This excerpt is from The Bad Habits of Jesus by Leonard Sweet.
Jesus had a bad habit of hanging out with children and even putting children first. “The children get fed first,” Jesus insisted. “Let the little children come,” Jesus said.
Kids in Jesus’ day were to be seen and not heard. Small children (under age five) were associated with death. All children were associated with dirt, noise, and annoying habits. It went without saying that they shouldn’t bother the rabbi.
Even Jesus’ disciples thought he wouldn’t want to be interrupted by rambunctious children. Sound familiar? Many of our churches today banish children to distant parts of the building during worship, then bemoan their absence from church when these same kids reach adulthood. Instead of Jesus’ “Let the children come unto me,” the church says, “Let us babysit your kids while we dazzle you adults in worship.”
Jesus’ idea of children and childhood was radically different from what was normal in his day. Jesus taught a faith that you might call adultproof. Today we childproof our medicine and our faith, making them as hard for children to get into as possible. In contrast, Jesus made faith child friendly and adult averse, meaning Jesus did everything he could to protect children’s faith from adults and to help even the most adultish among us become more childlike so as to get into the Kingdom without messing it up.
Truth is truth whether spoken by a child or a king. There is no halfway Holy Spirit. The question for Jesus was not “How old are you?” but “Do you have ears that hear?” One of the most aberrant features of the gospel story is the tender spot displayed by the wifeless and childless Jesus for children—so tender as to be a hair trigger for Jesus’ anger. Any belittling of children prompted an instant emotional storm in Jesus’ psyche.
The original ending of Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes” satirized not the vanity of the high and mighty for keeping a fiction going but mocked the groupthink of the crowd that ended up attacking the child who told the truth—“But he has no robes on at all!”—with sticks and canes. In a world where the emperors of religion and state wear no clothes, and their ministers and minions keep up the pretense, Jesus gave us the child-in-the-crowd’s cry of “He’s wearing nothing.” But Jesus went beyond the warning cry and gave us new clothes to wear. He was a master tailor who modeled the “seamless” clothing of righteousness he customized for real-world, rubber-hits-the-road ministry and mission.
If you want to make Jesus angry, then hamper or hinder or mock a child. For Jesus, the sight of children inspired protective impulses. For everyone else, children were as much symbols of death as of life. When a child is born today, we immediately feel a collective responsibility. But in Jesus’ day, you didn’t get too attached to a newborn infant because of the likelihood that they would be ripped from your heart. Almost one out of three children died before their first birthday in the first century. But rather than “fragility motivates distance,” for Jesus, fragility obliged responsibility.
In fact, fragility in whatever form elicited in Jesus a sense of responsibility. When Jesus picked up one child and put the child into his lap, he showed his disciples what life and faith in God was truly about, a faith that doesn’t look to death but that revels in life. And he showed them that to be responsible in God’s sight is to care for the fragile, to care for the children. For within a fragile body is often revealed a bulwark of faith. Jesus touched fragile people, dead people, and “walking dead” people, whether children or adults. But the innocent souls of children, he seemed to say, were closest to the angels, closest to the Kingdom of God.
We know that children made up approximately one third of the population in Jesus’ day. And it’s likely, given the ease with which Jesus pulled a child to his lap from the crowd, that many children came to hear him along with their parents and other adults. And while the adults may have struggled with some of Jesus’ stories, it’s likely their young charges knew exactly what he meant. They may be fragile, but they are astute. And Jesus’ message of God’s love and grace, a God who loved them, must have been honey to their hearing.
When the Twelve debate who is the greatest, Jesus does an intervention. But note to what he takes exception. It is not their aspirations to greatness. He doesn’t rebuke them for wanting to be great, to be the best. Rather, he rebukes them for their identification of what is the best and the greatest. That’s when he takes a little child in his arms and says that this is the “greatest” in the Kingdom. If you aspire to be the best, to true greatness, then make yourself small, little, of no consequence, humble.
Jesus was formed with a womb sound track of humility. The lullaby Mary sang to Jesus while she was pregnant was a praise song, “The Magnificat”: “My soul magnifies the Lord . . . He has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate.” In the Greek world, humility was not a virtue but a weakness, even a despised quality of life. The noun humility does not occur in Greek or Roman writers before the Christian era. The adjective humble is common but almost always means mean-spirited, low, groveling, or poor.
Humility, what the ancient world deemed a bone of contention, was a point of connection for Jesus with others. Can you imagine how hard it must have been for Jesus and then Paul to convince people that humility was a positive virtue for a person who was free in Christ? That’s why Jesus used a child—not a scholar, soldier, priest, or prophet—to showcase what it meant to be a great follower who returns over and over again to the initial call “Come, follow me!”
The humility of a child for Jesus is not putting yourself down. Humility is accepting the great gifts and talents God has given you but receiving them as gifts. These are gifts to be cultivated and invested, not ignored or hoarded. To reject or neglect the gift is to reject or neglect the Giver. We slide into hell on our butts. We soar into heaven on our tiptoes.
This bad habit of Jesus makes us more adult in our theology and more childlike (not childish) in our faith. After all, Jesus said, “There will be no grownups in heaven.” Or more precisely, “Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Jesus’ bad habit of paying attention to children needs to be our bad habit too. Children must be at the heart of the church if it’s to be a Jesus church. And the child must always be in our hearts if we are to be true Jesus followers.
The Bad Habits of Jesus