A children's world

People were bringing little children to Jesus that he might touch them. Whenever the word “touch” is used in Mark it has to do with healing.[1] So perhaps those children were sick. Or perhaps the ones who brought them were parents who simply wanted divine protection for their little ones. Child mortality was high in those days. Scholars estimate that 60% of children born in that part of the Roman empire in the first-century died before they turned 16.

Mark has already told us earlier in his Gospel about Jairus who fell at Jesus’ feet, begging him, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.”[2]

And Mark has told us about the anonymous Syrophoenician woman whose daughter was tormented by a demon, and an unnamed man in the crowd who brought his son who suffered greatly from seizures.[3]

People were bringing little children to Jesus that he might touch them. Whenever the word “touch” is used in Mark it has to do with healing, and perhaps that simple fact deserves our full attention in this moment. Perhaps we just need to sit with that for a little while. We have heard so much about touching that violates, touching that hurts and leaves wounds in body and soul, and scars. And for too many of us the stories resonate powerfully with memories of pain and shame and fury. It’s hard to say this without screaming — and to imagine how many of us have lived, survived with that scream held back in their throats for years, for decades.

People were bringing little children to Jesus that he might touch them because he embodied a wholeness they were longing for — for their little ones, for themselves, for their families, for life itself. They wanted him to touch them. His hands did not pass on the human brokenness of generations we all carry. His hands broke the chain of hurt. He brought healing, peace and wholeness.

Every story is an invitation to identify ourselves with its characters. I don’t know about you, but I find profound meaning in seeing myself among those who bring little children to Jesus — I think about my own kids, my hopes for them and their generation; I think about the world they grew up in and the world they will inhabit after I’m gone. And I think about all the babies I’ve had the privilege to hold over the years — how little they were, how vulnerable, how magnificent, how full of possibility and hope. And I think about the little ones who live in cars, because their families no longer have a place to call home; the kids in refugee camps and in processing centers for asylum seekers and in tent cities in the desert, and I bring them to Jesus that he may touch them, that he may touch us, that we may all draw closer to the life he gives.

I also love seeing myself in one of the little ones whom others bring to Jesus — the thought of others taking me by the hand or carrying me, if need be, is as humbling as it is beautiful.

The third option for choosing a character in the story is much less exciting. The disciples. And of course they are the ones, I suspect, that Mark is holding up first and foremost as a mirror for ourselves. It’s not a flattering image we behold. We like to think of ourselves as followers of Jesus, but in this little scene we’re just in the way, and worse, we’re scolding those who are bringing the little ones. It’s only been 24 verses, two Sundays ago, since Jesus took a little child and, holding it in his arms, told us, “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.”

He has no trouble identifying with the little ones, the vulnerable ones, the ones that get lost in the immigration shuffle, the ones at the bottom of the ladder where greatness is measured — but when the first opportunity comes around for us to practice the kind of welcome he teaches, we fail.

Only twice in the entire Gospel of Mark does Jesus get angry. Not when he overturned the tables of the money changers in the temple.[4] He got angry when he cured a man on the sabbath in the synagogue and his opponents said it wasn’t right, and the second time here, when his own disciples take the part of the opponents.[5] He was indignant; other translations say, he grew angry. “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”

What does he mean by “such as these”? “His teaching on the reign of God elsewhere suggests an answer,” writes Judith Gundry-Volf.

According to the Beatitudes, the lowly and powerless are the primary beneficiaries of that reign: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh....” (Luke 6:20-23; see Matt 5:3-12). Children shared the social status of the poor, hungry, and suffering, whom Jesus calls “blessed.”[6]

They were powerless. They were vulnerable and dependent. They weren’t great by any measure. And it is precisely to “such as these” that the kingdom of God belongs. The last we would consider, by our own standards, as rightful recipients of God’s reign, are indeed the first.

And these little ones are not only recipients; they are also models of entering the reign of God. “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” What does this mean?

It is far from self-evident what qualities of a little child it is necessary to emulate — so do we just fill the term childlikeness with whatever characteristics we find most desirable or convincing? One commentator focuses on the receptivity of children, stating that to receive the kingdom as a child means receiving it simply and naturally, without making any claim. Another emphasizes the need for childlike faith, which is possible for children because they have no achievements and no preconceived ideas about God which would serve as barriers to accepting God as God is. For yet another, it is the quality of utter dependence that must be learned. Children cannot support themselves but rely upon their parents or the kindness of strangers for everything.[7] It would be wonderful to continue to spin that yarn together; to talk about what it is we see in children that might make them models of entering the kingdom, and to know that our intuitions are just as likely to be on or off target as the great scholars’!

More recently, some scholars have recommended that we don’t just let our imagination go wild, but that we always let children’s low social status in the first-century world anchor our explorations. They belonged to the least, together with other marginalized and dominated groups whose dependence on others made them vulnerable.

The scene in Mark ends with actions that let us see what it means to receive the kingdom as a little child: Jesus takes them into his arms and blesses them. They enter the kingdom because Jesus picks them up and draws them in. All they do is let themselves be held and blessed. They belong because they are beloved.

One set of characteristic of children rarely gets mentioned in conversations about what it might mean to receive the kingdom like a little child: children’s eagerness to learn and grow, their open curiosity, their readiness to respond with trust to the dependability of those who welcome them, their capacity to become what they are given. To me these suggest that when we know ourselves as vulnerable and needy, yet held and blessed in Christ’s embrace, we will grow into welcoming each other and touching each other in ways that bless and heal. Judith Gundry-Volf said it beautifully,

The Gospels teach the reign of God as a children’s world, where children are the measure, rather than don’t measure up to adults, where the small are great and the great must become small. That is, the Gospel teaching calls the adult world radically into question. Jesus urges, “Let the little children come to me, do not [stop] them,” not in order to initiate children into a realm that belongs properly to adults, but because the reign of God belongs to children: it is shaped for them and after them, and inaugurated by the One who became like a little child. It is rather adults who need to be initiated into the reign of God as a children’s world. [8]

World Communion Sunday is a wonderful opportunity to remember and celebrate our unity in Christ. It’s very simple with the table at the center, the bread of life broken and the cup of salvation offered to all, and the children of God, hungry and thirsty, longing for life in fullness, coming together at the kingdom banquet, singing their songs of the One who became small like them and who took them up in his arms and blessed them. As we prepare to gather at the table of Christ, I invite you to pray for the world and all who live in it. We'll pray with the words and melody of the hymn we’re about to sing. We’ll also pray with our hands and feet.

[instructions for Prayers of the People children’s world project]

[1] Mk 1:41; 3:10; 5:27ff; 6:56; 7:33; 8:22

[2] Mk 5:22-23

[3] Mk 7:24-30; 9:17-27

[4] Mk 11:15-17

[5] Mk 3:5; 10:14; according to some manuscripts Jesus is also angry in 1:41

[6] Judith M. Gundry-Volf, “‘To Such as These Belongs the Reign of God’: Jesus and the Children,” Theology Today 56, no. 4, 472.

[7] See Larry L. Eubanks, “Mark 10:13-16,” Review & Expositor 91, no. 3, 401.

[8] Gundry-Volf, op. cit., 480.

Looking for audio of older sermons? Check out our Sermon Audio Archive.