13 People were bringing children to Jesus so that he would bless them. But the disciples scolded them. 14 When Jesus saw this, he grew angry and said to them, “Allow the children to come to me. Don’t forbid them, because God’s kingdom belongs to people like these children. 15 I assure you that whoever doesn’t welcome God’s kingdom like a child will never enter it.” 16 Then he hugged the children and blessed them. (CEB)
Let Them Come
As a parent, I wonder what the Disciples’s problem was.
Did they not have children of their own, so they didn’t see the importance of allowing children to be blessed?
Did they think Jesus was too busy to be bothered with children, who, in the Disciples’ patriarchal society, were some of the least valued and most vulnerable?
Were the children making a scene, as children are often capable of doing, and the Disciples wanted to clear them out for the sake of some peace and quiet?
We don’t really know for certain, but in the greater scheme of Mark’s narrative this is one more example of how the Disciples just didn’t get this Kingdom of God thing that Jesus was preaching. It’s the continuation of a negative portrayal of the Disciples in this section of Mark’s Gospel, beginning in the middle of chapter 8 and continuing through the end of chapter 10 (8:22-10:52). This negative portrayal shows us that the Disciples were constantly concerned with positions of power and influence, and they were constantly getting it wrong.
So, perhaps what the Disciples were really concerned about here was that, if these parents were bringing their children to Jesus for a blessing, children who have no status in their society, then they were essentially taking up the Disciples’s precious time with Jesus. Maybe they thought these children didn’t have a claim on Jesus, they didn’t have a right to be there. Children certainly weren’t more important than them. Likely, in their humble opinions, the Disciples were the important ones. They were the chosen followers of Jesus. They were hand-picked by Jesus, himself. They should get the majority of Jesus’ time and attention. They deserved the blessings. These parents, by bringing their silly children to Jesus for a blessing they probably didn’t deserve, were getting in the way.
It’s interesting that we aren’t told specifically who the Disciples were rebuking: were they rebuking the children, or the parents who were bringing them to Jesus for a blessing? One thing that is certain: we know toward whom Jesus directed his anger. We’re told that Jesus became angry at what he saw the Disciples doing in turning the children away.
Some translations render the Greek word here as indignant or angry. I kind of like the old King James rendering, which says Jesus was “much displeased” (KJV). The Disciples were trying to exclude those whom their society and culture deemed unworthy, while Jesus constantly had to remind the Disciples that his ministry is one of inclusion: even to children and the women who were most likely the ones bringing them forward to be blessed by this holy man. The Disciples were trying to enforce the social norms of the day, while Jesus was more or less smashing them to bits because the social norms of any human culture aren’t necessarily the norms of God’s Kingdom.
Today is World Communion Sunday. I have to admit that I’ve always thought of World Communion Sunday as a bit of a bad joke. After all, we’re United Methodists, we’re Wesleyans, and if we know anything about John Wesley’s theology or the practical divinity of Methodism, we know that every Sunday should be World Communion Sunday. Wesley insisted that his Methodists received the sacrament at least weekly because it’s the grand channel of God’s grace. Even more so than breakfast, it’s a meal that’s too important—too beneficial—to skip.
Nevertheless, the one thing that World Communion Sunday has going for it, in my mind, is that it does attempt to remind us of the universality of God’s grace, and that the Gospel, the Good News of God’s Kingdom, and the salvation offered to all in Jesus Christ, is world-wide. The Good News is open to all people of all cultures and all nations. No one is left outside the possibility of God’s redemptive grace, from those who are seemingly the most important people in the world to those who are wrongly thought of as the non-essentials of our various cultures. The Christian church is world-wide, and despite what our culture—or any other culture—thinks of the worthiness of certain people, all are invited by God to enter God’s Kingdom.
Still, the meaning of what Jesus is teaching the Disciples here can get away from us first-world, 21st century folk. When we hear Jesus talk about children like this, we tend to romanticize the whole thing. We tend to put children on a pedestal: thinking them to be unspoiled and innocent little creatures. My assumption is that most of the people who have this romanticized idea about children either never were parents, or they’ve suffered a brain injury of some sort that has completely wiped their memory of parenthood.
As a father of three, I have absolutely no idealistic notions of the innocence of children. I tend to agree with the person who suggested that children are the perfect theological cure for anyone who says they don’t believe in original sin. Innocence of children? My foot!
The Greco-Roman world didn’t have any of our modern romanticized ideas of the innocence of children either. Jesus didn’t say that we have to receive the Kingdom of God as a little child because children are innocent. None of us can do that because none of us are innocent. Jesus said we need to receive the Kingdom of God as a little child because, in that first century Greco-Roman, male-centered world, children were completely dependent upon their father for everything. Children belonged to their father and remained subject to his authority even as adults. Children were the non-persons in that world. They had nothing, and they couldn’t get anything unless someone gave it to them. They were dependent upon their father for their status, their inheritance, even for the means of life itself. Children received everything as a gift, and that kind of receiving is the only way we can enter the Kingdom of God.
No one enters the Kingdom of God because of their status or their influence, which is what the Disciples kept fighting about. No one enters because of who they are. We don’t get to check our accomplishments off a list and say, Look at what I’ve done, God, you know I deserve to make the cut. Mark emphasized that entrance into the Kingdom of God is wholly and completely dependent upon God’s grace. God has offered this gift to all people—Jesus died for all people—; we have only to receive it as a gift.
Sometimes we’re a lot like the Disciples. We have this seemingly natural urge to want to fence people out. We tend to want to exclude people who, in our judgment, are unworthy to receive the Kingdom of God. Sometimes we forget that God’s perspective is different from ours. Psalm 14 can help adjust our view by reminding us that, “The LORD looks down from heaven on humans to see if anyone is wise, to see if anyone seeks God, but all of them have turned bad. Everyone is corrupt. No one does good—not even one person!” (Psalm 14:2-3 CEB). And this same God who sees this in us as he looks upon us from the throne—for some unfathomable reason—chooses to cover us with grace each day, worked out a way to forgive us, recklessly desires to be reconciled to us, and unimaginably offers the Kingdom to us.
Of course, that’s not to say that we shouldn’t strive for perfection in holiness and love. In another place, Jesus tells us to “be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48 NRSV). And Paul tells us, “I desire that you insist on these things, so that those who have come to believe in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works; these things are excellent and profitable to everyone” (Titus 3:8 NRSV). Yet, even as we devote ourselves to holiness and good work, we must recognize that all is gift. All is grace. Outside of God’s grace we have nothing.
The reality of being a child of God is that it has nothing at all to do with one’s age. According to what Jesus is telling us in this text, the oldest person in this room had better be child-like in their receptiveness of the Kingdom of God. God’s Kingdom is a gift offered to us, and we must receive the gift with the understanding that we are completely dependent upon God for our salvation.
The invitation list to enter the Kingdom of God is longer than we can possibly imagine. How shall we respond when we see the least, the non-persons of our culture, coming forward to receive it? Do we act like the Disciples and attempt to fence them out and tell them they don’t belong here? Or do we welcome them with the radical hospitality of Jesus and embrace them with the loving recognition that the Kingdom of God belongs to them?
The reason Jesus got angry at his Disciples is because they thought it was their job to blacklist certain people from receiving God’s abundant blessings of grace: a grace that we are all radically dependent upon. None of us can set the conditions for entrance into God’s Kingdom. We must receive the Kingdom as a child, not because we’re innocent—clearly we’re not—but because, like children, we are utterly in need, wholly reliant, completely dependent upon the grace of God.
And if we’re eager to receive this gift, we should be eager to see that others receive it as well. The Good News of Jesus Christ is proclaimed for all to hear, and the Kingdom of God is open for anyone who would receive it. Thanks be to God that such grace extends even to us!
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!