I imagine the disciples walking along the road somewhere between towns, the dust rising from the ground as they walk and covering their feet, coating their robes, and getting into their faces and hair. Somewhere along the way, someone -- probably Peter, James or John -- mentions how much he's missed out on for this life he's chosen.
It's a mostly innocuous remark. Peter probably was thinking of the time he wasn't getting to spend with his wife; or John or James were thinking of the role they had had in the family business and what they stood to lose in terms of financial security. But the thought, once voiced, prompted a snort from someone else who had given up even more, and soon an idle complaint induced by the heat of the day and the weariness of the road had swollen into a top-this sort of argument over who had given up more. From there, it's only a matter of time until someone says, "Well, whatever I've given up, it was worth it to me. Following Jesus means that much to me, and I'd give up everything I have to follow him."
From there it just goes downhill. Everyone's got to prove that he loves Jesus more than the others do, and what it boils down to, though probably no one will say it, is simply this: Who's the greatest in the Kingdom of God?
I imagine that by this point Jesus is tired of the discussion. It's a favorite theme for the disciples, if the gospels are to be taken seriously, and we can only imagine how exasperating it must be to hear your twelve students once again picking up the refrain of "I love God more than you do" when a major part of your message is to forget yourself.
So Jesus, when he hears what they're quarreling about (again), and no doubt feeling a little exhausted from the road himself, sits down, puts a child on his lap and says, "Whoever wants to be first in my kingdom must be like this child."
I was taught for years that what he meant was he expects us to believe like children do: accepting what they're told at face value and not questioning it, and stuff like that. That's actually a great idea if you're trying to pass on an ideology or to maintain an institution, but it sure sucks for making intelligent people who can think for themselves. (Although it does encourage intelligent people to parrot what they've heard or to find incredibly well thought-out justifications and proofs for what they've beent told to believe.)
A couple things bother me about this understanding of Jesus' teaching. For one, it's terribly condescending to children in its assumption that they just believe whatever they're told. Children are smarter than we usually give them credit for, and they do get the difference between metaphor or fiction and reality if we let them. It doesn't take a particularly sharp kid to do the math and see the problems Noah would have getting two of every animal onto an ark, nor does it take a genius to see how far some people have gone in trying to make the Noah story sound rational and scientifically viable.
The other thing is that this interpretation focuses on the substance of faith and not its nature. It emphasizes the importance of believing a set of doctrines over the importance of actually putting faith into action. It suggests that having a set of intellectual attitudes and beliefs is more important than bringing those beliefs to bear in the real world. And that's just plain wrong.
What we often forget is that Christianity isn't a European or Western religion at all. It's an Eastern religion, and the culture it came from is a culture that was holistic before being holistic became trendy. Here in the West we have creeps saying things like "I love my wife and kids deep down, where it counts" while they betray them in adulterous relationships; or we have politicians flattering religious conservatives with talk about "family values" while they make it harder on working families to catch a break. In the West, we don't so readily see a disconnect there; in the East, where Christianity was born, they properly call that bullshit. You cannot love your family while you cheat on your wife; you cannot care about family values while you add burden after burden to families; and you cannot value truth if you lie.
This sort of outward display of righteousness comes fairly naturally to adults, but it's not that natural for kids, who bring a lot of enthusiasm to their faith. My kids love Jesus with an intensity that awes me. I've watched Evangeline struggle hard to incorporate his teachings into her life, seeking to do right by her classmates, even when they hassle her at school; and trying to intercede when her best friend retaliates on someone who's been picking on them. (Evangeline's actually taken some pretty big hits from her friend for trying to defuse that sort of situation.)
Compare that straightforward desire to love Jesus and live as he wants us to, with the faith adults have. We often rationalize our way out of forgiving, out of loving, out of giving, and too often are willing to tolerate or overlook injustice when it doesn't directly affect us and to tell ourselves that "there's nothing we can do" when there is -- if we were only willing to do it.
It seems to me that that natural, holistic approach to faith is what Jesus wants us to model.