The Gospel of Luke 18.15-17
15 People were also bringing babies to Jesus for him to place his hands on them. When the disciples saw this, they rebuked them. 16 But Jesus called the children to him and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. 17 Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”
You wouldn’t guess it now because she’s an incredibly proficient mother, but my wife Sarah used to be afraid of babies. She was one of those people who refused to hold a baby while standing, and according to her insisted on being seated, “with a pillow under each arm to make sure I didn’t drop it”. For many people a lack of exposure to babies is the reason for their lack of confidence around them, and that usually changes once they’ve had some practice. As any caregiver can attest, once you’ve fumbled a baby or two you realize how resilient they are and worry less about it. This episode in Luke’s gospel shows us Jesus as comfortable and happy around children as could be, and with no pillows to assist!
As the song goes, “Jesus loves the little children” and no story in the gospels paints the picture more vividly. Jesus healed or cast demons out of a number of children too, so kids feature more frequently in the gospels than we might think. Since scholars also note it’s likely events such as these occurred more than once, and because John tells us that Jesus did far more than what’s been written down, it’s safe to assume that babies and children were very often center stage in Jesus’ travels and teaching. When we imagine first century family life, with no ancient daycares on record, whatever crowd amassed around Jesus must have usually been filled with children. So Jesus has always very literally been in the hands of children. It’s one of the reasons we don’t get anxious about babies making a fuss around here. I can’t imagine a crowd of hundreds or thousands around Jesus not being filled with all the happy and crabby sounds of children. As in this story, think of the parents desperate to get close for a blessing or healing. I’m guessing Jesus spent a good percentage of his time in public being handed babies. The question is, what was his reaction? This story leaves no doubt.
Two very clear points are made in this little episode. First, that Jesus’ kingdom belongs to children. And second, that children exemplify a crucial posture for kingdom entry. Those two points, however, weren’t very clear to Jesus’ first disciples, just as they aren’t always clear for us today. So if we’re listening now and thinking, “there’s probably not much for me to learn here, it all seems pretty simple” then look out! The disciples thought the same sort of thing and Jesus was about to take them to school.
Jesus’ kingdom belongs to children
“People were also bringing babies to Jesus for him to place his hands on them. When the disciples saw this, they rebuked them.” Maybe the disciples had seen this kind of thing before, Jesus getting swamped by kids and anxious parents. Maybe they thought they should create a better system, tell the rabble to form a line as with a mall Santa Claus (what about all the fluids running all over the place, surely Jesus can’t get covered in that!) Or maybe they thought, as we have evidence elsewhere, that some people were more significant than others, and helpless babies mustn’t matter much in the impressive kingdom Jesus was going to set up. The disciples couldn’t have been more wrong. I wonder what that moment was like – the moment Jesus catches his disciples telling off parents and shooing away children. Did he give his disciples a dumbfounded or stern look, just short of a clip ‘round the ear? Or did he simply open his arms with a big smile, pick up a toddler and let the rest dog pile him? We aren’t told but it’s fun to imagine. We do know his words both to the children and to his disciples, “Jesus called the children to him and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” Did you catch that? Jesus called the children. Just like he calls all kinds of people to himself in the gospels, Jesus also calls the children. And if Jesus calls them, who are we to get in the way? It’s another example that Jesus’ disciples (then or now) don’t get to determine who Jesus and his kingdom belongs to. Jesus makes that call. And right here we read that children are as welcome as anyone else. Caesars’ kingdom didn’t belong to children, far from it. But Jesus’ kingdom belonged to the defenseless and needy and seemingly unimportant ones.
It may be news to some that children weren’t considered a treasure or a priority in the ancient world, but were often classified (along with many women) as possessions of elite males. In many places today children continue to be undervalued, neglected or mistreated. We can hardly stomach those stories because we assume children have always been a priority in our society, but it wasn’t so before Jesus. So far as we can tell, it was Jesus and the first Christians who changed the historical narrative on children, opening the first orphanages or rescuing unwanted babies from trash heaps. The early instruction that the church should take care of the weak and vulnerable naturally extended to the little and lowly. Of course this isn’t the only or whole story. The terrible abuses of children in many Christian traditions are in front of us, and rightly so. But we should remember that the reason we’re outraged about the abuse of children in the first place is because of Jesus’ concern for them and his influence on western thought. This, of course, makes the abuses of children in Christian communities all the more abhorrent – the very movement bearing Jesus’ name, meant to dignify and bless children, has also failed them. Of course, we must also remember all the ways Christian communities have dignified and blessed children, the millions loved and served in Jesus’ name today, but there are some among us today whose early experience with the church or Christians was of abuse or neglect. This should never be skirted around or swept under the rug. “Jesus loves the little children…all the children of the world…” How Christians ever ended up treating children badly is to our shame, and I suspect nothing grieves God more than a defenseless child mistreated. So Christian history is a checkered past in caring for children. Where little ones have been mistreated this must be owned and atoned for. But the other question is: what about the children among us today; what are we doing for them now?
In church we sometimes talk about stewardship, and generally in terms of money. But our greatest act of stewardship will always be our stewardship of the children among us. I use that phrase intentionally, because I don’t only mean parenting. Of course, Christian parents are responsible to Jesus for the stewardship of their children, but as a Christian community we are all responsible for the children among us, parents or not. Why? Because “the kingdom of God belongs to such as these”. If any age group among us should get our best, it’s the children. For example, in this community we should hear those words “Let the little children come to me”, and ask ourselves: how can we make access to Jesus easy for children? What can we do to ensure kids are not held back from Jesus but brought near? We can think about that in terms of how we love and lead children in our immediate families. We can think about that in terms of how we each embody Jesus’ character every day, being Godly examples to children, whether we’re parents or not. And we can think about that communally.
One thing this story tells us is that it’s possible for Jesus’ followers to hold children back from him. In this story children are actively held back, and Jesus swiftly corrects this. But can we passively hold children back from Jesus? If not careful, I think so. This may sound a little controversial, but I don’t know how any church can claim to love and worship Jesus and not prioritize children, how any church who truly believes that “the kingdom belongs to such as these” would be short on serving children. If children are a treasure, ours to steward as a spiritual community, shouldn’t they get our very best? I’m not saying the only way children come to Jesus is through church activity or programs, but many do, and statistics tell us that the majority of us have faith in Jesus because of seeds planted in childhood. Many of us got to know Jesus in a story book Bible, or in a song taught by a Sunday school teacher, or in a nativity play at Christmas, even if Jesus was just a doll and we were dressed up in bathrobes. My point is, church can be a place where children learn about and meet Jesus for the very first time. We can either help them get close to him or hold them back. “Let the little children come to me…”
Now we have to say that Living Waters loves children. In the very early days a bus ministry would pick up local farm kids to bring them to church and help them get involved. And today, Dee-Ana, Carol and many others in our kids’ ministry do an incredible job serving children, which has been central to our identity and health as a church for years. Dozens of people serve or have served in various ways because we really do believe “the kingdom of God belongs to such as these” and we don’t want our lack of involvement to be the reason kids are held back from Jesus. For example, we’ve got an Arts Camp serving over one hundred and fifty kids coming up in July, with an incredible group eager to help. But can I be candid? When it comes to serving kids throughout the calendar year we need more of us to get involved. Either in our nursery with the little ones under two, or in kids’ church on the lower floor. Now we might think: well I do that with my own kids, my grandkids or my nieces and nephews, or I work with kids all week and I really need a break on Sunday. Of course, there are reasons and seasons when we can or can’t serve. There are giftings and callings too, and I’m not saying we all must serve children at church all the time. All I’m reminding us of is that we must never short the children in our service of them – in how we serve or give or support the wider life of our church. We must remember that there are little boys and girls who belong to our church who don’t have a daddy who loves Jesus, or a mummy who loves Jesus. Some kids come to church hungry, both spiritually and physically. There are kids here in single family homes, or in foster homes, or high care homes, and they need us to remember our responsibility to them as their church family. Because Jesus called the children to himself and said, “let the little children come to me.” We can help that or hinder that. The ball is in our court.
Some of you serve children in your day job or in a volunteer capacity beyond these walls – God bless you. Teachers, E.A.s, administrators, social workers, nurses, doctors, midwives, preschool teachers, councillors, neighbourhood moms and dads or grandmas and grampas. Some are serving children internationally in highly creative ways around the world. Thank you for loving children for Jesus’ sake and serving them in our neighbourhoods on our behalf. This church is filled with an incredible capacity for mercy and kindness, but we know that it takes a lot, and your hearts get broken. But please, in the fullness of the Holy Spirit, do not grow weary in doing good, because Jesus said, “let the little children come to me”. If you serve children, thank you for being Jesus’ hands and feet on our behalf.
Children exemplify a crucial posture for kingdom entry
So we’ve heard that children belong with Jesus and the kingdom belongs to children. But we also hear that children are a kind of example for us all. Not only are children prioritized by Jesus because they are ours to steward and are often needy and defenseless, but they also remind us of who we really are. By pointing to them as an example, Jesus gives a special kind of dignity to children they often don’t receive.
On one side of this episode Jesus tells a parable about a self-righteous man who thinks they have something to offer God, that they have been good enough for God to accept them. On the other side of the episode we hear of a very rich man wanting to know how to inherit eternal life, Jesus’ response being to sell all he has and follow him and the very rich man going away sad because he can’t let go of his wealth to follow. So what we’re hearing is that we can’t work our way into God’s good books by our good behavior. And, we don’t get God if we love wealth more than him. In the middle of those two episodes is this story about entering the kingdom like a little child. This is the attitude Jesus requires. We don’t impress God with our projections of goodness. And we’re all tempted to provide for ourselves, sometimes obsessively which left unchecked can metastasizes into wealth worship. So in this moment with the children Jesus reminds us, “anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” We’re not being told not to think or to mature, but to put away our unreal and unwise attitudes, remembering that we are all of us just little ones. Saying through the example of a child, Jesus says to each of us today, “let the little children come to me”, wanting to scoop us up and bless us even now.
There’s a big slide at our local pool and our four-year-old is very excited to ride it one day when she’s permitted, because at the entrance there’s a large ruler and a sign that says, “Must be this tall to use the slide”. Now, flip that image around, and think of Jesus’ words about an attitude of littleness and reliance when it comes to the kingdom. There’s a sign at the entrance to Jesus’ kingdom and it’s says “must be this tall to enter”. Growing up for a Christian in many ways mean growing little, reliant. John was one of those disciples present in this story with the children, and in the letters he writes to some of the first churches he addresses them regularly as “little children”. There’s something about a child’s dependency and neediness that we have remember as adults following Jesus. Children are not just in the middle of Jesus’ focus because of what we should do for them, but also because of how they remind us of our true relation to God. They remind grown-ups that we might have bank accounts, and full inboxes, and read clever books, but we’re all just little children in God’s eyes. So keeping children as a focus in a Christian community reminds us that reliance, trust, and the need to follow closely are necessary attitudes for discipleship to Jesus. We are his dearly loved children, so don’t forget it! Must be this tall to enter.