Today’s reading is Mark 10:13-16:
People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them.
As Harvard students (and alumni), we tend to prize ourselves for our intelligence, our wit, our talents, our very ability to tear things down by poking holes in them. So it is rather jarring to hear not that refrain we love – “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind.” Instead, we hear that we must do away with all our education to begin again with the heart of a child.
What might this possibly mean?
In the ancient Jewish / Roman context, children were viewed as inferiors. Aristotle’s household code declares “the rule of a father over his children is royal, for he rules by virtue both of love and of the respect due to age, exercising a kind of royal power. And therefore Homer has appropriately called Zeus ‘father of Gods and men,’ because he is the king of them all. For a king is the natural superior of his subjects, but he should be of the same kin or kind with them, and such is the relation of elder and younger, of father and son.”
The Christian household code, found in Ephesians 6:1, is a dramatic departure from Aristotle. Paul instructs, “children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honor your father and mother’—which is the first commandment with a promise— ‘so that it may go well with you and that you may enjoy long life on the earth.’ Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.”
We see that in the Christian worldview, the child is treated with respect rather than rule. Though children are still expected to follow and honor their parents, they do not so because their earthly father is a king over them, but rather because their heavenly Father has thus commanded it. Not only has God commanded it, but he has promised that their lives will be the better for it. Interestingly – perhaps because of his letters epistolary form intended to be read in the congregation – Paul actually directly addresses children and gives the command to them, which emphasizes their own power to choose and consciousness.
In Mark 10:13, Jesus treats children with dignity and respect, as fellow human beings who have the capacity to make their own choices. Paul picks up this attitude when he insists that fathers have an important obligation to their children. Unlike in the world of Rome, where unwanted children would be abandoned because they were viewed as less human or less important, in the Christian worldview, they are imbued with the image of God and thus bear dignity and respect regardless of age.
We, like the Romans, tend to equate our power – our abilities and skills – with our value. Yet Christ tells us – lo, the kingdom of God belongs to those who are powerless, skilless, and guileless. The first, most obvious way to interpret this passage in Mark is that we must imitate the faith of children, likely their seemingly infinite capacity for overflowing joy and simple trust.
I think of an friend’s young daughters, who smile and delightfully clasp their hands to pray before meals, who approach elderly strangers on trains to ask if they love Jesus. No doubt due to the theological brilliance and faithful discipleship of their mother, they have a simple trust in Jesus and a faithful joy in approaching God. Being witness to their faith – before they were even 2 years old – made me utterly rethink my view on infant baptism. For they sounded just like the children in Mark, eager to come to Jesus and to rest in arms.
As we age, we grow weary of Jesus; we are no longer excited to approach him. We come with worries and concerns. That’s not to say we can’t come to God with questions – but do we do so trusting that he will give us answers or convinced that we can take ourselves out of the dock by placing God there instead? We often come as a judge instead of as a dependent. We lose our childlike eagerness. Even I – who was not raised in the faith – sometimes find myself more tired, more jaded to Christ than I was at the start.
Even though children given some degree of autonomy by Paul in Ephesians, there is no doubt that children are fully dependent upon their parents: for sustenance, for socialization, and for education both practical and moral. So, too, should Christians approach God with the realization that we are both uniquely autonomous, and yet utterly dependent on his grace for our salvation, sanctification, and good works. We can approach our father with this childlike trust and joy again only once we’ve recognized our humble state and reapproach God with joy in light of the great blessings he has showered over our lives.
The second way to interpret this passage is that we must receive the kingdom as we would receive a child. This, too, seems an apt analogy.
Nelson Mandela once wrote that “there can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” So, too, there can be no keener revelation of an individual soul than how he or she treats children.
When you see children playing, do you smile upon them with joy or frown at the noise disturbance? When children cry during church or mass, do you wonder at their parents’ incompetence or do you grin that the entire body of God – including parts that are too young to have learned honor – has come together to worship God?
A chapter prior in Mark 9:36, Jesus “put his arm around the child and said, ‘When you welcome even a child because of me, you welcome me. And when you welcome me, you welcome the one who sent me.’ ”
Jesus explicitly commands us to welcome children, to show grace at them, not anger. If you welcome children in his name, so you are welcoming Christ and therefore welcoming his kingdom.
To see a perfect model of this, one needs look no farther than Pope Francis. When we allow children to be part of our lives – when we permit them to commandeer our chairs, when we invite them into our laps – so we prepare our hearts to accept the kingdom as well.
Jordan Monge ’12 is a former editor-in-chief of the Ichthus.