The apostles must have been shocked when Jesus told them that if they wanted to enter heaven or become great, they had to become like children (Mark 9:30-37). Most of us today might also find that difficult to understand.
Children can be very demanding, greedy, selfish, impulsive, and even utterly lacking in empathy or sympathy. No matter how cute and lovable he is, a baby does not feel the need to reciprocate the love and care that he receives.
We continue to love children even if they exhibit such narcissistic tendencies because we know that these do not arise from malice or greed. We believe that their self-centered behavior follows from their primal need to survive and that they will eventually outgrow it.
Indeed, children who are brought up properly learn that they cannot get everything they want, that indulgence must give way to restraint, self-absorption to empathy, and that they must not equate whims with license.
The bad news is, many children do not outgrow their selfishness and narcissism. Many adults have anger-management problems today because, as children, they were habituated to using tears and tantrums to get what they wanted. They grow up thinking that they can vent their rage on others whenever their gratification is delayed or denied.
Because of our intimate familiarity with such defects and faults of children, we often think that Jesus extols them because He wants us to focus on their inherently good qualities, like simplicity, innocence, joyfulness, etc., and emulate these. But in all the Gospel passages (Mark 9:35, Matthew 18:1-4, Luke 11:25, and Luke 18:15-17) where Jesus shows His love and admiration for children, there is no mention of such childlike qualities.
I think Jesus made the child a model for emulation, not because of the child’s good qualities, but simply because every child is a picture of vulnerability and helplessness. Who is more vulnerable than a child?
To be vulnerable is to be susceptible to being wounded or hurt. A child reminds us that we are born broken, terribly flawed creatures who need God’s grace to make us whole again. We are subject to pain and anxiety, sadness and disability, loneliness and lust, etc. To be great in Jesus’ eyes means to be most vulnerable.
Too bad, today we idolize the superheroes who appear to be indestructible and are not in need of anything. We think that being weak and needy is shameful, so we pretend to be strong, needing nothing, afraid of making people see our faults and failings.
In truth, it is usually through our painful experiences that we learn life’s greatest lessons. We acquire our most important insights in life, and forge our most intimate connections with others and with God when we are suffering from physical pain or deep emotional turmoil.
When we admit our vulnerability, we can stop trying to keep up a brave front. Instead, like a child, we open ourselves to God who brings healing, and comfort to our struggles.
Vulnerability makes us, individually and collectively, look to Jesus who, when St. Paul begged Him to take away the thorn in the flesh that constantly afflicts him, said: “My grace is sufficient for you, for My power is made perfect in your weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
It is this childlike surrender to God that made St. Paul one of Jesus’ greatest apostle. He writes: “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest on me. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10). May we learn to be like him.