When I’m in Africa, kids are usually either ignored or sternly warned to behave. Fathers love their children, but I don’t often see affectionate fathers. Children run with a posse of older siblings and friends from dawn to dusk. Babies ride on their mothers’ backs all day. Often kids are considered non-entities until they demonstrate that they will survive pandemic infant mortality and grow into an initiated adult. In fact, in some cultures, a child isn’t given a proper name for several years! Until then they are, “Hey you with the boogers hanging down!” (My experience in Ethiopia was the exception. There, I was surprised and encouraged to see parents who were both firm and affectionate.)
I believe the culture Jesus lived and taught in was more akin to your traditional African context where small children were assigned value only in relationship to their parents (which is why all the OT babies are given names relating to the stories of their parents.) So, when Jesus scooped up one of these free-ranging little ones and shouted, “Here’s the kingdom!” I think it was quite a statement indeed!
And the shock value is still there today in many traditional cultures. I don’t think the message is that we should think more highly of our children, but that we should think less highly of ourselves. Our culture idolizes our kids and in my opinion, we put a lot of pressure on our kids to continue to be “so cute, so talented, so wonderful.” But many societies are so rigidly structured around a top-down hierarchy–even in churches–that Jesus’ upside-down kingdom is intentionally lost so that we can focus on whether an apostle is more important than a pastor… or a female preacher is more valuable than a male deacon!
Not to pick on the African church too much. After all, American churches rarely have trouble filling volunteer roles that get the spotlight. And for full disclosure, this is usually where I end up: leading the music, garnering applause.
But I’m trying something new these days. I’m volunteering for the nursery. I think it’s healthy for me to be around 5-year-olds who won’t say, “wow, that was such a profound lesson today!” And I think I can learn a thing or two from them as well.