“And he said, ‘Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes a humble place – becoming like this child – is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”
In this passage Jesus tells us that we must be like a little child in order to enter the kingdom of heaven. We tend to always picture the sweet and innocent children who have a wide-eyed faith in us as adults, the tooth fairy, and God (the big guy up stairs who loves all the little children of the world). We discuss a child like faith or belief in God, who he is and what he can do. Now, please don’t get me wrong, I think that having a strong faith is important, even paramount to being a Christian. However, as I observe children in this culture I have been forced to rethink my mainstream impressions about this verse.
Tanzania in general, and Tarime specifically is an odd mixture of then and now. You get satellite phones in a little cinder block stall at the bus stand, the internet café runs on a generator half the time, and political accomplishments are measured by the government building projects which are posted on signs in front of the buildings themselves (kind of like ancient Rome). In the same vein children are treated much the same way as they were in 1st century Palestine.
In working with children as well as seeing their place in other families in Tarime I have began to understand the role of children in Tanzania. It is by and large to serve, learn, and be ready to take care of their parents or grandparents as they get older. The younger the child the less respect and attention they get. This is never more evident than at meal time.
One Saturday we were invited over to a staff members home for lunch. We received radical hospitality and Mwita is one of the most caring people we have run into. When we sat down to eat however I noticed that none of his kids where eating what we were eating. He had provided a spread of food including two kinds of meat and fresh fruits. His kids were eating rice and beans. When Holly offered them some of her chicken bones (she couldn’t find any meat on them, but was sure they could) they refused. That was not there place as children. The youngest even came close to missing out on having a soda, a very big treat, because there wasn’t enough left and they had to go buy another one (he got his last).
It was at this point that I realized what Jesus must have meant when he said, be as humble as a child. He meant being willing to be absolutely last. He meant not getting the best, but the worst of everything. He meant being okay with the hand me downs of others and to appreciate being last on this world in order to better understand the upside down nature of the kingdom of God. It had nothing to do with innocence or faith, but with social position or even caring about social position. He meant humility on a scale that we often struggle to understand, but which kids here intuitively get. To be like a little child and to welcome little children so that your house guest is not someone to get you ahead in life or even someone others would want to associate with, but someone whom you can serve in your humility. Next time you read this verse remember and think about Barack, a little child who got his soda, but in doing so gave me a whole new view of God’s Kingdom and the service we are to truly provide to others.
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