Children & the Virtues of Innocence

Then they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you arguing about on the way?” But they were silent, for on the way they had argued with one another who was the greatest. He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”Then he took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.” [1]Mark 9:33-37

I heard a story this week which made my day. It was from a young woman in her 20’s who works as a science journalist. I asked her how she became a Christian.

Now, I’m not often surprised by things, but she knocked my socks off. She went to a state primary school, so not a church school in any way, and her parents are basically atheists.

But when she was 10 she picked up a Children’s bible and started to read. What she read made her want to know more, so one Sunday she just pitched up at the church she walked past each day on her way to school. Apparently the church was rather surprised to find this little 10yr old turning up on her own each week, but they were kind and welcomed her in.

And she’s been there ever since. It’s a fabulous illustration of Jesus’ teaching.

Children don’t mind trying and failing, and that’s how they learn.

Preaching on the gospels is often rather more challenging than preaching on Paul’s writing. With Paul, in particular, you can polish off most of your sermon simply on explaining what Paul was saying. With Jesus, often the message is simpler and doesn’t need explaining, although it may often need unpacking and reflecting on – and that’s the difficult bit.

Jesus is now heading towards Jerusalem for the final act of his earthly ministry.

So His focus shifts from teaching the crowds, to teaching the disciples. It might seem pretty obvious why that’s a good idea when they apparently fail to understand him for the third time when he tells them he’s going to be killed and then be raised again.

They should have expected it might not turn out OK, given what happened to John the Baptist, and the prophets before him. But then some of them had only recently seen Jesus’ appearance being transformed in front of them into a dazzling and terrifying figure in white. So he must have seemed totally untouchable.

And they had all grown up with expectations of a Messiah who would rule the nation of Israel and kick out the Romans. And they didn’t doubt that he was the Messiah; after all, he’d done loads of miracles and signs. And so if he was the Messiah, then they would be the movers and shakers in the new kingdom: it must have made perfect sense to them to be arguing about who was the greatest, who would be getting the next to top job.

I love the way Jesus deals with their human failure. He doesn’t say: you shouldn’t have been arguing about who was the greatest. Instead, just like the good rabbi, the good Jewish teacher that he was, he asks them a question. “What were you arguing about on the road?”

And although all it says was that they were silent, I can imagine them looking at their feet and shuffling about a bit. And then it says:

“He sat down, called the twelve, and said to them, ‘whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all’.  [2]Mark 9:35

There are moments in the gospels when, like here it says Jesus sat down.

Children are also unconcerned about the colour of someone else’s skin and about disability.

Unlike a preacher standing in a pulpit, or a presidential address, Jewish teachers sat to teach, and their pupils would sit at their feet. So he sits to underline the point and the reference to him “calling the twelve” underlines the importance. After all, the 12 were already with him. And then he does the equivalent of bringing out his powerpoint presentation to support his point – he grabs a handy visual aid in the form of a child.

I’ve thought a lot about what it means to welcome a child. We can do things in church to make it child-friendly; but I think welcome needs to go beyond practicalities. It’s hard to truly welcome someone whose being and way of life is alien.

And yet so many of us, myself included, have to do a bit of work to really appreciate the virtues of children beyond their cuteness and joyfulness. We have to work to remember what we were once like, and we need to work to recover the virtues we once had.

And so my first thought was that Children are playful: and that may not sound an obvious virtue, but playfulness is all tied up with imagination (which Children have in abundance) and a willingness to experiment. If you give children a challenge, for example, how many things could you make out of a brick – they will come up with many more ideas than an adult would. As they grow up, however, their experience of receiving disapproval whenever they come up with a suggestion that is “wrong” means that they develop fear of offering them, and their creativity is attenuated.

Very young children don’t mind trying and failing, and that’s how they learn.

The second thing I thought was about how open very young children are to people who look different to them.

I remember reading about a man whose face was badly disfigured during World War 1, and while he found it difficult to face people in his home town, he was able to teach the youngest children in Sunday school, who would be curious, but not disgusted by his injuries, and accepted him for who he was. Very young children are also unconcerned about the colour of someone else’s skin, and about disability.

And finally I thought about how young children are generally entirely disinterested in what you have achieved. They couldn’t care less if you have a PhD or an account at Coutts. They just care if you are kind.

Children are generally entirely disinterested in what you have achieved. They just care if you are kind.

I think appreciating and thus better welcoming children wouldn’t just make life better for children. It would also improve our lives. I’ve given only a few examples, and you may well think of others to apply to your home and working lives.

What if we were more playful: more prepared to experiment and take a risk, to risk failure.

Apparently Thomas Edison had 1,000 failed attempts at inventing the light bulb. When asked how it felt to have 1000 failures, he replied “I have not failed. I’ve just found 1,000 ways that won’t work.” If we want to appreciate and thus truly welcome children, we need to keep trying, and welcome our failures as well as our successes. A man called Thomas Watson once said: “The fastest way to succeed is to double your failure rate.”

What if we sought not to judge ourselves and others by appearances: but instead look beyond the clothes being worn or even the words being said to the heart beneath.

And finally let’s not judge ourselves or others by what we or they have achieved, or what we think we or they should achieve. Let us remember that those words spoken over Jesus BEFORE he had lifted a finger in his ministry were: “Here is my beloved child, in whom I am well pleased”. [3]Matthew 3:17

Those are words for us, too. And in all this let us keep up the good work of being open to welcoming all that children are and bring to us. For in welcoming them, we are welcoming not just them, but Jesus, and the Father who sent him.


1 Mark 9:33-37
2 Mark 9:35
3 Matthew 3:17
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