The Birth of Childhood: How Jesus Revolutionized Our Understanding of Children

Despite 21 centuries worth of trying to tame Jesus into a good-ole-boy savior who walked around the holy land flashing his pearly whites while he did good stuff for people, anyone who’s actually read his story knows that’s as wrong as wrong can be.

He didn’t come to affirm the status quo.
He didn’t show up to have us all hold hands and sing Kumbaya.
Nor did he come to earth to play nice with others.

Truth be told, Jesus was often an in-your-face teacher. He said insulting things. Insulting in all the right ways, but insulting nonetheless. And few episodes illustrate this better than when he talked to us about children.

This is where things get confusing, so bear with me a moment.

In our culture, we’ve romanticized children. They are innocent, adorable, precious little humans that politicians kiss and churches throw VBS parties for. Not so in the first century. Not by a long shot.

In a Roman family, for instance, when a baby was born, the father decided whether they’d keep the baby or “expose” him. Exposure meant the child would be thrown away—left outside to die of starvation, to be eaten by wild animals, or (most likely) scooped up by strangers. Abandoned children, boys and girls, were the perfect market for those in the sex trade, for instance, so many exposed children ended up in brothels. According to Roman sources, castrated boys were a special delicacy for those into such diabolical fetishes.

What’s more: all this was socially acceptable. In first century Rome, sex between men and boys was not scandalous. No one batted an eye. No laws prohibited it. No one called it child abuse.

What’s more, the younger the children, the less fully human, fully a person, they were considered to be. As O. M. Bakke, writes in When Children Became People, “According to Aristotle, children are not complete human beings.” The value they have is not their personhood, something intrinsic to who they are; their value is only in what they might become. If boys, for instance, are important, meaningful, and valuable, it’s only due to their potential to grow up and become free men at the center of society. When they’re young, however, children are, in essence, potential human beings.

Enter Jesus. He comes to us in this broader cultural milieu, where children are considered disposable, abusable, semi-human commodities whose real value is what they might become, and he says, “Unless you are converted and become like little children, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven,” (Matthew 18:3). But he’s not done yet; it gets even more insulting: “Whoever humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven,” (v. 4).

Jesus is basically saying, in the cultural parlance of the day, “Unless you become a loser, you have no part in my kingdom. Unless you self-identify with the lowest of the low, you can kiss salvation goodbye. If you want to be big and high and mighty in my kingdom, then be small and low and powerless. That’s how my kingdom works.”

This was a slap in the face to the broader, 1st century world.
And, once we really get it, it’s a slap in the face to us as well.

Don’t imagine, for a moment, that Jesus is here to pay us compliments on what wonderful people we are. He did not come to affirm us, to tell us what moral people we have grown up to be, how we have really lived up to our potential.

He came to show us, through children and babies, dead people and lepers, pariahs and Samaritans, that he’s here to turn everything upside down. Or, to say it differently, he’s come to put everything right-side-up from God’s perspective.

Jesus comes to pop our bubbles of pride, implode our towers of vanity, expose our arrogant adulting ways, and brings us down, down, down. Down to his level, which is the level of crucifixion. Down to his level, which is the level of burial. Down to the place where we die to ourselves, die to our misplaced dreams of self-aggrandizement, and die finally in his death. There, in his corpse, in his tomb, in his lowliness, we are ready to rise to newness of life in him.

So he insults our adult sensibilities by telling us to become children. He insults us by telling stories where heretical, half-breed Samaritans are the hero, and where religious leaders are ungodly blowhards and traitorous tax-collectors are pious. And, to cap everything off, he dies a gruesome death, naked and spit upon, between two crooks. He becomes the insult. He becomes everything we don’t want to be: little, suffering, powerless, lifeless, nothing.

And he says, “Follow me.” Follow me into childhood, for I will remake you into mature adults who remain the children of God. Follow me into giving up on yourself, for I will recreate you as those to whom I give everything. Follow me into abandoning what you thought was so important in life, for I will be your life, your importance, your fulfillment.

The true representatives of Christianity are not the pope, the bishops, the priests and pastors, the elders or the deacons. The representatives of Christianity are the children. Those who have nothing to offer God and everything to receive. Those whom Christ welcomes as the greatest in the kingdom of God. This is Jesus's way of revolutionizing our understanding of children. 

Let me close with this benediction, written by Larry Hein, the spiritual director of Brennan Manning:
“May all your expectations be frustrated. May all your plans be thwarted. May all your desires be withered into nothingness. That you may experience the powerlessness and the poverty of a child and sing and dance in the love of God the Father, the Son and the Spirit.”

Amen to that.

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*I am deeply indebted to O. M. Bakke's book, When Children Became People: The Birth of Childhood in Early Christianity, for both the title of this article as well as the substance of the ideas. I highly recommend it.