Feast upon the Word Blog

A blog focused on LDS scriptures and teaching

Children, the poor and God’s kingdom

Posted by Matthew on September 12, 2007

What better image is there for evoking love for a stranger than showing an image of a poor child? In our world, Christ’s message that (to gloss over the details a bit) we must become poor and as children, only further emphasize what we already feel innately. Such statements are similar to saying that our temples are close to the kingdom of God. In all 3 cases we are taking a concept which is holy/sacred in our culture (though there is only a shadow of the concept of holy in our wider, secular culture) and, among other things, reinforcing its holiness.  

But what was the concept of child when Christ pronounced “Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall not enter therein” Mark 10:15 (see also Luke 18:17 and Matt 18:4)? I don’t know. Does anyone else out there know? I’d like to hear. Were children seen at that time as innocent, pure, cute and cuddly? Or were they stupid, self-centered, short adults. (I’m hoping the real answer is some of both.)

In the case of the attitudes toward the rich and the poor, the scriptures give us several clues that the poor and rich were looked on very differently than we do today. When Christ tells his disciples that the rich cannot go to the kingdom of heaven, they ask “who then can be saved” Matt 19:25 (see also Mark 10:26, Luke 18:26).  They are surprised! This surprised response comes, not from a culture like our own, but from one which sees the rich as the holy. This is also evidenced in the story of Job. 

My proposal (which I’m hoping someone can attack so we can all learn the truth) is that just like in so many other places, Jesus is reversing everything in associating the kingdom of God with the poor and with children. What Jesus is saying is supposed to be disruptive. Like a rabbi (i.e. Jesus) eating with sinners. He is purposefully disruptive.  But for us it fits neatly into the way we already think of things.

There are plenty of disruptive statements in the gospels. Can you pray for those who dispitefully use you? Matt 5:44. And will you lend money freely to your enemies hoping for nothing in return? Luke 6:35.  Must we work to find something difficult we find easy?

I am afraid of Matt 10:34: “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword.” Here we are told to be on the lookout for places where we misinterpret Christ’s sword for a plowshare instead.  But even if we discover such misinterpretation, how do you beat a plowshare into a sword?

PS I have really glossed over a bunch of things to make my point. I’m happy for others to point that out. I think maybe the biggest thing I gloss over is in assuming that our understanding of the poor today is unified. It may be that in the close-up image of a poor person (a picture, with the physical person so distant) we feel love and sympathy for the poor. But we don’t usually go around lending them money hoping for nothing in return, inviting them to our wedding receptions or physically embracing them when we see them on the street.

10 Responses to “Children, the poor and God’s kingdom”

  1. Robert C. said

    Matthew, I’m not sure I quite follow the question you’re getting at, but here’s one way I think we can take the children image as disruptive: I think part of what it means to be child-like is to recognize their dependence on adults—children, at least very young ones, recognize that they are dependent on, say, their parents for food. Adults in our society, on the other hand, take pride in being self-sufficient and independent, and I think this is an important aspect of children that is disruptive of our modern way of thinking.

  2. Robert C. said

    Also, perhaps why I’m partly missing your point, is that I’m not so sure we think about children and the poor in a way that is so different from Christ’s time. In our world, I think poor children evoke compassion more than anything, with all the condescending connotations of the word compassion. In the passages you cite, Christ isn’t saying have compassion on them, he’s saying be like them, which strikes me as very counter to contemporary worldly views to help the poor rather than emulate them.

    Also, regarding your “isn’t the gospel already hard enough” question, two thoughts: (1) I think many are more “at ease in Zion” than feeling overwhelmed by the disruptive call of scripture, and (2) even those who feel overwhelmed often do so in only a sort of half-hearted way: “wow, there’s so much I should be doing now, it’s all quite overwhelming—just thinking about it makes me tired, so I’ll stay on the couch watching football” sort of an attitude. To this second type of reader/listener, I would think Christ is saying, at least in part, something to the effect of: “no, you’re missing the point, it’s not that you simply must do more, but you must be completely recreated, changing even your most basic thoughts about ‘trying to do’ rather than ‘letting me come to you’.” I’m not articulating this well, but I think there are two ways to deal with feeling overwhelmed—one is to not be so hard on ourselves, and the other is to be even harder on ourselves until our notion of “self” becomes completely destroyed and we are finally begin to lose ourself in a way that allows God to change us. Anyway, I’m proposing this second, “even harder” way in response to your question….

  3. Matthew said

    >Also, perhaps why I’m partly missing your point, is that I’m not so sure we think about children and the poor in a way that is so different from Christ’s time.

    We could clearly use the help of some historian(?) who has already studied this topic. Failing that, I’ll do a little digging.

    Here’s something. Look at this quote “Until the mid-eighteenth century, the notion of children ‘as faulty small adults, in need of correction and discipline,’ which derived largely from Christian beliefs of original sin, prevailed.” See http://xroads.virginia.edu/~MA03/pricola/FSA/innocence.html.

    This quote is interesting to me first because it suggests that our culture’s view of children is not constant–even though it may seem to be based on rather obvious realities. Second it is interesting because it suggests that that view of children was based on a Christian beliefs. In the link, that view is attributed to Anne Higonnet. Is Higonnet’s view controversial among those who study this stuff?

    Assuming Higonnet’s view is right and the view that children are “faulty small adults” was based on Christian beliefs (though we would argue a misunderstanding of what Christ taught), what belief was there about children when Christ arrived on the scene? I wasn’t able to dig anything up on that just with a few quick searches on the internet.

  4. Kim M. said

    In the midst of my Child Development class, I can affirm that society’s view of children is, indeed, fluxuating. I believe Higonnet’s quote is referring to a small period of time, perhaps only 300 years. During the middle ages, children were viewed very favorably–as joyful, spirited, carefree, innocent, and pure. As to society’s perception before that, I can’t say. I’m far from the “historian” Matthew is looking for.

    As to the “poor,” I’m reminded of Hugh Nibley’s diatribe in “Approaching Zion,” where he cites scripture after scripture, showing how Babylon (and its preoccupation with money and material success) is entirely opposed to Zion. We are told to flee Babylon, leaving our gold and silver and precious things behind us. Perhaps the commandment to become “poor” is less about enticing sympathy from others, or inviting the homeless to our weddings, and more about cutting off any and all ties to the material world.

    These are far from coherent, organized thoughts. They’re just the inital responses to the post. Given more time, there’s always the possibility that my thoughts will yield something more valuable, but given that Joe will inevitably beat me to it, that seems unlikely. ^_^

  5. Robert C. said

    Matthew, part of my above comments come from the what I recollect reading in from some Bible scholarship. For example, here’s a quick quote I found from the TDNT (the out of place numbers are footnotes, sorry it’s so messy):

    Jesus87 opposed to the low estimation of children common among His people an emphatically high evaluation, Mt. 18:2 ff., 10; 19:13–15; 21:15 f. This can hardly be regarded as “the noblest expression of the current Hellenistic mood.”88 Such a strong dependence would be almost inconceivable in a Galilean, especially at so early a time. Jesus never speaks of the innocence of children, not even in the relative, let alone the absolute, sense. He refers rather to the fact that they are modest and unspoiled as compared with adults, who do not want anything given to them, Mt. 18:2 ff.; 19:13 ff. This is not a quality which belongs to the child and which might be discovered. The child’s littleness, immaturity and need of assistance, though commonly disparaged, keep the way open for the fatherly love of God, whereas grown-ups so often block it. [Theological dictionary of the New Testament. 1964-c1976. Vols. 5-9 edited by Gerhard Friedrich. Vol. 10 compiled by Ronald Pitkin. (G. Kittel, G. W. Bromiley & G. Friedrich, Ed.) (electronic ed.) (5:649). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.]

    The article is quite long, and talks about Paul, in contrast to Christ, invoking a notion of child-like innocence that is thought to have been present at the time of Christ. Anyway, hope this quote helps (and helps shed light on where I was coming from in my comments above).

    Also, I remember reading in regards to Matt 18:2ff that Christ’s point is primarily establish a startling contrast between those who were esteemed by society vs. those who had the lowliest stations in society, like children. So, like Kim seems to have been getting at, the main thing is a disruption of Babylonian/worldly standards. In this sense, a connotation of children as childish sort of supports this reading—that is, children are looked down on, and you should become like those who are “esteemed as naught” by the world (independent of any redeeming qualities of lowly esteemed children…).

  6. Clark said

    I think the way Nibley deals with riches and the poor is a tad extreme. He’s clearly influenced by the kind of anti-materialism found in the Hellenistic tradition (especially the neoPlatonic tradition). His heart’s in the right place but I think he overly romanticizes the idea of being an agrarian community being watched over by God. That, or his just has an implicit (and in my opinion misplaced) faith that God would always protect such a community from all natural evils. I’m not sure it’s being materialistic to enjoy air conditioning or medicine for example. Yet those things demand a certain kind of economy that Nibley simply doesn’t countenance.

    I think, however we choose to take the scriptural teachings on wealth, one has to be careful not to turn it into a near monastic tradition.

    Put an other way I think Nibley reads brother Brigham selectively in many regards.

  7. Matthew said

    Robert 5, Yes, this is quite helpful. So, following that, it seems that we should think that indeed Jesus is saying something related to children that challenges the status quo of the time. So maybe that its it on that question. Thanks.

    Part of the point of my post was trying to figure out what to make of cases where Jesus is saying something that is supposed to be startling and disruptive but for us it just seems sort of obvious and straightforward because our culture already buys into it. Maybe the answer is that we just learn (as you and Kim have helped us do) what the feelings of the people at the time was. Then we understand the statement in context and can feel good about the fact that we now know better.

    Or is that enough? It isn’t like we would want to first try to convince ourselves of the same positions held by the people in Jesus’s time so that we could then find what Jesus says difficult to accept. But, I’d like to think there is something more missing–something more than just understanding (sort of intellectually) the culture at the time and how Jesus’s words challenged that. Though, I’m not sure what I’m grasping for. This is what I meant by my question of how do we turn a plowshare back into a sword. For now, I guess I’m content just to let this one drop and figure that intellectual understanding is the best we can hope for in this case.

  8. Kim M. said

    I’m convinced that what the Lord teaches about money is shocking in every generation, since it is so easy for us to become attached to the material world. At some periods of history (maybe during Jesus’ lifetime?) wealth was a sign of superior intelligence and God’s favor. Today we believe much the same thing: millionaires got their money through working extremely hard, so they deserve to enjoy the fruits of their labors.

    I present this mostly as an example of at least one teaching that continues to be disruptive.

    As for children, that’s more difficult. Perhaps we can compare a young child to the pharisees and sadducees–mature men who doubtless thought themselves to be expert on all matters spiritual. How must they have felt to learn that the kingdom of God was presented to young children, undisciplined, immature, etc.?

  9. Robert C. said

    And, building on Kim’s point (#8), and I think something I said above (too lazy to reread, sorry…), I think we misread the command to become like little children wrong, esp. in terms of being unashamedly dependent on others like children are. That is, I think that we give undue emphasis on a notion of independence that is not to be found in the scriptures. (Though, Matthew, I should say explicitly that I think you are pointing to a very interesting and real challenge. It reminds me of the way that Kierkegaard talks about the challenge of being a true Christian in Christendom—that is, there’s a sense in which it becomes harder to root out hypocrisy when it is socially advantageous to be, say, unhypocritical, since always run the risk of being unhypocritcal simply because it is socially advantageous, not for “purer” reasons….)

  10. brianj said

    Matthew, regarding the historical view of children, I read a book a few years ago that was pretty good (it has some overtly anti-liberal/anti-democrat chapters that are somewhat borish, but other than that is is very good) called “Ready or Not: What Happens when We Treat Children Like Small Adults.” You know that I am not a historian, but this book, by Kay Hymowitz, seems quite supportive of the view you mentioned from Higonnet. Specifically, this book addresses changing attitudes toward children in American society, and focuses on the notion of independence in particular. Hymowitz is adamantly opposed to the idea that children should be raised to be independent (there is a chapter that quotes several parents answering the question, “What do you want most for your child?” by saying, “I want him to be independent.” The absurdity is that this was said about 2- and 3-year-olds!) Anyway, you may look into the book for your historical question.

    Also, Jim F recently made a point in one of his Sunday School Lessons (the one covering 1 Cor 1-6, I think—or was it Galatians?) that children anciently were considered as possessions of their fathers—no ‘rights’, no ‘say in things’, and definitely no ‘independence.’ Couldn’t this help to answer your historical insight?

    As for the larger question about children, I think Robert is absolutely correct: the scriptures are interested in the total dependence of children on parents as a model for our dependence on God.

    Now, for the other question: How do we make Jesus’ ideas still disruptive to us. Well, in one sense, I don’t think we should. If the world has progressed to a point where Jesus’ views are accepted and practiced—hey, that’s a good thing! The problem in this case (which is perhaps shared in all cases) is that after we accept and grow comfortable with Jesus’ teachings, we can modify them to mean something they didn’t and shouldn’t. I think this is the case with the “become as a child” teaching: we molded it to mean something about innocence (all that “before age eight” stuff) and kindness and whatever, and that wasn’t Jesus’ point at all.

    A few weeks ago I addressed this topic in my Sunday School class. We read Matthew 19 (I think) where Jesus talks about becoming as a child. I asked the class to list characteristics of children. You can guess the answers: loving, sweet, gentle, meek, humble, caring, pure, etc. I wrote them on the board as they were called out. Then I turned to the class and said, “Most of you have children. What are some other characteristics of children?” Everyone knew what I meant, and one person finally broke the silence and called out, “They’re selfish.” “That’s right, they are!” I said, and after that the class opened up and listed some more traits: ignorant, foolish, impatient, devious, etc. I listed them until that list was as long as the first. I then asked, “If these are the characteristics of a child, why does Jesus want us to be like one? Why would he want us to be ‘loving, impatient, gentle, foolish, pure, and selfish’? Is it possible that that’s not what Jesus actually meant?” Then we talked about what he might have meant without inserting all of our “children are sweet little angels” baggage.

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