Close your eyes and, as you read our Gospel passage for today, imagine as though it were a play being acted out on your mental stage.
“People were bringing little children to Jesus in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. 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. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.”
Let me guess what your imagined play looked like. The sky was a pale blue with wispy clouds. A gentle breeze lifted the soft, probably blonde or light brown, hair of the well-fed, rosy-cheeked, probably white-skinned children as their nicely-dressed parents brought them to Jesus. Jesus sits on a rock under a shady tree, smiling gently, until he hears the disciples speaking sternly to—whom? The children, who might be wiggling and giggling, as children do, or their parents, for having the audacity to bother the teacher?
Jesus is indignant, and now it’s the disciples’ turn for a talking-to. Maybe he gets up from his seat on the rock so he can look these guys right in the eye when he tells them, in no uncertain terms, to let the little children come to him. You watch as he continues with those memorable lines, “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.” In the final moments of the scene, Jesus sits back down and, with a beaming smile, opens his arms wide to embrace and bless the children.
That’s the way this scene is usually depicted. If you do an image search on Google, or look through an illustrated Bible, or even come across a stained-glass window showing this scene, that’s how it looks: happy, healthy children, embraced by a smiling Jesus, under sunny skies. It’s a picture that captures our ideas of childhood as a time of innocence—a time of joyfully giving and receiving love, without any doubts that it will be offered or returned. It’s a time of complete dependency but also a time of complete trust that we will be cherished—that our needs will be met—all as an unearned gift.
That’s the image that shapes our understanding of Jesus’ words about the kingdom of God. We hear him saying that to enter God’s kingdom, we need to abandon all the baggage we carry as adults. That baggage includes a sense of self-sufficiency that comes with a secure job or a good pension, a paid-for house or paid-up rent, skills that we are confident will see us through if we hit a rough patch. We may carry a certainty that our lives are superior to others, and that we have a guaranteed seat on the way to the kingdom while others are flying stand-by.
We may have emotional baggage to jettison, too, like our fear that we’re not good enough for God to love us. No matter how often we hear that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us out of his love for us, we often still have that niggling doubt in the back of our minds. Or, no matter how often we sing of our trust in God’s steadfast love, our experiences with less-than-steadfast human love causes us to hang back a bit, to make sure we don’t get hurt again. We may come with the certainty that our lives are superior to others’—that we have a guaranteed seat on the way to the kingdom, while others have to fly stand-by.
We interpret our passage to mean that if we approach the gates of the kingdom carrying suitcases full of adult complexities with us, we’re likely to find the gates locked up tight. We hear Jesus saying that, instead, we need to come with the same unencumbered innocence and joy as the child of our imaginations. We are to come, knowing that we are unable to provide for ourselves what we truly need. We come with a complete reliance on God to give us what we can’t provide for ourselves and with the certainty that God will come through. We open ourselves completely to loving the Lord our God with all our heart and soul and might, unhaunted by the ghosts of disappointment in human love. By returning to this childlike state of trusting love, we are welcomed into the kingdom of God.
That understanding is correct. But it may not be what Jesus intended to communicate, as Mark tells the story. When we read it, we apply all of our modern, western, rather romantic notions of what childhood means and the place that children have in our social world. These days, with helicopter parents and social scientists who say that “25 is the new 18,” childhood extends into the mid-20s. But, in Jesus’ world, children were not necessarily seen the same way. You weren’t likely to see “precious cargo” bumper stickers on the hindquarters of a donkey or the chariot on the road in front of you.
Of course, parents loved their children, and children displayed the same qualities that children always have. But, in Jesus’ time, children and childhood were seen differently. The childhood years were short. Girls were married off in their early teens and boys not much later. Boys were seen as an insurance policy that would maintain the family fortune. Girls were the means to expanding it through beneficial alliances. In poor families, children of both genders would have become part of the family workforce at a tender age.
Children in the 1st century occupied the lowest rung of the social ladder. In Roman culture children weren’t even considered part of the family until the father officially declared the child to be his. It was legal to leave babies, especially girl babies, outside at birth to die of exposure. Children belonged to their father and were expected to bow to his authority even when they became adults. Children were, in effect, “non-persons” in their own right—powerless, without recourse to resources outside their families, totally dependent for status, for identity, and even for life itself.
Keeping that in mind, let’s back up to an incident that happened earlier in Capernaum. Jesus had heard the disciples arguing on their way there. When he asked them what the argument had been about, all you could hear were crickets. No one wanted to admit that they’d been arguing about which one of them was the greatest, and by greatest they meant who was the most important, who among them had the most ability, the most virtue, authority, and power. Wouldn’t you have been embarrassed to admit that to Jesus, too?
Jesus showed them just how wrong-headed their argument was. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all,” he said. Then he took a child in his arms to help teach the disciples this important lesson. He embraced that child because, in that culture, a child really was the last of all. A child was the least powerful, the least independent, the most vulnerable creature in that society.
In many ways, a child was the greatest outsider of all. And Jesus is all about the outsiders. The poor and the sick, foreigners and Roman soldiers, tax collectors and women of ill-repute, people who are so desperate they’re willing to make a spectacle of themselves to get his attention. You’d think the disciples would have figured out that humility carried more weight with Jesus than any kind of power or position. But he had to spell it out for them, and a child—a powerless, vulnerable child—helped him do it.
Fast forward to our story. Mark simply says that “people” were bringing their children to Jesus. Who were these people, I wonder? Given the negative opinion of the religious authorities and Jesus’ obvious concern for the poor and the outcast, my guess is that they were not influential people looking for a photo opp with a traveling celebrity. My guess is that these were the poor, who hoped that a blessing from Jesus would ensure a better life for their children. Maybe they came, dressed in dirty work clothes, smelling of sweat and animals. Maybe they were dressed in styles that marked them as aliens. Maybe their children were crying—from an untreated earache or an empty belly. Maybe they were exactly the people Jesus had such great compassion for.
It’s no wonder that Jesus becomes indignant when his disciples try to prevent these people and their children from intruding on the circle around Jesus. Jesus turns to the disciples and drives the point home: the kingdom of God is intended precisely for these outsiders whom the disciples are trying to exclude—the powerless, the poor, the voiceless, those most at risk. It’s for those who can approach the kingdom knowing that admission is pure gift, that they are totally dependent on the grace and generosity of the giver, and that they have nothing to offer in exchange except their lives and their love. “If you can’t approach the kingdom with hearts in the same state as theirs,” he says, “you’ll never get in.” And then he wraps these children in his arms and blesses them.
Now when you imagine this story, what do you see? Do you see parents who are desperate with hope for their children? Do you see children whose skin colors don’t stop at creamy white? Do you hear voices speaking in languages other than your own? Do you see children whose bodies are feverish with malaria or weary from long treks to escape danger and poverty in their homelands? Do you see stomachs distended with hunger, and eyes glazed over from the lead in their drinking water or fear of violence in their homes or neighborhoods? Instead of children with rosy cheeks, do you see children whose faces are streaked with tears?
Jesus does. Jesus sees them and wraps them in his arms, signaling his love for them and his oneness with them. Those who are the ultimate outsiders in our world are the ultimate insiders in his kingdom, and Jesus calls us to be like them.
That doesn’t mean that we have to sell our homes, leave our jobs, give away all that we have, and move as a refugee to a country that doesn’t want us. But it does mean that we need to adopt the same mentality as the most vulnerable people in our world. We need a true realization that we are helpless creatures, totally dependent on God’s grace for our very lives. We need to love God with the kind of abandon that can only come from a heart that has nothing to lose—a hear that is sure in the knowledge that God is our only hope and confident that our hope won’t disappoint us. We are to come with the humility of those who know themselves to be last in the world.
Jesus also calls us to mirror his solidarity with them. He calls us to love our neighbors as ourselves, and they are our neighbors. We are to stand with them when the powers of the world stand against them. Jesus showed his oneness with the vulnerable by taking them in his arms. He calls us to embrace them in the same way, not with words alone but in our actions. Maybe that means working in ministries that open the doors to outsiders, whoever they may be in our community. Maybe it means voting for those who will also stand with the powerless, who will defend the vulnerable, who will speak for the voiceless. Jesus embraced the little ones in his society. He embraces the little ones in ours, and he calls us as his followers to do the same.
Last week we reflected on the words of Deuteronomy called “the Shema,” words we heard once again today. They include ways to help God’s people keep God’s law front and center in our lives. The Shema says that the words of God’s law should be visible in ways we can’t forget them. While these words are taken literally by some people of the Jewish faith, they can also be understood as a metaphor. God’s commandments are to be so much a part of our lives that they can be seen in how we order our home lives and our public lives. They should inform our thoughts and our speech, from the time our feet hit the floor in the morning ‘til we turn out the lights at night.
Although some of the specific laws we find in the Bible are clearly ones that applied only to the culture of the ancient Israelites, at their heart they are intended to help God’s people live according to what Jesus called the greatest commandment: to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and our neighbor as ourselves. Jesus shows us that, not only do we keep and teach this commandment in our hearts, we make our love for God visible in our actions, especially to our most vulnerable neighbor.
“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. And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.” We enter the kingdom of God as little children—joyful and accepting. We also enter it as people who accept that we have the same lowly status as children of the 1st century—completely dependent on God, with nothing we can use to earn God’s love and only our lives and our love to offer in return. We enter it by standing with the most vulnerable people in our world—embracing and blessing its children, no matter what their ages. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young