Trusting God on the Trip: Reflections on Mark 10:13-16
October 7, 2012
I can still remember the feeling of excitement and anticipation I felt getting into the family station wagon. I was 8 years old. It was a cool autumn morning, a Saturday, and the car was packed with suitcases and a cooler for our weekend trip to a cabin in the mountains of western North Carolina owned by friends of my parents. I wasn't in charge of packing the car or the cooler. I wasn't in charge of filling the car with gas. I wasn't in charge of knowing how to get to the cabin. My only job was to hang my little head out the side window like a puppy and feel the wind on my face, with complete confidence in my young parents and extreme excitement about our journey.
Through the years, with three children of my own, the roles reversed. My husband and I shared the responsibility of all of the above, as our children hung their little heads out the window of our minivan and felt the wind on their faces. I hope our now grown children have fond memories of family trips to California, Australia, and, of course, the annual extended family reunion of parents, grandparents, siblings, and cousins in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, the last week of July every summer. After a several year lapse, we are reenacting that gathering this summer, though the little children are now grown, some with babies of their own. The roles continue to reverse. Our children are now responsible for far more than hanging their heads out the window like puppies and leaving all the planning to us.
I now do a lot of work-related solo travel. I'm responsible for getting myself where I've promised to preach or lecture. I'm responsible for picking up my rental car, plugging my destination into my GPS, and making sure I get to my destination in plenty of time, despite bad weather and bad traffic. And it isn't a good idea to drive while hanging your head out the window.
All of this is to say that I think this text expresses a lovely ideal—receiving the kingdom of God like a little child: complete trust in God on the trip of life. But for me that ship has long since sailed; that station wagon has long since been scrap-heaped. I'm sitting in the driver's seat now. Adulthood requires anxiety.
I'm not the only adult to struggle with Jesus' "like a child" entry requirement. In the narrative flow of Mark, this text occurs as Jesus prepares to head for Jerusalem in chapter 11. This story is followed by three accounts of those whose anxious preoccupations prevent them from fully trusting God on their trip: the rich man (10:17-22), Peter (10:28-31), and James and John (10:35-40). It is apparently impossible to fully trust God if you are preoccupied with possessions, payback, or prestige.
Still the entry requirement stands: "Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it." The authors of Mark as Story put it well: "For Mark, faith is access to the power of God" that comes from "total submission to God's rule not only in terms of trust but also in terms of obedience." (Mark as Story, p. 107)
That's an eloquent ideal, but receiving the kingdom of God as a little child is not something I can do myself, no matter how hard I try. It's too late. There is no turning back the clock to the time I was a carefree 8-year-old. It's not that I wouldn't if I could. There are lots of things I could do if I tried. I could be a better cook. I could play the piano well enough to accompany a children's choir if I really tried. I could become fluent in a foreign language. If Jesus were to say to me, unless you learn to speak German fluently and cook delicious and nutritious meals with all organic, locally grown ingredients every evening, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven, I'd get right on it.
But this entry requirement leaves me feeling frustrated and helpless. It is just not humanly possible for me. No matter how hard I try, I can't do it. I am an impressive 5'6 ¾" tall, and I played basketball in high school. I am in pretty good shape from my twice-a-week yoga/fitness classes and daily 45 minutes on the elliptical machine, but I would never bust onto the court at a WNBA game and attempt to play basketball with women whose average height is 6' tall, who are much younger, and who are in prime athletic condition. I'm just too short. I'm just too old. So please don't expect that of me.
The kingdom of God belongs to those who, in their dependent state, trust God to guide their trip. This text asks something of proactive adults that is humanly impossible.
That is the good news.
David M. Rhoads, Joanna Dewey and Donald Michie, Mark as Story: An Introduction to the Narrative of a Gospel (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999).
Alyce M. McKenzie is the George W. and Nell Ayers Le Van Professor of Preaching and Worship at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.