Jesus Didn’t Commend ‘Childlike Faith’ Like We Think of It
Imagine you’re teaching Sunday school for, let’s say, first grade. Accompanying the goldfish, juice pouches, and coloring sheets is a short Bible lesson on something children love to talk about: themselves. Admittedly, there aren’t too many passages about children to choose from, so there’s a good chance you’re covering Mark 10:13–16, where Jesus welcomes the little children. In telling the story, you make sure to emphasize that at first, the disciples didn’t let the children come to Jesus—but Jesus told them to stop that. Because the Kingdom of God itself belongs to children like them. And anyone who doesn’t receive the Kingdom of God like a child won’t get to enter it. At this point, one particularly sharp girl raises her hand to ask, “What does it mean to receive the Kingdom of God like a child?”
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What do you say?
For years, I’ve asked this question to hundreds of Christians across Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox backgrounds. Nearly every answer starts with the obvious: something unique or admirable about children not often found in adults, followed by high praise of our progeny and a wish to be more like them, followed by, “I don’t know . . . what do you think?”
It’s a wholesome and honest response, but not quite a biblically informed answer. Jesus said this sentence explicitly, didn’t he? And he said it at the climax of a story with a setting, a conflict, and a resolution. So shouldn’t the moral be a little bit more straightforward than just getting us to speculate on the merits of toddlers and hope we’re imitating them in the right way?
Of these options to imitate, I’ve most often heard some version or aspect of “childlike faith“:
- Being innocent and unassuming, asking honest questions of God
- Being wide-eyed and open-hearted, interested in what God tells us
- Being trusting and reliant, accepting God’s answers as-is
- Being totally open to Jesus and his good plan for our lives
- Being totally dependent on Jesus, unable to do anything without him
These descriptions of children are all well and good: beautiful vignettes of the holy life. But they’re fairly anachronistic, as we’ll see later. They’re also very assuming, very interpretive; different from one another but almost required to be in tandem with each other. Most of all, they’re impossible to infer from Mark’s story and actually muddy it up rather than make sense of it.
Consider it for a moment in context. The full text of Mark 10:13–16 has been included below, but with this added line of exposition:
And they were bringing children to him that he might touch them, and the disciples rebuked them. But when Jesus saw it, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it. [And by that I mean, you need to stop asking so many questions and just rest in the Father and accept what He says and lovingly trust that He will give the Kingdom to you with or without your good works.]” And he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands on them.
This exposition may be full of true and hortatory statements, but it feels a little out of left field, doesn’t it? That’s often the case when we add our two cents to Scripture without then actively fitting them back into the story we’re trying to understand. We’re not interpreting so much as commenting. And though our added words might be true in a vacuum, they don’t always help others understand God’s words better.
To do the latter, let’s consider another—very different—way to read verse 15 and see what moral we derive from it.
The Word(play) of God
The more you read the Greek New Testament, the more you find that Jesus was a fan of wordplay. From his sermon on the mount, all the way to his final utterances on the cross, Jesus’ words often have manifold meanings that arise from the versatility of the very languages he spoke, especially Greek and Aramaic. Both languages afford an ambiguity here for the phrase ὡς παιδίον (hōs paidion, “like a child”) and its Aramaic counterpart eikh Talyā. This ambiguity allows two very different meanings. It could either be, “. . . receive the Kingdom like a child [receives the Kingdom],” or, “. . . receive the Kingdom like [it were] a child.” Sit with that for a moment.1Greek is a language that loves particularity. It finds ways to clearly and unequivocally state really specific things, often to a degree that you or I might find pedantic. For this, it has a lengthy system of case-endings (think the difference between “he,” “him,” and “his,” or “she,” “her,” and “hers”) to tell us a noun’s role in the sentence. But this phrase of Jesus’ is one of the few places where two opposite roles use the same ending. Here, “ον,” -on, from paidion can tell us either that the child is doing the receiving, or that the child is being received. If he had used another common word for little child, like brefos or nēpios, we would see the clear meaning by either the –os ending or the –on ending instead.
This double-meaning was noticed early and commented on by Origen, who leaned toward the latter (called the “Accusative”) reading, interpreting the story in tandem with its parallel in Mark 9:37. He’s not alone, but is vastly outnumbered. Jerome’s later translation of the passage into Latin would reflect the former (“Nominative”) reading. Ever since, the majority of exegetes have clung to that one, even if it means scrambling to piece together a hidden moral. But my guess is that many readers haven’t really entertained Origen’s reading all that much, if at all. And my argument is that, even if both were intended through Jesus’ brilliant wordplay, most of us are missing out on the half that likely struck the disciples hardest—the pragmatic teaching point that this entire story revolves around. If we want to hear these words of Jesus like the disciples did, we can’t just listen to him; we have to watch him, too.
Remember how the story began. Parents were, at some point or other, bringing their children to Jesus so that he could lay hands on them. There’s at least a thousand years of Israelite and Jewish tradition surrounding the blessing of infant children, and excellent commentators of this passage have read it in light of Genesis 48 and Leviticus 12 for that. We’re not exactly sure what blessing Jesus spoke over these children—we just know that it was one that the parents found important, but that the disciples found annoying.
If Jesus took time for this, and fought to keep doing it, we should assume it was a big deal to him too. (He himself received such a blessing from Simeon in Luke 2:22–32, after all.) This might help inform why he was indignant at his own disciples for trying to put a stop to it. His outright declaration, “do not hinder them, for the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these,” is reminiscent of his first and eighth Beatitudes on the poor and the persecuted, “. . . for to them belong the Kingdom of Heaven.” There’s evidently some common denominator among these three groups, but it’d be a stretch to call it childlike wonder.
The next statement from Jesus is a really big deal. We can tell because he made a habit of fronting some of his best one-liners with Amēn [Amēn] lego humin, “Truly [truly] I say to you . . .” So whenever we hear this, we ought to know that whatever comes next is front and center of the dialogue. And here, it’s a pretty scary warning: “Whoever would not welcome the Kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”
You may have noticed that this time, I used the word “welcome” instead of “receive.” They’re about equally valid translations of the Greek dexētai, with their main difference in English being that “receive” is slightly more passive (an experience that happens to us), whereas “welcome” is active (a thing we choose to do). In English, you can accidentally, or passively, “receive” all kinds of things, but you have to actively choose to “welcome” something or someone. Dexētai can be used in both ways, and it just so happens that Mark tells us another story that focuses on the active idea of this word; the same story that guided Origen’s reading of this one.
Just a few paragraphs (or about three minutes’ listening) prior, we find Jesus and his disciples in the middle of an argument in Capernaum. On the way into the village, the disciples had been arguing about which of them was the greatest in their group. And to rid them of such a notion, Jesus placed a child among them and told them a beautiful promise: “Whoever welcomes (dexētai) one such child (paidiōn) in my name welcomes (dechetai) me, and whoever welcomes (dechētai) me welcomes (dexetai) not me but him who sent me” (Mark 9:37). Pretty clear here.
So now jump back to our main story. It wasn’t long ago that Jesus specifically told his disciples that the act of welcoming children in his name was a way of welcoming him—and of welcoming their Father in Heaven. But here they are, deliberately doing the opposite of that! It’s no surprise that Jesus gets indignant and issues that warning. It might be something to the effect of, “if you turn away these children who are in front of you, don’t think you won’t also turn away the Kingdom of God when it’s presented to you like one of them.”
For this, we have no shortage of similar descriptions of the Kingdom of God. Jesus says it’s like
- A mustard seed (Mark 4:30–32)
- Yeast or leaven (Matthew 13:33)
- A treasure hidden in a field (Matthew 13:44)
- A pearl (Matthew 13:45)
- A fishing net that catches good and bad fish alike (Matthew 13:47)
- A vineyard of random workers hired off the streets (Matthew 20:1)
- A marriage banquet attended by strangers (Matthew 22)
- Something hidden within our midst (Luke 17:21)
What do all of these things have in common? It’s probably best summarized in the last example from Luke 17:20, “The Kingdom of God will not come with observable signs.” It’s something you wouldn’t expect or recognize. So welcoming the mundane things and people of the world in the name of Jesus is somehow welcoming the Kingdom qua the Father qua the Son qua the thing you welcomed in the first place. This is what Jesus taught in a tender moment in Mark 9:37. But now that his advice has been rejected—along with the children—he shares its corollary: rejecting these children puts you in danger of rejecting the Kingdom.
Now hear that line word-for-word one more time: “Whoever would not welcome the Kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” When centered amid the conflict Jesus sought to resolve, this statement is pretty in-your-face. There may be room to speculate about the merits of childhood and how to imitate it—maybe even to systematize an ethic in hindsight—but I highly doubt that this was on anyone’s mind in that conversation.
The Idealization of Children and Childlike Faith
So where does this much more popular take on “receive the Kingdom like a child” come from? I have a few theories. First, it is an old interpretation. As we noted, the Latin Vulgate preserves this reading, because Latin parvulus (a great translation of paidion) doesn’t afford the same ambiguity. A choice had to be made here. Why Jerome made this choice, I can’t say with certainty. But given the dominance of the Vulgate in Western Christian tradition, this simple decision afforded a huge advantage to the Nominative reading in gaining broad acceptance.
Second, we may be fighting an uphill battle against using the word “receive” in this passage for modern day readers.2It’s clearly not going away, since 24 of our 27 most popular English translations use it. And of the ones who don’t (NAB, CEV, HCSB, AMP), three of the four add words around it in such a way that tips toward the Nominative reading anyway. English use of “receive” has come a long way from its Latin ancestor recipere (used in Mark 10:15) and its half-sister suscipere (used in Mark 9:37). Suffice it to say, these words all clearly envision you getting something, like being handed a present. Some uses may be in contexts that emphasize you stretching out your hands and grasping it. Others only have the last microsecond of the transaction in mind: the present falling into your hands with almost no action on your part. Jerome seemed to understand dexētai in these two different ways for each passage, and picked the Latin equivalent to reflect his interpretation. But English translations so far haven’t afforded us the same level of clarity. When English speakers today read the word “receive” in an ambiguous context, we’re less likely to infer details about the recipient making some effort to get the thing, and more likely to imagine an effortless transaction. But now think about the (almost archaic) use of this word when we talk about “receiving” guests into a home. You might imagine a host gesturing for the guests to come in. Or maybe going a step further to show hospitality to the guest, setting food and drinks before them and starting up conversation. This concept of “receive,” though not our go-to in English, works well in both of Mark’s stories, when allowing someone of low stature to come into the near presence of someone with higher stature.
But I think it’s a tragedy that 24 of our 27 most popular English Bibles still use a word that—for no reason other than its common use today—is slipping further away from the more active meaning we should be getting from our translations. Readers who don’t immediately think about “receiving” guests will be shoehorned into figuring out how to “receive” the Kingdom like it’s a present, and how to do so like we’re toddlers.
But that’s another problem in itself. For every poet who praises honest childlike faith, there’s a parent suffering an endless cycle of “but why”s from her own kid who can’t accept anything as an answer. For every precious darling happy to sit at the feet of Jesus, there’s a screaming rugrat who refuses nap time. Children are just little people; they’re every bit as multifaceted as adults. And setting them on a pedestal for ideal human behavior comes much more from Rousseau than from Christ. It has deeper roots in late-Enlightenment romantic poetry than biblical doctrine. The very popular phrase often linked with this passage, “childlike faith,” doesn’t even appear in writing until the 1700s, and many scholars have done an excellent job showing that we’ve collectively mapped onto first-century Israel an idealized view of children that just wasn’t socially present back then.
Yes, for as long as humans have existed, parents have adored their sons and daughters. But in society writ large, a child was at the bottom of the totem pole in all respects. They were regularly disregarded, overworked, abused, ignored, enslaved, aborted, abandoned, and maligned. Imagine the weight of Jesus’ command to welcome them in an environment like that. (In fact, the church would soon make a name for herself for doing just that.) It’s here that we see the real shock value of Jesus’ teachings on children. They’re not commands to follow a kid around all day and do what she does—though that would make for a hilarious reality show—but to welcome and join them at a lowly position within the social order.
Here’s our proof of this: paidion, the word in each of these passages, is a diminutive of pais, one of the more generic terms for “child.” As a diminutive, paidion is often reserved for really young kids, like infants and crawlers, not bright young 7-year olds who are discovering the world with amazement and joy.3There are places where this term can refer to older kids—even adults, like in John 21:5—but they are rare and don’t really secure for us that assumption here. The connection to similar blessings in Genesis 48, Leviticus 12, and Luke 2 all involved infants, not pre-schoolers. And Luke’s account uses the term brefē in 18:15, an unambiguous term for infants. So we can pretty confidently say that, no matter how inspiring and heartwarming my Sunday school teacher’s treatise on the childlike faith of a kindergartener may be, it doesn’t really speak to the text of Mark 10 so much as use it as a springboard for another topic.
Interpreting in Good Faith
So again, how would you answer the bright young mind in your Sunday school class? There’s nothing wrong with encouraging her and praising her innocence, her faith, and her status as a child of God. But could you in good faith try to make up an answer based more on your high opinions of your students than on the moral Jesus was demonstrating for his disciples? I imagine not. In fact, I imagine it’s still pretty good news to children—who are all still trying to learn the ways of God—that Jesus went out of his way to bless them and care for them because he saw the Kingdom of God in them.
And if you don’t believe me, take Origen’s words with a bit more weight than mine:
And this expression is ambiguous; for either it means that he who receives the kingdom of God may become as a little child, or, that he may receive the kingdom of God, which has become to him as a little child. And perhaps here those who receive the kingdom of God receive it, when it is as a little child, but in the world to come no longer as a little child; and they receive the greatness of the perfection in the spiritual manhood, so to speak, which perfection is manifested to all who in the present time receive.4Origen, Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew: Book XIII, §19.
Addendum: I understand this is a buzzkill of an argument. Children get so little praise in Scripture, the last thing I want to do is take away one of our most beloved one-liners about them. But it would be a shame if a hearer of this verse thought Jesus was instructing them to just focus inwardly on developing a childlike faith or disposition, rather than to focus outwardly on people in this world who need our acceptance right now. Both ethics can be pieced together from other parts of Scripture, sure. But as it stands, I think our many translations of Mark 10:15 fail to help us see the urgency of the latter ethic in this story, which is one of its most potent examples. So we end on another question altogether: “What should we do with ‘bad’ interpretations of Scripture that lead to ‘good’ truths anyway?” More on this in another piece.
1. Greek is a language that loves particularity. It finds ways to clearly and unequivocally state really specific things, often to a degree that you or I might find pedantic. For this, it has a lengthy system of case-endings (think the difference between “he,” “him,” and “his,” or “she,” “her,” and “hers”) to tell us a noun’s role in the sentence. But this phrase of Jesus’ is one of the few places where two opposite roles use the same ending. Here, “ον,” -on, from paidion can tell us either that the child is doing the receiving, or that the child is being received. If he had used another common word for little child, like brefos or nēpios, we would see the clear meaning by either the –os ending or the –on ending instead.
2. It’s clearly not going away, since 24 of our 27 most popular English translations use it. And of the ones who don’t (NAB, CEV, HCSB, AMP), three of the four add words around it in such a way that tips toward the Nominative reading anyway. English use of “receive” has come a long way from its Latin ancestor recipere (used in Mark 10:15) and its half-sister suscipere (used in Mark 9:37). Suffice it to say, these words all clearly envision you getting something, like being handed a present. Some uses may be in contexts that emphasize you stretching out your hands and grasping it. Others only have the last microsecond of the transaction in mind: the present falling into your hands with almost no action on your part. Jerome seemed to understand dexētai in these two different ways for each passage, and picked the Latin equivalent to reflect his interpretation. But English translations so far haven’t afforded us the same level of clarity.
3. There are places where this term can refer to older kids—even adults, like in John 21:5—but they are rare and don’t really secure for us that assumption here.
4. Origen, Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew: Book XIII, §19.
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