Children have a high profile already in the Hebrew Bible. Jesus raises the stakes immeasurably. He is the Word made flesh, Word made baby. God speaks His eternal Word in infant flesh, child flesh, boy flesh before He finally speaks it in the crucified flesh of a man.
If Jesus said nothing about children, Christians would have this most profound reason for honoring children: Our God was once a baby; our God toddled.
Of course, Jesus does speak of children. Against his disciples’ instincts, he receives little children, blesses them, and rebukes the disciples: “Suffer the children.” Beyond receiving children, Jesus places a child before His disciples and urges them to imitate him.
This requires a drastic adjustment of ancient perceptions, including those of ancient Israel. Proverbs is structured on a common-sensical hierarchical model: The father conveys wisdom to his son through the word and rod; the son is summoned to pay attention to the teaching of his father and the Torah of his mother.
Jesus seems to turn the paradigm upside down. The mimesis is reversed: The father aspires to grow up to be like his son, the master called to become like his disciple.
Jesus doesn’t destroy the natural hierarchy of parent and child, but He complicates it. In the full biblical perspective, we have an oscillating hierarchy. Fathers and mothers teach and train children to become adult, but at the same time they are to imitate certain features of childishness.
Over time, the hierarchy more closely resembles brotherhood, and eventually may reverse entirely: The son teaches the father. In the chiasm of life, old age is a second childhood, an age of dependence, when adult responsibilities may be shed.
What features of childhood does Jesus commend? Not everything childish is good: “Be not children in understanding,” Paul writes (1 Corinthians 14:20). In Galatians, Paul describes Israel’s history as the maturation of a son. In his minority, he is no better than a slave, subjected to governors and tutors, though he is heir to all. He battles Judaizers because they want to take full-grown sons back to childhood.
Adults can become childishly dependent only by “conversion,” only by recognizing the need carefully concealed behind the veil of their competencies. Jesus comes to rescue the poor, and so humility puts one in the way of rescue, and ultimately of exaltation. Children trust the word of their parents, and disciples are called to repent of their skepticism and trust their Father.
Isaiah may point to another dimension of this when he envisions a future world of peace when young children will play at the cobra’s den. Children are often ignorant of dangers, instinctively (stupidly) “courageous.” For children, the world seems huge and magical, full of unexplored possibility. Every sunrise is a fresh miracle.
Perhaps Jesus wants His disciples to re-inhabit the magic of childhood, to see the world as the Father’s playground, a place not of fearsome threat but of ultimate safety.
Jesus said, Look at the birds; they don’t sow or reap, yet their Father cares for them. He might have said, Look at the children. The conclusion is the same: Do not be anxious.
Children are unfinished human beings. They are in-process, flexibly plastic, being molded by parents, grandparents, teachers, pastors, and others. Adults grow stiff, static, brittle. To humble oneself as a child is to subject oneself to discipline, to accept plasticity and to be open to becoming new, and then new again. Discipleship is this openness.