We are finishing our two-part series on “Spiritual Spring Cleaning” this week. Last week we talked about how our material possessions can weigh us down and we considered how “living lighter” might affect is spiritually. This week we are going to continue with that, but instead of thinking about the possessions that weigh is down, we are going to consider some of the attitudes and beliefs that we carry that might be weighing is down. What beliefs do we carry around that cause us to get stuck? As we think about how to answer this, we’ll look to our passage for this morning, Matthew 19. We’re looking at two passages: the passage where Jesus talks about letting the children come to him and the passage known as the “rich young ruler” passage. They come one right after the other in our chapter, and their contrast is good food for thought.
In the first passage, the passage about letting children come to Jesus, we read that children were coming to Jesus and that some of the Pharisees, the teachers of the law, were shooing the children away. Jesus tells the Pharisees no, “let the children come to me because such it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.” Immediately after that, Jesus runs into a person who asks him the pointed question “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus tells him to keep the commandments, but the young ruler persists. “Which ones?” he wants to know. Jesus lists off some of the commandments and also adds “also love your neighbor as yourself.” The young man assures Jesus that he’s kept all of these and wants to know what more he needs to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus tells him that he should sell all of his possessions, give his money to the poor and then come back and follow Jesus. This, the scripture tells us, is too much for the young man, and he goes away full of grief, because he cannot do what Jesus is asking here.
I read a sermon this week called “It begins with a child” that talks about the rich young ruler:”The rich young ruler has status. He’s obeyed the law since he was a child, but he hasn’t kept his child-like-ness. He wears his achievements and his riches like an honour. He comes with all the trappings of wealth and walks away sad because he cannot leave these things to come empty-handed to follow Jesus. He did not realize that the Kingdom begins where people are.”
I loved the way that writer put it, the rich young ruler has obeyed the law, but he lost his “child-like-ness.” It makes me wonder a little bit what it is about the faith of children that Jesus is lifting up when he says “It is such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs” and, more specifically, what is it that Jesus is lifting up that is over and against what the rich young ruler highlights in his conversation with Jesus.
In honor of child-like-ness and, just for fun, I thought we’d all benefit a little from these sweet anecdotes of the ways that children understand faith sometimes:
One parent says
- I had been teaching my three-year-old daughter, Caitlin, the Lord’s Prayer. For several evenings at bedtime, she would repeat after me the lines from the prayer. Finally, she decided to go solo. I listened with pride as she carefully enunciated each word, right up to the end of the prayer: “Lead us not into temptation,” she prayed, “but deliver us some E-mail. Amen.”
- And one particular four-year-old prayed, “And forgive us our trash baskets as we forgive those who put trash in our baskets.”
- A little boy was overheard praying: “Lord, if you can’t make me a better boy, don’t worry about it. I’m having a real good time like I am.
- A [Sunday] school teacher asked her children, as they were on the way to church service, “And why is it necessary to be quiet in church?” One bright little girl replied, “Because people are sleeping.”
- Six-year-old Angie and her four-year-old brother Joel were sitting together in church. Joel giggled, sang, and talked out loud. Finally, his big sister had had enough. “You’re not supposed to talk out loud in church.” “Why? Who’s going to stop me?” Joel asked. Angie pointed to the back of the church and said, “See those two men standing by the door? They’re hushers.”
- A mother was preparing pancakes for her sons, Kevin, 5, Ryan, 3. The boys began to argue over who would get the first pancake. Their mother saw the opportunity for a moral lesson. “If Jesus were sitting here, he would say, ‘Let my brother have the first pancake. I can wait.’ “Kevin turned to his younger brother and said, “Ryan, you be Jesus!”
- A [Sunday] school class was studying the Ten Commandments. They were ready to discuss the last one. The teacher asked if anyone could tell her what it was. Susie raised her hand, stood tall, and quoted, “Thou shall not take the covers off the neighbor’s wife.”
Those are great, right? I love seeing the world through the eyes of children, and particularly faith. I’ve come up with three things that I think children have when it comes to faith that maybe the rich young ruler didn’t have anymore. Let’s think about these as we consider our own spiritual spring cleaning this week.
First, children have freedom from possessions. It’s not that children don’t have a favorite toy or get caught up in the trappings of materialism. I know they do. It’s that children don’t rely on them in the same way that the rich young ruler did or does. Children don’t necessarily even understand money and earning and where things come from in the same way that adults do. I remember my childhood view of a checkbook. To me, it was just a piece of paper on which someone could write down what they wanted and… poof! There it was. The ruler in our story, though, understands his possessions in a very different way than the children coming to Jesus to be blessed. For him, possessions are literally standing in the way of Jesus. I wonder how that is for us, and if we can relate.
Second, children have freedom from the law. This ruler is so concerned with getting it right and doing it right. Even his initial question is flawed: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” As if there is something that he can do, as if grace is not freely given but rather earned by some acts of righteousness. In my experience children do not experience faith in this same way. They are aware of experience, and ritual, celebration and laughter, but they’re not trying to earn God’s favor. They’re just living their lives.
Finally, children have freedom from answers. For the young ruler, every question that Jesus answers is just the start of another question. When Jesus says “Obey the commandments” he wants to know which ones. When Jesus answers that, there are even more questions. It’s not that children don’t have questions… it’s that they are not bound to them in the same way. They seem to be content with not knowing. Sometimes the younger they are, the easier it is for them to live in a sea of not knowing. Before I went to seminary I taught Spanish to elementary aged children, Kindergarten through 5th grade. The philosophy we used was gradual immersion where students just had to start to pick up on what was being said as we spoke Spanish almost 100% of the time. The younger the child, the easier it was for that child to follow along. My theory was that, in kindergarten, you already have no idea what’s going on, so what’s a little Spanish going to hurt? The older the children got, though, the more frustrated they were when they didn’t understand. I think it’s not all that different with faith. The older we get, the less content we are with the world around us, the more we try to figure it out.
Children have a lot to teach us about faith and “living light.” Their views are often simple, uncomplicated. They don’t know everything, and they’re not afraid to admit that. What would it mean for us to put more “child-like-ness” into our daily experience of faith? What would we have to let go of or clean out? In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, the Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer of us all, Amen.