Readings: Ezekiel 18:1-10, 13, 30-32; Psalm 50; Matthew 19:13-15
The English Catholic writer G.K.Chesterton is supposed to have said that the purpose of life is ‘to get from first childhood to second childhood without being too damaged by the intervening adult stage’. Telling this to one of the Irish friars he replied that the problem was that some of the brethren went from first childhood to second childhood without any intervening adult stage!
The theme of spiritual childhood runs through the New Testament and the readings today invite us to think about it. The Ezekiel reading is about being adult: no longer will we blame others for our sins but each person will accept responsibility for whatever they do. That seems fine: we must be grown up and not blame others. I cannot say my teeth are on edge because my grandfather ate sour grapes. There is great dignity in acknowledging what we have done even when it has been mistaken or wrong: to say ‘I did it, I’m sorry’, or ‘I misunderstood but I accept responsibility’: whatever way we put it there is a nobility and a maturity in accepting responsibility in that way.
Jesus is not going back on that. He is not suggesting that we become childish again but rather that we be childlike for it is to such that the kingdom of heaven belongs. It cannot mean that we must never grow up but rather that when we do we become adults who have not lost the capacity for what makes childhood wonderful: the sense of wonder itself, of freedom and spontaneity, of openness to new things, a readiness for surprises, and so on. The adult who has not forgotten how to be a child is an attractive figure. We probably know people who have become a bit too adult, in whom wonder and spontaneity have been lost, as a result of difficulties they have encountered, but it is always sad to see it.
There is a human and psychological wisdom in saying that the adult must remain childlike and try to retain the blessings that go with that stage of human development. It means integrating childhood within our maturing rather than leaving it behind. But there is also a theological foundation for this. Jesus is the ‘child’ of God. In early Christian texts we get this description of him, as the ‘child’ of the Father. We are then ‘children in the Child’ as St Paul says, made to be members of the family of God, so that we too can call God ‘Abba’. This is ‘Daddy’, the child’s name for her father, and we become entitled to use it of God because we live now from the Spirit of the Father and the Child, Jesus.
Let me finish with another Chesterton quote. Etienne Gilson, a great historian of medieval philosophy, said that Chesterton had understood Thomas Aquinas’s philosophy better than anybody else in the 20th century. And Chesterton had the gift of presenting that philosophy in perfectly simple and yet profound ways. Here for example is an argument for the existence of God that will appeal to the child in us. ‘If you see one elephant you will say ‘how extraordinary’. If you see a second elephant you will say ‘what a coincidence’. If you see a third elephant you will begin to suspect a plot.’