October 4, 2015
Imagine two pictures depicting these words from Mark’s gospel. The first portrays children –angelic, adoring children – gathered around Jesus. Perhaps Jesus is sitting, so there’s at least one chubby toddler in his lap, or he is holding a baby while laying his hands on another child’s head. The children gaze up at Jesus in wonder and love, and Jesus gazes at them with a beatific smile and eyes full of love.
Second picture: sweet, precious children gathered around Jesus. One child is gazing adoringly at Jesus. The child sitting next to the adoring child is pinching the adoring child. The baby Jesus is holding is screaming because she’s hungry and tired. A toddler in the group keeps trying to escape only to be brought back by a mother with dark circles of exhaustion under her eyes. Two little kids sitting a ways off are whispering and giggling. They don’t seem to notice the fact that their father’s eyes are boring holes into them, or his “stop it now or you are going to be in so much trouble when we get home” look. And let’s not forget the child who is interrupting Jesus with questions and comments, or the other child who continues to pull her robe over her head so her best friend can see her belly button.
I love the hopefulness of first picture. I’m sure I saw many a version of this picture in my Sunday school classes and in children’s bibles when I was growing up. If you google this text, you can discover many illustrations by a variety of artists. Some are more realistic and engaging than others. The best of these also show the disciples standing nearby looking stern and bewildered at their teacher having to deal with the tedious chore of blessing babies. But all of them seem to show a scene that is closer to the first one I described than the second. They portray children who are pretty close to being perfect looking lovingly at Jesus.
I’m not trying to poke too much fun at the first image. I can well imagine that the children who were brought to Jesus probably did look at him with such love and wonder. I have witnessed the effect that a person filled with compassion and love and gentleness can have on little ones – and on bigger ones as well. I have no trouble believing that the children brought to Jesus responded to his tender and gentle manner and soul. But I also wonder if our interpretation of this story – at least how that interpretation has been reflected in art – has become a hindrance to our understanding of this story and its deeper meaning.
Hindrance is the crucial word. The passage starts off simply enough. People were bringing their children to Jesus for blessing. But the disciples “spoke sternly” to the people doing this. I think this is a watered down translation of the Greek. The disciples were hindering the people from bringing their children to Jesus. To hinder is to impede or delay or hold back. When Jesus saw this, he was angry. Although he does not rebuke the disciples as he has in other passages, he tells them with great emphasis, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”
Just reading this exchange on its own, without knowledge of its context, is enough to make me join Jesus in his indignation with the disciples. But we are privy to what has been happening and what Jesus has been trying to teach the disciples “on the way.” Therefore, our indignation should be even greater.
If Jesus were a parent, I could imagine him responding with a phrase I’ve heard and said many, many times, “What. Did. I. Just. Tell. You?” Approximately 25 verses earlier, Jesus deflated the disciples’ argument about who among them was the greatest by taking a child into his arms. Whoever welcomes that child, he told them, welcomes him. When the disciples were peeved about the unknown disciple exorcising demons in Jesus’ name, Jesus reminded them that whoever was not against them was for them. He also warned the disciples in dramatically harsh language that whoever put a stumbling block in the path of someone who believed in Jesus would be better off being hurled into the sea with a millstone around his neck.
Yet once again, the disciples don’t get it. They tried to hinder the people bringing babies for blessing. Jesus was indeed indignant. “What did I just tell you? These are the stumbling blocks I warned you about. These are the children I told you to welcome. These are the last that will be made first. These are the ones to be served instead of the other way around. Don’t hinder them.”
Then Jesus finished his reprimand of the disciples with the words that are probably this story’s best known and remembered. “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”
There are two ways of translating and interpreting the Greek in this statement. The first is that if you want to enter the kingdom of God, you must become like a little child. This is the interpretation I have heard most often. The second possible translation is, if you want to enter the kingdom of God, you must welcome a little child. The second translation certainly fits with Jesus’ earlier teaching that welcoming a child was welcoming him.
It seems to me that both interpretations hold truth. As one commentator pointed out, the first interpretation leads to a great deal of sentimentality. If you want to enter God’s kingdom you have to be sweet and trusting, childlike in your faith, believing simply, without question. Have you ever spent time with a two-year-old who has learned the word, “no?” Or a four-year-old who asks why? All day long. Just being a child does not mean that you believe simply without question.
Do not misunderstand me. I love children. I love working with children and playing with children. But the first interpretation sets a standard for entering the kingdom that most of us can’t ever reach. It is unfair to us and to children. Children are not born perfect then become flawed as they grow older. Children are born real, and become more so. We were all born real, with real personalities and real temperaments and real strengths and real flaws. A childlike faith is not simplistic. A childlike faith, to paraphrase Frederick Buechner, is a faith that is open to all possibilities. Maybe that puts this first interpretation in a vastly different light. To receive the kingdom of God, we must be open to all the possibilities of what the kingdom is and how the kingdom looks.
The second interpretation is equally important. In order to receive the kingdom, we have to be willing to welcome children. Remember that argument the disciples had about who was the greatest? Wasn’t it also about who carried the most status? Children were loved and cared for, but they did not have status. Isn’t it tempting, in any situation, to roll out the red carpet for those with status and prestige and push the status-impaired off to the side? Jesus turns that reality, the one that seems ingrained in our human nature, on its head. If you want to receive the kingdom, then you have to welcome those without status. You have to welcome those who can do nothing for you in return. You have to welcome those who are vulnerable.
Those who are vulnerable; I think that is the common denominator in both of these interpretations. Children are the most vulnerable in any society, at anytime, anywhere. Children are vulnerable, helpless, dependent. If we were all born children that means that every single one of us was born helpless. We were all born dependent. We were all born vulnerable. None of us would be here now if someone had not taken care of us when we were small. This is true for every person, and for a majority of species. The young are vulnerable.
So if we are to enter and receive the kingdom of God like a child, it seems to me that our faith does not have to be simplistic or lacking dialogue and questioning. If we are to be childlike in our faith, we have to acknowledge that we are vulnerable. We are dependent. No matter how old we are, we need help. We need God. We need each other.
And if we are to do the work of the kingdom, then we also have to acknowledge that our kingdom work is to welcome the vulnerable of situation and station. Our work is to work on their behalf, to serve the least of these. On this day we celebrate the Lord’s Supper with sisters and brothers around the globe. Perhaps we need to ask ourselves who has been welcomed to the table and who has not. Are we seeking out the vulnerable, the lost, the lonely, the least of these? Are we giving them the best seats at the table, treating them as honored guests, seeking justice on their behalf? Welcoming the vulnerable, serving the poor, loving without condition the least of these – that is kingdom work. That is the work Jesus did. That is the work we are called to do. Because we are all vulnerable, we are all in need, we are all helpless in one way or another. But Jesus does not hesitate to welcome us. May we do the work of his kingdom by doing the same.
Let all of God’s children say, “Alleluia!” Amen.