Connections 05.22.2016: Like a Child

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Luke 18:15-17; Mark 10:16

My older daughter, Samantha, is eleven years old. Though reserved and quiet around new people, she is at least polite, and she becomes more animated when she gets to know them better. As a baby, though, her encounters with new people went a little differently. Basically, she took one look at them and cried. She was the one who screamed, red-faced, when placed in Santa’s lap at Christmas. She was the one who spent the entire two hours of church nursery being held by a caretaker because she could not stop sobbing. She was even the one who looked on her grandparents with suspicion, lest they try to take her from my arms.

Needless to say, if I’d attempted to put baby Samantha in the lap of Jesus, he may have never made his pronouncement that God’s kingdom belongs to the children. If he had, people would have turned and ran as far from the kingdom as possible!

But even as I write that, I know it’s not true. What I know is this: in every encounter with a human being (aside from that time he turned over tables at the temple), Jesus was careful, then gentle, and finally gracious. While he had no qualms about telling people how their lives could be better, he did not approach them with a harsh, overbearing manner. He let them come to him exactly as they were, never requiring them to present a certain attitude or act a certain way.

I also know this: if I’d carried little Samantha to Jesus and handed her over to him, she would have pitched a fit. And I can imagine what would have happened next. Jesus would not have insisted on holding her. He would not have looked surprised or disappointed or judgmental. Instead, I think he would have smiled, maybe chuckled, and commented on her fiery spirit, her dependency on her mother, and her caution about the unknown. And he would have loved her deeply, right on sight.

Are there any young children who walk into church overly conscious of their posture, their unconfessed sins, their clothing, and their noise level? If there are, then surely they are few. Jesus said to come to him like little children, and I think part of that means we come to him with no holds barred, no facades, no self-consciousness. It means we come to him with our giggles, our silliness, our bold hopes, and even our terror wide open. Like little children, we have nothing to hide when we approach Jesus.

What young child wouldn’t eventually become comfortable with that kind of acceptance? May we learn to be comfortable with Jesus too.

Discussion

1. How do the children you know react to strangers? What is the line between politeness and safety regarding people who are new to us?
2. Why do you think the families were drawn to share their children with Jesus? What did they hope to get from the encounter?
3. What do you make of Jesus’ words about the kingdom belonging to children?
4. How do you usually approach Jesus? What are your most prominent feelings when you pray or worship?
5. How can you learn to be wide open in your approach to Christ? What would it take for you to relax in his presence and be yourself—the person that he already knows and deeply loves?

Reference Shelf

Luke takes v. 17 straight from Mark: “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a child will never enter it.” There are three possibilities for “as a child”:

• Receive the kingdom as you receive a child.
• Receive the kingdom as a child receives (as if you were a child).
• Receive the kingdom as if it were a child.

Each of these is contextually plausible. The first speaks directly to the nonhospitality of the disciples in v. 15, and parallels the idea of forgiving in order to be forgiven: if you fail to receive others, even infants, then you will not be received into the kingdom. The verb used for “receive” in v. 17 is used elsewhere for welcoming a guest (9:5; 10:10, 38). Further, the issue of infants who were exposed, and the church’s response to this, would have been a live one for Luke’s audience. In this time, parents who did not want an infant could, without legal penalty, leave the child in a public place either to die or to be claimed by someone else. A second-century text, arguing that Christians were much like their neighbors, says, “They marry like everyone else and have children, but they do not expose them once they are born” (Diog. 5:6). Perhaps “receive the kingdom as you receive a child” was metaphorical for “as you receive anyone, even the helpless and marginalized,” but perhaps also Luke meant to push his readers into taking in more of these foundlings.

The second reading asks the believer to receive the kingdom as a child receives things, or as if we were children. Commentators who go this direction often speak to child-like characteristics: openness, helplessness, humility, etc. Children have no status; the infants Luke spotlights in his change of Mark’s text cannot even come to Jesus on their own or speak for themselves, but must accept whatever is offered them. This reading sets up a nice contrast between the infants, who simply receive, and the ruler, who cannot receive because he cannot let go of what he already has. The infants are more like the tax collector, helpless before God; the ruler, more like the Pharisee, certain that he has already done all that is necessary to gain God’s blessing. “Do not be afraid, little flock, it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. So sell your possessions and give alms” (12:32-33).

The third reading is the most abstract: accept the kingdom as if it were a child, or you will never enter it. This interpretation also hangs on the low status of children in the ancient world: “Jesus would be saying, then, that people cannot enter the great and glorious kingdom unless they can reject the world’s values and welcome the kingdom that now appears without status and power.” Again, this reading leads one right into the following episodes: the ruler wants eternal life in addition to money and power, the crowds are amazed that entering the kingdom is so hard, and the disciples need to be reassured that their sacrifices are not in vain. To enter the kingdom, you must abandon the world’s values.

Luke omits Mark 10:16, leaving it to the audience to imagine whether Jesus actually touched the children. Since v. 15 says that his touch was what the parents had in mind, and since in v. 16 Jesus orders the disciples to cease preventing them, maybe Luke thought it was obvious. In any event, Lucas Cranach the Elder’s painting from the mid-1540s is probably more or less how we think of the episode—Jesus surrounded by mothers and children, with the frowning disciples to the side, ineffectual in their blockade.

Richard B. Vinson, Luke, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2008) 574-76.

Kelley Land, a graduate of Mercer University, has been an assistant editor for Smyth & Helwys curriculum and book since 2001. She attends church and leads an adult Sunday school class in Macon, Georgia. She enjoys reading fiction, spending time with her two daughters, and watching television shows on Netflix.

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