“Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3)
Watch children play, and you will understand that they know something we have forgotten. They know how to play for its own sake.
We, on the other hand, will usually play games only if we can enter a competition and play to win. What do we want to win? We want to win some sort of trophy. If not a trophy itself, then the reward of being not just best at something, but better than someone else. In other words, we not only want to win — we want to beat the other guy. So our playtime is corrupted by competition.
On the other hand, a child playing — truly playing — does playtime for its own sake. When a child is pretending and playing, there is no competition. When a child is coloring or painting or making a model, there is no competition. He is doing that activity for its own sake. There is no payment. There is no reward. There is no competition. There is no plastic trophy.
Beneath the need to win an award there is too often also the need to make money out of the thing we enjoy. If we win the prize, there may be a bigger prize, and we may be able to make money out of the enterprise. There is no harm in making money. We need money to live. We need money to pay the bills. We need money for all that we require in life, but the need for money undermines the freedom of playing with complete simplicity and freedom as a child plays.
This is why, on seeing the children play, it seemed to me that God is like a child. God has no need of anything. Therefore he does not need to work for his keep. He is a gentleman of leisure. Like an English aristocrat in a big house with a huge inherited income, he may work if he wishes, but even that work is a kind of play, for he does not need to work to earn his keep.
So it is with God. Everything he does is a kind of play, for he does what he does for its own sake. To be sure, it is a most serious kind of playtime, but leisure and play it must be, for he does not compete with anyone nor does he need anything.
Then I am reminded of that passage in Chapter 2 of Mark’s Gospel. It is the beautiful story of the men who bring their paralyzed friend to Christ the Lord for healing. When he is lowered down to the feet of the Master, the Master calls him (with great tenderness I am sure) “Child.”
Then I remember the children who are saints: the prophet Thérèse and her little sister Bernadette. I think of the child prophets of Fatima. I think of the Infant Jesus of Prague dressed up as a child might dress up in a costume for a play, but he is truly king of the universe and not just pretending.
So I am reminded of the infant King’s later gesture when he takes the little children on his knee to bless them and tells the whole cosmos that “unless you become like a little child you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.”
I say he speaks this to the whole of the cosmos for every cell and morsel — every star and grain of sand must learn that lesson. We and they and all created things must learn to be as simple and free as a child at play — doing all things for their own sake and not for competition or for money if we can help it.
And I remember that somewhere when I was studying liturgy the most arresting image was given by a theologian who likened the liturgy to playtime, because there too, we do something not for gain and not for reward and not for praise, but simply for its own sake. There we are like little children.
Then perhaps we can also remember that Christ says we must be “perfect as our Father in heaven is perfect” — and of course perfect means perfectly simple, perfectly whole, perfectly perfect and complete. This is what he is like who is the Father and the child at once, and I wonder therefore if God in his awful purity and perfection is that child at play, and that is why the Lord gathered them up and told us to be like them.
Because in them he saw his Father and in them he loved Him.