WELCOMING THE CHILD-LIKE AND THE CHILDISH
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.
“…when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them,“Let the little children come to me;
Jesus is indignant. The disciples have taken it upon themselves to prevent parents from bringing their children to him. In real life, however, this actually is not too surprising. Imagine yourself in a group discussion and parents started interrupting the teacher by asking the teacher to touch their children. Ordinary courtesy would require the parents to wait their turn. It would be hard for the speaker to maintain a thread of thought and hard for listeners to follow if there were constant interruptions. So the disciples were well within normal limits when they tried to limit interruptions.
But Jesus was not pleased. My guess is that at least two things were going on. First, I imagine Jesus had difficulty with the disciples thinking for him. They were busy fixing a problem that wasn’t a problem for Jesus. They simply assumed the job of crowd control. That might be eminently reasonable but they didn’t check with the person they were protecting. In real life unsolicited help is often poorly received. I learned a long time ago to precede any advice or help I might offer with the words, “I have a suggestion if you want it.” Anytime we assume what is best, we are at risk. Our assumptions preclude listening.
Second, I believe Jesus was challenging a particular human assumption about the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is vastly more inclusive than any earthly kingdom. Children did not have social standing in the first century society. Jesus welcomes them. Samaritans, women, lepers, sinners, the unclean and literally all who Jesus encountered were welcomed—even those who were his enemies. I imagine Jesus’ indignation was a result of his frustration with the disciples. “How many times do I have to tell you—All are welcome!”
We are not immune to similar thick headedness. Who in our lives, do we listen to and who do we dismiss? Inter-personally, we do not get to decide who is important nor we do get to decide what is important to other people. Yet, all too often we have internal assumptions and criteria. Distinguished people with letters behind their name should be listened to. Interrupting children should be seen and not heard. Fox news should be listened to—CNN, not so much—-or the reverse. Whenever we use categories and stereotypes we risk missing individual people. There is no limit on God’s care.
“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 our faith in real life groups, we talked a lot about innocence, a capacity for wonder and fundamental vulnerability as the qualities that Jesus might have been talking about when he said: “for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” It takes most of us a while to learn the patina of the proper that we call adulthood. Until then, it would not occur to a child not to cry when hungry or laugh at the ridiculous. It is a gift to live in the present. It is a gift, though a frightening one, to live knowing that life itself is dependent upon others.
But as we talked about child-like qualities we might want to emulate, it occurred to me that children are just as often childish. They are demanding, whiny, self centered and adversarial. It is important that we not idealize and romanticize children and childhood. It is hard to be a child and it is hard to raise one.
Whimsical fantasies about reliving childhood forget how difficult and frightening a large part of childhood is. The world is frightening enough for grown ups but it can be terrifying for a child. Whether it is with yelling parents or yelling nations, children must manage feelings and actions way beyond their ability to cope. And that doesn’t count the children who are homeless, who are hungry and who are regularly abused and exploited. Very few of us would really like to be children again.
In real life, children have the same mix of human strengths, frailties and vulnerabilities as any adult. And Jesus welcomed them. Jesus did not say, bring me the children filled with awe and wonder. He did not say, bring me the well mannered and obedient, He said, bring me the children. It is actually difficult to grasp how deeply loving and inclusive Jesus is. We can hardly stop ourselves from trying to identify the traits that will give us a ticket to the kingdom. If we can just identify those—and work really hard—we too, can get in. We miss entirely that entry into the kingdom is not up to us. There is not an entrance exam. There is no passing grade. We cannot figure out who belongs by age, ethnicity, theological belief, political affiliation or faithful church attendance. We have no right to exclude anyone. Jesus didn’t.
“And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.”
We are all childish and we are all child-like. Entering the Kingdom means trusting that God really does accept us as we are. There are many other words to be written about how we respond to that gift but grace starts with God’s inclusive embrace. I’m sure there were churlish children, sweet children, crying babies, and shy children hiding behind their mothers. Jesus picked them up, held them and blessed them.
In the midst of societal dismissal, profound vulnerability and forces way beyond our control, Jesus said Welcome. Here is a place you can feel safe. Here is a place you can be seen, heard and loved.
That’s what it means to enter the Kingdom of God. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” Let it be so.
Vernon Gramling is a Parrish Associate at DPC. He has been providing pastoral care and counseling for over 45 years. You can find more about Vernon, the Faith in Real Life gatherings and Blog at our staff page or FIRL.