‘Whoever may receive this child in my name, doth receive me, and whoever may receive me, doth receive Him who sent me, for he who is least among you all — he shall be great.’-Luke 9:48
The subject of discussion among Jesus’ disciples was greatness. It is an universal subject. From the time of our birth, our parents aspire greatness for us. It would be sad if they didn’t. Young parents dream of greatness for their children. They always tend to think that their children are extremely intelligent even though the rest of the world might have a different opinion on the subject. Parent use bumper stickers boasting that their child is a honor student and there seems to be an abundance of honor students recently. The average student must be a minority. In a month’s time, we will watch the Olympic games and we will remember the Gold Medalists who will be hailed as heroes and role models. The ones that win the silver and bronze medals don’t really get the same attention. Only number one counts.
Our children living in the streets share the same aspirations. Maybe they don’t desire to be a gold medalist or a genius but they want to be successful enough to escape the stigma of extreme poverty. They see the approval in people’s eyes when someone drives by in a fancy car. They can see people treated differently when their clothes and appearance bears the markings of financial success. They see wealth as a sign of greatness because it has the power to get them out of poverty.
The desire for greatness is something inherent in humans. We may have different ways of defining greatness but the desire is universal. Perhaps it is something linked with the consciousness of our mortality and finitude. People who have achieved great things are remembered. Perhaps our desire to be great is a desire to be remembered even after we are gone.
Whenever I read the above verse, I always think about my friend, Victor. Unfortunately, he is no longer with us. He died tragically in a motorcycle accident about fifteen years ago. I met him while I served in the military in Singapore. He came from a troubled background. In his early teens, he was arrested for being involved in street brawl with a rival gang. He was put on probation for two years. As part of his probation program he was required to do some volunteer work and was sent to a group home for adults with severe Down syndrome. Living most of my life in large cities, I have had the privilege of knowing people with Down Syndrome and usually the ones I know are very independent. However, this wasn’t the case of the adults in the group home where Victor volunteered. Their state was so severe that they could not perform the basic bodily functions without assistance. Victor spent his weekends with these young people. After his probation, he continued working there and he was there every Saturday until the day he died. This work became the highlight of his week. He invited me to visit this home with him one Saturday. He wanted me to meet his friends. I can clearly remember my first impression. I felt overwhelmed by these young people’s disabilities. Many of them could hardly speak. They tried to say something to me but I could not understand a single word. Victor, on the other hand, understood these gentle people perfectly. He proudly introduced each one of them to me. He cherished each one because they saved his life and he is forever indebted to them. Victor received these little ones and his life was transformed. Victor was not a Christian but he was always curious about the gospels. He read them several times over and we often had deep and enriching conversations about Jesus together. All I can say is that Victor loved Jesus but he died a Buddhist.
Jesus said that in order to be great in the Kingdom of God, we need to receive a child in his name. Receiving is not to be confused with tolerating. We can tolerate the presence of children but we may not receive them. We can extend this to the presence of the homeless in our congregation or women in leadership and the list could go on and on. We can tolerate all these people but it does not mean that we receive them. We can only receive from someone when we believe that they have something valuable to contribute. Jesus is saying something radical then and today. Almost all books on leadership will tell us that in order to be successful, we need to surround ourselves with successful people so that we can receive their inspiration and aptitude for success. The underlying meaning is that we need to distance ourselves from the not so successful people. Jesus tells us to receive children who have yet to prove themselves in the world. The significance of this could only mean that the Kingdom of God doesn’t gauge success and failure according to the standards of the world but according to the understanding of who Jesus is.
Children understand their faith in a different way than adults. There is nothing remarkable about this observation. The problem is that most of the time we only appreciate the way adults understand faith. As adults, we have a tendency to reduce faith into something theoretical. We tend to reduce faith into something doctrinal or membership in a church. We reduce theology as something reserved for the experts or leisure reading and discussions. We are satisfied with limiting our faith to ritualistic practices. Whereas children are constantly trying to figure how their faith fits into the world they live. They are truly theologians in this sense. If we read classical theologians, they will see that they deal with questions that children commonly ask. Maybe we don’t realize this or pay attention to this. Maybe this is because we don’t receive children. We don’t realize that their questions about God, even though they might seem absurd and frustrating, come from a dialogue that they are having with their faith and the reality in which they find themselves. Adults tend to settle for simplistic answers but children keep questioning and questioning until an adult forces them to accept simplistic answers. However, when we receive their questions with seriousness, we will discover that they have something valuable to contribute to us. They can help us to remember that living faith is a dialogue with our reality. Adults think that children must be entertained in church so that church would be fun. This is perhaps harsh statement but I will leave it here. It is something for us to ponder because it is detrimental to their faith if their religious experience is reduced to fun. There is room for play but it should only serve to help the children be comfortable enough to ask questions about faith.
None of our children in the streets are atheists. They have had hard lives but we never heard anyone of them blame God. It is because they are a living faith in God. They did not settle for simplistic solutions. They don’t think that they are in the center of God’s universe. They are still trying to figure out where their place is in this universe. However, they need to find someone who is willing to just listen to them. They will stop asking questions when there is no one that listens to them. When we listen to these children, they help us get in touch with an aspect of our faith which was dormant for some time. About twenty years ago a young boy told me that God was His everything. I did not take him seriously. I thought that he had just repeated what he had heard from other adults. Maybe he did, but I will never know. Now I know better. I will listen the next time this happens. My friend, Victor, discovered in the young adults with whom he worked the joy of living. He received them. He listened to them. God opened his eyes to see that their severe disability did not hinder them from knowing their place in this universe. They loved their lives and Victor learned to treasure his own through them. Mary and I are learning to receive these children and they are teaching us to see the beauty of this life. We need our children as much as they need us to understand how our God works in our life. We need to receive children to save ourselves from reducing the gospel into a set of doctrines and rituals. The children need us to help them formulate the questions they have about their place in the wonderful existence that God has given us.