Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 18:4
In general, I try to build people up and make them feel good about themselves and their lives. Never mind that some of my friends are gagging now because I also enjoy humbling others on occasion (for their own good, of course). Nevertheless, I truly believe that everyone and everything is an amazing and unique work of creation, unlike anything created before or that will be created in the future. We are literally the only one of ourselves out of countless trillions of beings. In that sense, we are special beyond comprehension. Our specific blend of physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual traits will never again see the light of day when we pass. We could interpret this as a reason for arrogance.
While some may agree wholeheartedly with that sentiment, others are suspecting there is a catch. And there is. Are you ready? Yes, you are unique in all of creation. BUT (make sure you are sitting down for this). Here’s the catch (take a deep breath now): Everyone and everything else is a completely unique creation, too!!! This includes the pebble in your shoe and the gnat you swatted away from your food at dinner. God expresses absolutely uniquely in and through the specific nature of everything. I once heard a bit of business wisdom that goes, “If everything is a priority, nothing is a priority.” The corollary on the topic of uniqueness is this: “If everyone is a unique creation, no one is unique.” While this is may be overly cynical, it does perhaps shed some light on why Jesus tells us to humble ourselves.
The context for Jesus’ words in Matthew 18:4 is that he is sitting with his disciples who ask who will be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Jesus responds by setting a child on his lap and saying, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.” Indeed, the call for humility is not unique to Jesus in the Bible. The Old Testament prophet Micah (6:8) wrote, “…and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God!”
It is interesting and instructive that Jesus uses children to illustrate humility. Many parents, myself included, put enormous amounts of energy into building our children’s self-esteem and trying to assure they develop a positive self-image. We want our kids to celebrate their distinct place in creation and to know themselves as a beloved child of God. While we do not want them to feel inferior, we also do not want them to believe themselves superior to others, either. Uniqueness does not equal preeminence.
In general, children are curious, optimistic, joyful, easily awed, and have short memories. They are not “smart” in the ways of the world, but they learn to shape their unique character into the puzzle of the life around them. Children possess important traits of humility we often forget as we grow up and become “wise.” Children are more likely to be present to the moment, and in that moment to see and appreciate the beauty and joy in the specificity of everything around them. Jesus warns that the childlike traits we shed as we age are the very ones we should most strive to retain.
One might wonder about the purpose for our unique blend of skills, characteristics, and insights if not for us to gain an advantage over others in life. At least two responses come to mind. First, we are creations of God, created in God’s image and likeness, so whatever uniqueness we have comes from God and not from anything we have done. Where, then, is our cause to brag? Secondly, we are given special qualities in order to make this world a better place for ourselves and others. For every talent we are given, there is a need nearby that we alone are uniquely gifted to meet. The biggest question is whether we are humble enough to use our talents in service to others (like Jesus did). That, I think, is becoming humble like a child and holds the key to the kingdom.
This is the 6th in a series of Life Notes entitled “What Did Jesus Say?”
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