“Stay in a child’s place.” It’s a directive many U.S. Southerners are familiar with. It’s also the position that God finds God’s self in while lying in a manger.

It is an expression used by our parents and the elders to remind children of their position in the family. It is part instruction and part warning. 

The expression communicates when the line has been crossed in the relationship between adult and child. Perhaps, the child has spoken out of turn or forgotten their rank in the familial order. 

“Stay in a child’s place.” They are words directed to a child who has said something smart or clever that may or may not be true. 

Still, it is not the child’s place to make these corrective statements—at least not within earshot of an adult. It is safer to say it behind a closed door. 

But no matter where the child says it, it doesn’t change the fact stated plainly by Oliver Wendell Holmes when he said, “Pretty much all the honest truth telling there is in the world is done by children.” An unknown author would agree, adding, “Children seldom misquote. In fact, they usually repeat word for word what you shouldn’t have said.” 

Still, some adults don’t believe it’s the child’s place to point out their wrongs and inconsistencies. They don’t view children as a source of accountability. 

But this statement left unchecked and repeated over time can render a child voiceless. “Seen but not heard,” adults then don’t take children at their word and instead dismiss their eyewitness accounts and personal complaints. It is not surprising then that many adults are in therapy because of something that happened to them in their childhood. 

I sometimes wonder if childhood even has a place. The innocence of children is made synonymous with ignorance. 

We describe persons as “wet behind the ears.” Their naiveté is mocked as inexperience. Yet, there is Jesus, who didn’t come to form a faction but to remind us that we are a family and all children of God. 

In the gospel of Matthew, the disciples ask a question, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:1, NRSV)? They are asking Jesus to compare them to each other and are no doubt ready to argue that based on their abilities, educational background, standing in the community and length of service to the ministry that they are the greatest.  

I can imagine them lining up, their chests stuck out, their faces painted with the brightest of smiles. The scene was much like that of the selection of David as king of the children of Israel.  

Samuel, the priest, is certain of God’s selection of David’s brother, Eliab, saying, “Surely, the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.” To his surprise, the Lord told Samuel, “Look not on his countenance or on the height of his stature; because I have refused him: for the Lord sees not as man sees; for man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (First Samuel 16:6-7).

Likewise, in response to this inquiry, Jesus calls for a child, places the child in the midst of them and turns the disciples’ worlds upside down. In the times of Jesus and true also for today, children held no personal value. 

They were a means of economic support and were necessary for the continuation of the family name. Today, the place of children is often overlooked and their presence dismissed. Neil Postman warns, “Children are the living messages we send to a time we will not see.”

Still, they are the victims of the most crimes, whether directly or indirectly. Children are assaulted, bullied, rejected, kidnapped, molested, abused, diseased, despised, divorced, abandoned, impoverished, homeless, overlooked and left out.  

They are oftentimes the voiceless. But Jesus calls for the presence of a child as the model for behavior for one to enter the kingdom of heaven. 

Surely, his disciples thought, “The Lord will choose me.” But, in his selection, Jesus reminds us that greatness in God’s eyes is not a matter of position but character.  

Are you childlike? Jesus says, “Truly, I tell you unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3).

Jesus says, “We cannot discuss who is the greatest until we get you into the kingdom.” How many of us are talking about our greatness and have not met the requirements for entry into the “kin-dom”?

Because even God started small, placed in a manger instead of seated on a throne. Let this Christmas season be a reminder then of the God who came into the world and stayed in a child’s place. 

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