In today’s Lectionary Gospel reading, Jesus talks about children and sheep. This particular passage is part of a larger conversation that He was having with His disciples about who would be considered great in the Kingdom of Heaven, and naturally Jesus called a child over and turned the disciples’ expectations upside-down. (Matt. 18: 1-7)
Children weren’t considered great in 1st century culture, by any means; they were a financial burden, uneducated and inexperienced, and needed to be protected and cared for. Children were on the lowest rung of the social hierarchy ladder in Roman culture. Jesus is essentially telling his disciples that they need to become the lowest of the low, in order to be considered great in God’s kingdom.
Jesus reinforces that concept with an example of sheep. While sheep were common and provided a way to make a living (by selling wool, meat or milk) even by farmyard standards sheep certainly aren’t considered great or glamorous. They’re noisy, they smell, they’re not very bright, and they bite. However, in God’s kingdom, even one straying sheep is worth going after!
I’m sure that the disciples didn’t want to think of themselves as children or sheep. But once again, Jesus was trying to get the point across that those who follow Him have to humble themselves. Just asking the question of who would be greatest proves that the disciples didn’t get it yet.
I have always been of the opinion that children “get it” far more easily than adults. Kids just seem to have an innate sense of who God is; that He loves them, and that they are precious in His eyes. They are often talked out of it as they grow older, but a little child’s perception of - and faith in - God is often rock-solid.
When my son was about three, he came bounding into my bedroom one morning and announced, “Jesus was in my room! He had on a white bathrobe.” Very matter-of-fact; no doubt whatsoever. My son was certain that Jesus was physically in his bedroom that morning. And we both thought that was pretty cool.
So maybe that’s what Jesus was referring to. Maybe he was trying to let us know that having a rock-solid, unwavering faith is something that shouldn’t be looked down upon. It isn’t something to dismiss as cute. It isn’t something anyone should be talked out of. It’s something to be cultivated and encouraged – especially in children! After all, “their angels in heaven” are apparently keeping an eye on this kind of stuff, and Jesus shouldn’t have to go racing down the hill to find them, if they wander off.
Either way, this is Lent. Lent has traditionally been the season for remembering to humble ourselves before God. (Of course, we ought to be humble everyday, not just during Lent, but bear with me here.) For the next couple of weeks, I challenge you to imagine yourself as a cherished child, and as a sheep with a tendency to stray. Humble yourself before God. Get back in touch with your child-like faith, and cultivate it. Spend time with the Holy Spirit - through scripture and in prayer – and really listen for the voice of the Shepherd. What is He saying to you?