(Written in the second person)
Sacred texts of reference: Zechariah 8:4-8; Matthew 19:14 (NRSVue Bible)
As a child, Edwin remembers being told when playtime was and wasn’t. If it was time to eat, “it’s not time to play, let’s eat.” If it was time to get ready for church, “it’s not time to play, let’s get ready for church.” If it was time to sleep, “it’s not time to play, get to bed.” Most children hear this growing up, that is, when the designated times to play are and when it is not appropriate. The desire and the preference for playing is something that children have in increase compared to adults. Playing is an undoubtably characteristic of child-ness and children can be viewed as being hyper-focused on fun and play, and not the busy-ness that adults must nevertheless execute for their own good and others’. A reading from Zechariah mentions a new day of restoration in which children will do what they do best in the streets once again—play. Children and play are deeply related and one is almost always thought of when the other is mentioned, even in ancient times.
As a part of life, children are, too, mentioned in the Gospels. In Matthew’s reading as well as in preceding verses, we may read about people bringing their children to Jesus so that he would bless them. We might wonder what the disciples were thinking—perhaps, “children and their play have no place in the matters we must discuss concerning the restoration of our kingdom…”
All we know is that the disciples discouraged the bringing of children to Jesus; yet, Jesus, bothered by this, states that the kingdom of God belongs to them. Something about children is special because they embody something that comes from or is curiously key to the kingdom of God. For many years, this passage has been interpreted in a few ways: One way is that children are innocent. Since children cannot differentiate morally, they possess an inherent innocence. This can probably be better explained with a philosophy of law–e.g., mens rea (“guilty mind”) and actus reus (“guilty act”)–until turning blue in the face; however, this interpretation—while not wrong—places all the focus on avoiding or atoning wrongdoing in order to enter such a kingdom. Surely, there is more to experiencing the kingdom of God and bringing it about than this.
“The children are innocent”-interpretation can be a way of understanding what Jesus was saying according to the Gospels, but why settle on this interpretation alone if there is more that can be said of children and their attributes? During a recent trip to the U.S.-Mexico border with Colectivo Latinx Ministries of the United Church of Christ and Proyecto RGV, Edwin crossed into Reynosa, Tamaulipas (Mexico), where he worked with several non-profit organizations and churches in aiding immigrants waiting for their asylum cases to be heard by U.S. courts. During the initial unloading and disseminating of materials for the hundreds of people there, a little boy came up to him with an empty plastic bottle and a stick with which he was playing.
Initially, Edwin didn’t think much of it in the moment other than how cool it was that this little boy made his own toy or instrument to play with out in the desert/wilderness. Most adults did not have smiles on their faces. A gloom was present there as a blanket over the hundreds of people encamped. Edwin had wondered why it was that hardly no one was singing or dancing because music has always been a way of coping during difficult times for him. Their situation, however, was well beyond difficult; it was hell, although a better alternative than what violence, sickness, and death awaited them back home. There was no music nor play among adults, just concern for what and if they would eat and what business they had to do next. And yet, a child in this seemingly inappropriate time was there in the same place, playing despite their predicament.
It later occurred to Edwin that this child’s play or ability to play during this time in his life did not only serve him as a means to cope, but his orientation toward playing also played into his efforts to transcend surviving. Playing can most simply be defined as engaging in an activity for the sake of enjoyment, fun, or distraction. This boy’s act of play was this boy’s attempt to seek enjoyment and fun to distract himself from his and his family’s terrible circumstance.
Was it wrong for him to do so? Who would tell this boy that “it isn’t time to play?” And when one thinks about the words of Jesus about the kingdom of God belonging to the children and that we must be like children to experience the kingdom, one might have to rethink the usual interpretation considering the young immigrant boy playing in the borderlands of Reynosa.
In life you may not have the means to controlling what may be happening to you. You may even be discouraged from enjoying any little life left in you given all the hell that you most certainly didn’t bring upon yourself and that was brought upon you by outside forces/systems. I did not and could not tell the adults in the camp who left behind nothing but suffering to give it their last attempt to secure a life worth living that they needed to smile more, play more, or enjoy more. But the presence of the child and children among them was a reminder–perhaps a lesson–namely, that we fight for abundant life because we have enjoyed it, and such enjoyment is the reason we wish survive.
We might be surprised and realize that playing is not just an act of survival, but of thriving, or efforts to thrive amid the deadly threats against our living. Despite the voice in your head that tells you it is not time for play or to enjoy the life that God has given you, let the words of Jesus remind you that you must be like a child to experience the kingdom of God from which God’s presence reigns. Amid your problems, find time to play. Amid your predicaments, find time to play. Amid your pain, find time to play. Remind yourself why you must push through. Let play be prophetic in providing you practice so you may continue to enjoy life when things get better. For some, tomorrow will never be. So, take the time to play—enjoy life, whatever little or much you may have of it–as a God-ordained and life-giving thing.