What is a paradox? There are plenty of punchlines about that: two physicians, two boat shoes, two Microsoft Word files …
Seriously, though, a paradox is a seeming contradiction. It’s often used to make a point. G.K. Chesterton described it as “truth standing on its head to gain attention.” For example, “You have to spend money to make money.” Or, “Deep down, she’s really shallow.” Or – taking a line from Nick Lowe in 1978 – “You’ve got to be cruel to be kind …”
The heart of the Christian faith is a paradox: death is the way to life. The death of Jesus opened the way to life for us. We must die before eternal life can begin. And many other facets of our Christian lives involve paradox: the first shall be last and the last shall be first. The meek shall inherit the earth. And so on. At the end of our worship today we will sing the Prayer of Saint Francis of Assisi – which is a list of the paradoxes in our faith.
Between now and Pentecost, we will look at some of those paradoxes. As we wrestle with their seeming contradictions, we should find ourselves moving deeper into an understanding of just how radical Jesus’ teaching was – how He turned the conventional wisdom on its head.
The biggest paradoxes of our faith are ones we talk about often: the mystery of the Trinity: God is three persons, yet one God, and the mystery of the Incarnation: Jesus is fully God, yet fully human. We won’t address them again, but please keep in mind the wondrous mysteries that challenge our logic, yet fertilize our faith.
At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a little child and had him stand among them. And he said: “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me.”
Then little children were brought to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples rebuked those who brought them.
Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” When he had placed his hands on them, he went on from there.
The world of Jesus’ day was full of hierarchy: The Roman Empire was ruled by an Emperor, with the advice of the Senate and supported by the Roman Army, with its own hierarchy. The various provinces were ruled by governors – aided by prefects and procurators. The Jewish culture had its own king – who reigned only as long as he was loyal to the Roman Empire. The Jewish faith was presided over by the High Priest, with the Sanhedrin serving as a court to decide matters of faith and practice. There were also Pharisees, Sadducees, priests, Levites, scribes, and rabbis.
In all the systems and at all the levels, individuals jockeyed for position – trying to work their way up the ladder to a more powerful and prestigious position. It’s no different today – in government, in business, and yes – even in church systems.
So it should come as no surprise that the disciples asked Jesus – not long after He told them He would be betrayed, killed, and raised from the dead – “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” After all, if Jesus was going to be out of commission – even if just for a few days – He had to have a plan of succession. Someone had be prepared to take charge, right?
But there was something far more sinister going on here. The same issue comes up just a short while after Jesus rebuked the disciples for it. In Matthew 20, the mother of James and John, the sons of Zebedee, comes to Jesus and asks that He place one of her sons at His right hand and the other at His left in His kingdom. In Mark 10, the detail about their mother is omitted and James and John make the request themselves.
Their request confirms that they are not concerned about keeping the ministry going in Jesus’ absence they are concerned about their position and their power. They want to be in charge. And they apparently missed Jesus’ point completely. So He called a little child to stand in the middle of the disciples and told them: “Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
Uh-oh – Jesus is telling them to forget about who is greatest in the kingdom – if they don’t stop their shameless self-promotion, they won’t even get into the kingdom! And just in case they missed the point, He adds, “Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”
Jesus has just turned the conventional wisdom about spiritual growth – or “heavenly hierarchy” – upside-down: The more child-like you become, the more spiritual advanced you become. The more humble you are, the greater your position in the kingdom of heaven. For good measure, Jesus reminds the disciples that if they welcome a little child in His name they welcome Him.
But by the time they find themselves in the next chapter – Matthew 19 – the disciples have forgotten the whole lesson. Parents were bringing their children to Jesus to bless them – and the disciples criticized the parents for bothering Jesus. Apparently, the disciples thought Jesus had more important – more grown-up – things to do.
To which Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” There it is again – those who come to Jesus like little children will inherit the kingdom. Those who are full of themselves and worried about their status will find themselves on the outside, looking in.
So why do little children get special status with Jesus? That’s an important question – especially for those of us who are far past the age of little children. What does it mean to come to Jesus as a little child?
Little children – and the word Jesus used means just that – little children. The ones who are open – both open-minded and open-hearted. Trusting. Helpless. Willing to be vulnerable. Able to rely on their parents to supply their needs. Willing to apologize and willing to accept forgiveness.
In short – children who are still young enough not to think they can take care of themselves. That was Jesus’ issue with the Pharisees – they figured they knew enough about the Law to keep the Law, so they saw no need for a Savior. And how many of us think we know so much about our faith that we lose sight of the One who is the Bedrock of our faith.
That should serve as a warning to those of us who make a living teasing out subtle theological points! What we often think of as spiritual maturity is actually spiritual arrogance – or spiritual snobbery.
One of the most prominent theologians of the 20th century was Karl Barth. His best-known work was Church Dogmatics – 31 volumes of systematic theology, consisting of more than eight-thousand pages and six-million words. When Barth was asked how he might sum up all that God’s Word teaches in one sentence, he replied, “Jesus loves me, this I know.”
He got that right. And that’s why we sang it this morning. Because it is the Christian faith at its most basic level. It is how we should come to the Kingdom of Heaven.
Little children understand this, but adults tend to complicate it. And so it is harder for grown-ups to come to faith than it is for little children. Think about when you had your first sense of Jesus and His love for you. For most of us here, it was probably during family devotions or Sunday School or Vacation Bible School.
If your first encounter with faith was as an adult, that’s wonderful – and rare.
Because we adults are far more likely to say to Jesus, “No thanks – I’ve got this.” We say that at our peril.
So we must stop relying on our own intelligence, wisdom, cleverness, education, experience, status, position, authority, strength, wealth, possessions – even our own goodness – and become completely dependent upon our Heavenly Father to supply our needs, on the work of Jesus Christ to save us, and on the Holy Spirit to empower us to live as followers of Jesus. As little children rely fully on their loving parents.
That is true spiritually maturity. Amen.