At Play

Like a Child — Mark 9:30-37

Kathleen Rushton shows in Mark 9:30–37 that childlikeness, not childishness, is a quality of discipleship.

Jesus often turned the world upside down. Perhaps most remarkable and shocking was when he presented his disciples with a child to learn from and imitate as a model. In the ancient world, a child had low status within the family and community. Exactly how this gesture and the words of Jesus challenged accepted values is not easy to express. For someone outside the family to “welcome” a child was to set aside their own self-importance and adult status. Although children were loved, they were regarded as nobodies without rights. Life was precarious. Infant mortality was sometimes 30 per cent of live births. Of those who survived 60 per cent died before they were 16.


The disciples were arguing over who among them was the greatest. Jesus responded: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” For him the most insignificant are the greatest. He put his arm around a little child (Mk 9:36) — the child a model of radical humility. He loved children, indignantly rebuking the disciples who wanted to send them away because the grown-ups were busy with serious, important concerns: “Let the children come to me; do not stop them” (Mk 10:13-14).

What did Jesus see in these children? He saw what his reign-of-God-family was all about: “for it is to such as these that the reign of God belongs” (Mk 10:14-16). Jesus loved children because they were vulnerable, nobodies or overlooked and they were open and sincere, not hypocritical. They were trusting in an amazingly spontaneous way. Jesus drew his strength and confidence from his childlike trust in God. This was at the core of his spirituality.

Albert Nolan in Jesus Today: A Spirituality of Radical Freedom, writes: “Those who treat Jesus as central to their spirituality tend to make him the object of their spirituality rather than a person who had a spirituality of his own from which we might be able to learn something.” Jesus’s spirituality was “behind what he said and did, what fired and inspired him”.

Childlike Trust

Jesus recognised in children the total, unquestioning trust he had in God. In this sense he was exceptionally childlike — which may not be our usual image of him. We tend to give Jesus exalted titles and refer to him in prayers, images, hymns as an all-powerful king of kings and a mighty saviour. But seeing the childlike in Jesus is neither demeaning nor suggesting he was weak, naïve or immature.

Although Jesus felt fear faced with the prospect of suffering and death in Gethsemane, he was fearless about what others — the Scribes, Pharisees, chief priests, Herod or Pilate — could do or say about him. John Simpson reflecting on Llew Summers’ image of “Jesus Before Pilate” (see below) notes how Jesus “appears childlike in proportion and in appearance” and has “the quality of innocence and intimations of innocence.”

Sense of Wonder

A sense of wonder is a quality in a healthy child. Children find everything new and surprising — awe at seeing the sea for the first time, mosses growing in cracks in the pavement, scurrying ants, flowers to smell and colours to name. Adults can let their wonder dull.

It is clear from the gospels that Jesus had a deep sense of wonder — he was a mystic and poet. We hear his wonder when speaking of the miracle of the seed which grows unseen and quietly by itself as the farmer slept. The mustard seed grows “into the greatest shrub of all and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in shade” (Mk 4:26-32). He marvelled at the lilies of the field whose beauty, he said, outdid Solomon and all his finery (Lk 12:22-23).

Albert Nolan says wonder happens when we are swept away by the consciousness of mystery —watching buds burst into flower; contemplating the uniqueness of fingerprints and DNA; discovering the interconnectedness of everything in the universe which has been expanding for 13.7 billion years from a tiny, compressed state.

Playfulness and Joy

We associate laughter, playfulness and joy with childhood. Children love pretending and imitating — playing at being grown up — father, mother, doctor, nurse, driving an aeroplane or car. They laugh when adults pretend and play with them. Jesus watched the play-acting of children in the marketplace when they disagreed among themselves about dancing and playing the flute (Mt 11:16). He noted the gulf between the child’s playful pretending and the hypocrites’ deceptive pretending.

Unfortunately, we can lose our sense of playfulness in adulthood. Yet Evelyn Underhill in her classical work on mysticism says humour and playfulness are essential to authentic spirituality. And Jesus’s love for children is at variance with portrayals of him as seriously dull.

Beyond Childishness

There is a great difference between being childlike and being childish. The attributes of childlikeness are deeply human and of permanent value — humility, sincerity, trust, freedom from care, a sense of joy, wonder and playfulness. In contrast, childishness is to hold on to those temporary qualities of childhood which are immature or stem from inexperience or ignorance.

We can hold onto an immature image of God and childish trust believing that God is like Santa Claus who will manipulate the world if we “ask him nicely”. This is not the childlike trust Jesus had in God. Jesus’s trust enabled him to work fearlessly in solidarity with “the least of the least”.

In our time, the problems of Earth and children are no laughing matter. We realise that we have exploited Earth dangerously. And that millions of children deprived by poverty, malnutrition, violence, war and sexual abuse have had their childlike qualities extinguished. Jesus embracing a little child reminds us again of the preciousness of every human life regardless of how small or insignificant. Jesus’s sense of wonder highlights the preciousness of Earth. When we allow ourselves childlike trust in God and contemplate the mysteries of creation, we will participate fearlessly in God’s great work with hope.

Tui Motu Magazine. Issue 230 September 2018: 22-23.