One day, people brought children to Jesus so he could bless them. The disciples were displeased. Jesus got angry and told them to let the children come to him. Then he said, “Whoever does not welcome the kingdom of God like a little child will certainly not enter it” (Mark 10:13-16).
It is useful to remember that, earlier, Jesus had said to the same disciples, “The mystery of God’s kingdom has been entrusted to you” (Mark 4:11). Because of God’s kingdom, they left everything and followed Jesus. They are searching for the presence of God; they want to be part of his kingdom. But now Jesus warns them that by rejecting the children, they are in fact shutting the only entrance into that kingdom of God that they wish for so intensely!
But what does it mean to “welcome the kingdom of God like a little child”? In general we take it to mean “to welcome the kingdom of God like a child welcomes it.” That corresponds to some other words of Jesus found in Matthew’s Gospel: “If you do not change your hearts and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3). A child trusts without reflecting. Children cannot live without trusting those around them. Their trust is not a virtue; it is a vital reality. To encounter God, the best thing we have is our child’s heart that is spontaneously open, that dares simply to ask, that wants to be loved.
But the phrase could also mean: “welcome the kingdom of God like you welcome a child.” The verb “to welcome” used here has in general the specific meaning of “welcoming someone,” as can be seen a few verses later when Jesus speaks of “welcoming a child” (Mark 9:37). In this case, Jesus would be comparing welcoming God’s presence to welcoming a child. There is a secret complicity between the kingdom of God and a child.
Welcoming a child means welcoming a promise. A child grows and develops. In the same way, the kingdom of God on earth is never a finished reality but rather a promise, a dynamism and an uncompleted growth process. And children are unpredictable. In the Gospel story, they arrive when they arrive, and in any case not at the right time for the disciples. But Jesus insists that they must be welcomed because they are there. In the same way, we have to welcome God’s presence when it presents itself, whether it is the right time or not. We have to play the game. Welcoming God’s kingdom like we welcome a child means keeping alert and praying so that we can welcome it when it comes, always unexpectedly, whether at an opportune moment or not.
Why was Jesus so attentive to children?
One day, the twelve apostles were arguing about who was the greatest (Mark 9:33-37). Jesus guessed what they were talking about and said some surprising words that turned their whole outlook upside down and called it into question: “If someone wants to be the first, they will be the last of all and the servant of all.”
He then did something that corresponded to his words. He went looking for a child. Was it a child abandoned on one of the street corners of Capharnaum? He took the child, placed him in the middle of that gathering of future Church leaders and said to them, “Whoever welcomes a child like this one in my name, welcomes me.” Jesus identified himself with the child he had just taken into his arms. He affirmed that “a child like this one” represents him best, so that welcoming such a child is equivalent to welcoming him, Christ.
Shortly before this, Jesus had said these enigmatic words: “The Son of Man is delivered into human hands” (Mark 9:31). “The son of man” is Jesus himself, and at the same time all the “sons of man”, in other words all human beings. Jesus’ words can be understood to mean: “human beings are delivered into the power of their fellows.” Particularly during the arrest and the harsh treatment inflicted upon Jesus, once again it becomes clear that human beings treat their fellows who are defenseless in whatever way they wish. It is not so surprising, therefore, that Jesus recognizes himself in the child he went looking for, because children are so often totally at the mercy of those who have power over them.
Jesus showed particular concern for children because he wanted his followers to be particularly attentive to the poor and the defenseless. Until the end of time, these people will be his representatives on earth. What is done to them will be done to him, Christ (Matthew 25:40). The “least of my brethren”, those who matter little and who are treated with impunity because they have neither power nor prestige, are the road it is necessary to take in order to live in communion with him.
If Jesus placed a child in the midst of his disciples gathered together, that was also so that they themselves would agree to be little. He explains this to them in the teaching that follows: “For whoever gives you a glass of water because you belong to Christ, I tell you the truth, that person will not lose their reward” (Mark 9:41). Walking along the roads of the world to proclaim the kingdom of God, the apostles too will be “delivered into human hands”. They will never know ahead of time how they will be welcomed. But even for those who welcome them with a simple glass of cold water, without taking them very seriously, they will have been bearers of God’s presence.
Letter from Taizé: 2006/2