They went on from there and passed through Galilee. And he did not want anyone to know, for he was teaching his disciples, saying to them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men, and they will kill him. And when he is killed, after three days he will rise.” But they did not understand the saying, and were afraid to ask him. And they came to Capernaum. And when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you discussing on the way?” But they kept silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. And he sat down and called the twelve. And he said to them, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” And he took a child and put him in the midst of them, and taking him in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.”
And they were bringing children to him that he might touch them, and the disciples rebuked them. But when Jesus saw it, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” And he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands on them.
Mark 9:30-37; Mark 10:13-16
In the 1991 cinematic classic, Hook, we find the tale of years gone by for The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up, Peter Pan. The story tells us that Peter eventually left Neverland, did in fact grow up, and became someone altogether different than Peter Pan: Peter Banning, the busy lawyer with a wife, kids, and career. With some conjuring, Captain James Hook kidnaps Peter’s kids and compels him back to Neverland for one final, epic duel. As the story unfolds, Captain Hook comes face to face with adult Peter, but Peter is hardly recognizable to Captain Hook. Not just because his physical features have changed, but Peter has wholly changed. The charisma and the ability to fly and fight is gone! Mystified by adult Peter, Captain Hook deliberates an explanation. Smee, the clumsy second mate, offers a rather candid answer. “He’s Peter Pan, all right, Captain. He’s just been away from Neverland so long, his mind’s been junk-tified. He’s forgotten everything.”
In Mark 9, the instruction that Jesus shares with His disciples is straightforward: to be first, one must become last and a servant to all. To drive home the point, and culturally in a very blunt way, Jesus places a child center-stage and then pulls the child to himself with the admonition: receiving a child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not only me but the Father. But in Mark 10, we find the disciples’ minds to have been junk-tified. They have forgotten everything Jesus told them about the Kingdom of God only a chapter earlier.
The child not only represents the disposition one must have to receive and enter God’s Kingdom, but it also signifies the operation of God’s Kingdom. The way up is down, to be first is to be the last, and the way to enter the kingdom is not through achievement but humility and nothingness. What better way to demonstrate to the disciples, and to us, than a child. A child is the par excellence emissary in the Kingdom of God. And yet the disciples rebuke the parents for hassling Jesus with children in Mark 10:13. The disciples’ indignation towards the parents and children was met with a more intense indignation from Christ. Christ’s response mirrors the tenant owner in Mark 12:1-12.
It seems easy to point out the folly of the disciples. “How could they forget so soon?” What has junk-tified their minds, clouded it, between chapters 9 and 10? Christ has shared what it means to receive the Kingdom of God, and the disciples are no less than us. We too are junk-tified and miss how children show us how to receive the Kingdom of God. We forget that to be great, one must be the least and servant of all.
A child is an affront to notions of proficiency and usefulness; their hearts, minds, and souls have not quite been junk-tified. A child has not quite entered the race for significance in large, grand ways. A child has a lot to offer in terms of what they need, but very, very little in terms of solutions or practicality. A child receives much, and regarding transactional terms, has little to give. And this is the point of Christ’s words: to receive a child is to receive God’s representative and one must operate like a child when it comes to entering God’s Kingdom. To enter God’s Kingdom is a matter of receiving, not asserting or taking. The Apostle Paul writing to the church at Corinth asks, “What do you have that you did not receive?” The answer is obvious: nothing. To enter God’s Kingdom is not a matter of any person doing, it’s utterly impossible. It is about receiving the work Christ has done for us (Mk. 9:31).
To live on the basis of receiving can be a hard thing for any adult because it removes proficiency, sufficiency, displays of competency, and power. Any adult has had years to fine tune these habits—we condition ourselves through years of trials, education, activities, and résumés. We offer the best version, or at least what we think is the best version, of ourselves with the hope to be found significant, worthy, or great. And this is what it means to junk-tify our hearts and souls and completely miss the Kingdom of God. The child is the paradox for our lives. To receive a child in our presence reminds us to be childlike, to lay aside our penchant for proficiency and to become humble and willing to receive what God has done.