February 8, 2015
“Those All Important Children”
The Re. Maren Sonstegard-Spray
13 People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. 14 But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. 15 Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” 16 And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.
Look at the painting on the bulletin cover – is that how you picture this story? Clean, beautiful children, gazing adoringly at Jesus, while he stares adoringly back. What was wrong with the disciples that they would want to stop such a heart-warming scene? Is Jesus saying that the kingdom of heaven belongs to children like this – innocent and eager, delighting to be embraced by God?
What if it didn’t look this way? What if the scene was quite different? First of all, picture it louder and busier. We are told just before this story that Jesus had traveled to a new area in Judea beyond the Jordan.
And even as he went crowds found him, and surrounded him on all sides, eager to hear him speak. He would have sat down in the position of a teacher while people sat or stood around him, straining to hear his voice.
And Pharisees come then and ask him questions. They want test him, to see if he really knows the law – perhaps they can even trick him, and they can get him to say something that they can use against him. But they are not there to learn. They are not there to hear something new
Then come the children. We are not told where Jesus is when this happens. If he is inside, picture a crowded room. If he is outside, picture a crowd around Jesus, sitting or standing.
And through these crowds come parents carrying their children. The text tells us that they are bringing their little children to Jesus that he might touch them. There are some commentators who point out that every other time the word “touch” (apto) is used in Mark’s account, it is part of a healing.
Could it be that these parents are desperately pushing their way to Jesus carrying their sick, dying and disabled children, begging for healing?
When I was growing up a family moved in around the block who had a little girl who was deaf. My sister and I would go play at her house and she and her mom would teach us sign language which we thought was awesome. My sister and I learned how to sign our names, and we learned a little more with each visit.
I remember when the mother was teaching us how to say “child” and she said her daughter hated the sign for “kid.” The sign for child is as if you are patting the head of a child in front of you, but the sign for kid looks like a kid with a snotty nose.
Maybe we can understand why the disciples did what they did. There would have been snot, and vomit, and diarrhea, and coughing and crying, so much crying. It would have been chaotic and messy.
I remember getting off the plane in Cairo, Egypt during a trip with seminary classmates and heading towards customs and the mass of people trying to make their way through, and there were no lines, no ropes, no dividers, no wait-your-turn and definitely no “please you go ahead, you were here first” – you pushed your way through, squeezed yourself in where you could- it didn’t matter how long the people had been waiting behind you. Our guide said that was just part of the culture.
I imagine that was what it was like when people want to get to Jesus.
Perhaps the disciples are thinking that they are being noble – how can Jesus teach with all this noise and disruption?
Perhaps they even thought that Jesus had more important things to do then tend to these sick children after all 60% of first century Middle Eastern children died by their 16th birthday.
Already in Mark’s account we have read about the synagogue leader’s daughter who had died of illness, the syrophoenician woman’s daughter who was ill, and a man’s son who was demon-possessed. Perhaps, they thought, it was a waste of Jesus’ time. Perhaps the felt like they already knew what God cared about.
Culturally speaking, children were not valuable, they were vulnerable. I remember hearing that for the first time in seminary, while studying the New Testament. In our time of helicopter parents and hallmark commercials and fertility treatments for people who want a child so badly, it is hard to imagine children being so devalued.
But there are places in our world where children are the most vulnerable – places where children are sold, where extended family cannot afford to take in the orphans, where the child mortality rate is much higher than it should be.
Children were the weakest and had the least amount of power. They were seen as a liability, especially to impoverished families. They only meant something when they could contribute to family resources rather than just consume them. And to the disciples, perhaps, the children mattered least of all, in all the concerns of Jesus.
Jesus rebukes them. “Rebuked”, in the Greek epitimao, is a strong word, one often used against demons and demonic powers in Mark. Discovering the disciples turning the children away, Jesus was indignant, in the Greek aganakteo, also a strong word. It meant displeasure, annoyance, strong irritation, and is used only here in Mark’s gospel.
This is not the first time Jesus has rebuked the disciples from stopping something from happening, and not the first time he has spoken to them about children.
Just a chapter before the disciples had been arguing about who was the greatest among them, and Jesus takes a little child in his arms and says, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.”
In the kingdom of God, which we live out even now, children are not to be turned away just because they are small and powerless. Turn away any who are weak and vulnerable and you are not in the kingdom.
Jesus then says, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.
Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”
Whenever Jesus says “Truly I tell you” that is our signal to pay close attention.
So what do we take away from all this?
First, that we must be careful not to deem something or someone too unimportant for God’s attention. The disciples thought they knew what mattered and they thought they knew who mattered and even tried to figure out who among themselves mattered most. And God in Jesus Christ tells us over and over, that God is on the side of the most vulnerable.
Second, Jesus draws out attention to what we must be like to enter the kingdom, to be a part of the kingdom – humble. Be like a child who has no strength or ability or power to win salvation or earn God’s love, but can only receive the blessing, in the end, that Jesus gives.
Author Mark Yaconelli writes about his wife blessing their children: “Every morning in our home my wife calls my two sons over to the couch, put her arms around them and holds them. She talks softly to them, strokes their hair, and rubs their backs. I often notice this morning ritual but never asked her why she did it.
One recent morning we were late to an appointment. Just as we were about to go out the door, Jill called the boys over to the couch and began her normal routine of slowly holding them and stroking them. I quickly began to complain, emphasizing how important it was for us to get out the door. My wife stopped me in midsentence and said, “Listen, if these boys don’t start the day being held and loved, they won’t be able to be themselves for the rest of the day.” To enter the kingdom of God as a child means that we find ourselves only when we know God’s embrace, God’s blessing.
The longer I am at this the more I am convinced that our path towards greater intimacy with God and greater wisdom is not towards self-confidence or self-importance or absolute assurances. Our path is to become more humble – in the face of the awesomeness of God, in the face of the mystery of God, to know our own weakness, our own vulnerability and to know that our strength is only in Christ.
To be childlike in this context does not mean simple or innocent, it means full awareness of our precarious state, of our vulnerability, of our lack of status.
In the first century Middle Eastern culture, the child was radically dependent on their father – the father decided if the child would even be accepted into the family. So to receive the kingdom like a child refers to the radical dependence of the child on the father for any status, inheritance, or for life itself. Jesus was telling us and the disciples that we are radically dependent upon God’s grace.
We do not enter the kingdom based on the success of our family lives. We do not enter the kingdom because we know all the answers, and have done everything right, or because we pray well or enough. We do not enter the kingdom of the basis of our greatness or success at anything. The trick it seems is to be less concerned with ourselves altogether. God brings us into the kingdom. We cannot make it happen otherwise. Thanks be to God.