Sometime after his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus’ disciples asked him, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Jesus called a child to him and “he put him in the midst of them.” Then Jesus said, “unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:1-4).
The disciples (church) continued to argue over greatness. Even after the Sermon on the Mount, in which all our categories are flipped on their heads and everything is turned upside down, they were arguing over greatness. Even after Jesus had blessed the poor, the hungry and the persecuted, the disciples were still fixated on greatness. Worldiness is a hard habit to break.
In response, Jesus called to himself a child – the essence of one who is powerless, dependent, needy, little, and poor. He placed the child “in the midst of them,” as a concrete visible sacrament of how the Kingdom looks. Jesus’ act with the child is interesting. In many of our modern, sophisticated congregations, children are often viewed as distractions. We tolerate children only to the extent that they become “adults” like us. Adult members sometimes complain that they cannot pay attention to the sermon, they cannot listen to the beautiful music, when fidgety children are beside them in the pews. “Send them away,” many adults say. Create “Children’s Church” so these distracting children can be removed in order that we adults can pay attention.
Interestingly, Jesus put a child in the center of his disciples, “in the midst of them,” in order to help them pay attention. The child, in Jesus’ mind, was not an annoying distraction. The child was a last-ditch effort by God to help the disciples pay attention to the odd nature of God’s kingdom. Few acts of Jesus are more countercultural, than his blessing of children.
Hauerwas and Willimon, Resident Aliens (Nashville, Abingdon: 1989), pp. 95-96.