image of the child is one that shakes up Jesus’ Jewish audience because children had absolutely no status: The child is a live parable of “littleness,” the opposite of greatness, status, and prestige. Children in that society had no status at all – they did not count (Nolan p. 69).
In a society where “the dominant value was prestige” to say that children were the ones who were able to enter the kingdom of heaven is a complete reversal of the social values and hierarchy (Nolan p. 67). Those who are not even considered part of society, the children, are the ones who make up the kingdom of heaven. One must rid or detach oneself of prestige, honor, and social standing in order to become like a little child and enter the kingdom of heaven. It is a reality that many of us in the West, where we think of children having rights and being the first to receive care and attention, have a hard time to understanding. Because of our Western hermeneutic, without contextualizing Jesus within his time and how children were viewed within that society, we totally misinterpret what God is calling us to: a way of life that undoes placing worth and value on prestige and honor. The
society in which there will be no prestige and status, no division of people into inferior and superior. Everyone will be loved and respected, not because of one’s education or wealth or ancestry or authority or rank or virtue or other achievements, but because one like everybody else is a person (Nolan p. 71).
By taking Jesus out of his historical time and place and not properly situating what Jesus intended it to mean when Jesus said to “become like children,” we radically depart from the rich spirit of inclusivity that Jesus scandalously taught.
In connecting to Nolan’s insistence that “becoming like children” was a shocking, provocative invitation that Jesus seriously meant, I was also moved by how Nolan describes Jesus’ own disassociation with prestige and honor to be in solidarity with the poor and oppressed. The way Nolan describes Jesus’ compassion is particularly challenging because of what it demands, but such compassion is an invitation into a deeper communion and love with God and others. Nolan names this the “paradox of compassion:”
The one thing that Jesus was determined to destroy was suffering: the sufferings of the poor and the oppressed, the sufferings of the sick, the sufferings that would ensue if the catastrophe were to come. But the only way to destroy suffering is to give up all worldly values and suffer the consequences. Only the willingness to suffer can conquer suffering in the world. Compassion destroys suffering with and on behalf of those who suffer. A sympathy with the poor that is unwilling to share their sufferings would be a useless emotion. One cannot share the blessings of the poor unless one is willing to share their sufferings (Nolan 138).
To become like a child means to endure the suffering of non-recognition, being counted last, and often going without food, shelter and other basic needs being met. This can be a hard pill to swallow, but in a world of increasing material poverty, resource abuse, and environmental crisis, it is a message that the world most needs to hear – not only does our spiritual salvation rely on it, but now our continued existence relies on it, too!
Nolan’s emphasis on the paradox of Jesus’ compassion through suffering was an affirmation of my vocation in the Catholic Worker movement and the reality of the cross being our path to liberation. A friend of mine is fond of saying that a way of liberation must pass through fire – that is, suffering. The passage cited above breaks my heart open and allows the message of Jesus’ suffering, nonviolent love to pass through me. But after that prayerful, contemplative moment I begin to realize what such a radical invitation to compassion might ask of me and fear and trembling sets in. It is no wonder that thee popular media that encourages us to have faith like a child misses the true, deep meaning of Jesus’ comparison: the truth is a hard message to hear and not an attractive one to sell!
Over the past week, the Gospel message of ridding oneself of prestige and social standing so that I can better be in solidarity with and for the poor has reminded me of the importance of the revolution of the heart. I can practice the corporal works of mercy, but if it leads to judgment of others and a self-edification that presumes honor in the eyes of God, I am not living the faith and spirit Jesus preached. If I can carry with me the Christian message to become like a child, one without status or attachment to my privilege – and encourage others to practice that faith – I think my ministry with students and in the Catholic Worker will be more faithful to what Jesus historically invited his followers to.