Jesus tells us that we receive the kingdom as a little child. What in the world did he mean? How do we become as a little child?
The Gospel reading for Sunday, October 7, 2018 is a longer passage in Mark about divorce and children. In a prior passage, Jesus taught his disciples that the antidote to their narcissism was to be welcoming to the lowest members of society. However, in this passage, Jesus shifts his focus to the actual behavior and characteristics of children which are worthy of emulation in kingdom seeking disciples.
People were bringing little children to him 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. Mark 10:13–16
We shouldn't be surprised that the disciples have so easily forgotten the lesson of Mark 9:30-37 about welcoming the child. They are portrayed as rather stubborn and difficult of learning throughout this Gospel especially.
- Why are the people bringing the children to be touched by Jesus? Most likely they were seeking a blessing from Jesus, as a blessing could often be communicated through both words and a physical touch. Baptists sometimes accompany ordination services with the "laying on of hands" which is understood to channel blessing. Also, it could have been that some of the children were sick and their parents had heard that Jesus had healed others through his touch.
- Why did the disciples speak "sternly" to those bringing children? Perhaps it was their history of narcissism, of seeking their own greatness. Perhaps they thought they were the gatekeepers to Jesus, and Jesus could not be bothered with persons as lowly as mere children. Perhaps they were still smarting over their failure to successfully cast out the spirit from the young boy which prompted Jesus to say that "this kind can come out only through prayer." Mark 9:29.
- Why was Jesus indignant? This raises a host of interesting issues. The word ἀγανακτέω means angry or indignant. Much of Christian theology, prompted by a desire to portray God as impassive (cannot experience emotions), has interpreted any reference to Jesus' anger as merely metaphorical or human projection. Surely the God of the Universe could not experience anger, many theologians asked rhetorically? My own view is that Jesus really did experience emotions as the text says he did. If we take the text at face value, and further accept that Jesus' humanity was real, then it should not be difficult to accept that Jesus could be indignant. We could think of feeling indignant as a kind of righteous anger prompted by the disciples unjust act of preventing children from seeing Jesus.
- What does it mean to receive the kingdom "as a little child"? Jesus phrases this as an exclusive requirement. We must receive the kingdom "as a little child" or we "will never enter it." I'll devote the rest of this blog to answering this important question.
I think that our common sense interpretation of this passage is probably not far off from what Jesus meant. By that, I mean we all associate certain qualities with children that can illuminate this text. A child is born into this world:
- Without the ability to protect or feed itself;
- Entirely reliant on others for their care and keeping;
- Without the cynicism of our age with its distrust of genuine expression and others' motives.
These are physical and psychological realities which you could nuance with your understanding of nature vs. nurture and special exceptions. Put into theological terms, to be a like a child then is to be entirely reliant on God's grace for entry into the kingdom. The Bible uses different metaphors to capture the reality of becoming a child of God. Paul speaks of adoption (a metaphor dear to my heart) in Galatians 4:4-5. Paul also speaks of inheritance and becoming part of the family of God in Romans chapters 4 and 8.
The power of thinking of human beings before God as little children is that it captures an essential element of biblical theology: that we are all born into this world in fundamental equality before God. All must receive grace in order to enter the kingdom. No person merits grace. No person earns his or her way in.
I believe Jesus was continuing his lesson from Mark 9:30-37 when the disciples were arguing about who would be the greatest. The reason this has to be repeated over and over again is that the disciples (and of course, we!) don't get it. In just a few verses, James and John will come to Jesus and ask to sit at his left and right hand "in your glory." They still didn't get it. The kingdom of God is not about seeking our own glory. It begins with a recognition that our own spiritual poverty (apart from God) won't do us any good. This is why Jesus says in his very first beatitude "Blessed are the poor in spirit."
So, to be "as a little child" means we cannot rely on our own accomplishments and "greatness." Instead, we must be solely reliant upon the will and grace of God. There is so much more to the story, of course. The rest of the story is nothing short of our whole lives as disciples.
But here Jesus is talking about just entering the Kingdom. And in order to "enter" you must be reliant on God's grace alone.
Painting attribution: Lucas Cranach the Elder [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons