One is tempted to say the reason Jesus was so partial to children is that he never had any of his own. Grandparents likewise enjoy the benefits of having children around without always having them underfoot. As a newly inducted member of this tribe, I took great delight in my infant granddaughter, knowing that I could always hand her off to a parent when she needed to be diapered or fed. Once she could sit up and take notice, I was able to experience the world vicariously through her eyes and be reminded of a time when everything was still new.
There are not a lot of children underfoot in the gospel narratives. Children that do put in an appearance are subjected to the same treatment I remember as a kid in church back in the 1950s, when small fry were told in no uncertain terms to sit still and be quiet. At one point Jesus’ disciples rebuke people for bringing their children up for a blessing, but Jesus calls them forward, saying, “To such belongs the kingdom of heaven.”
Jesus uses an interesting turn of phrase when he tells his disciples, “Unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” In the original Greek of the New Testament, the word for this turning literally means to change one’s mind. This involves turning back the clock to a time when there is no time, no past to haunt you and no apprehensions about the future. Right now is all there is, and for a small child it can be endlessly absorbing.
The kingdom of heaven eludes most grownups, because for them the clock is always running. In Jesus’ day, many pious Jews identified the kingdom of God with Israel’s past greatness under King David, while others saw it as a time of future glory. They could not comprehend that when Jesus said, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand,” he meant it quite literally. For them, as for most people today, the kingdom of heaven is always a coming attraction, rather than a current reality. We expect the world to change when all that is really needed is a change of mind.