“I assure you that whoever doesn’t welcome God’s kingdom like a child will never enter it.” Luke 18:17 (CEB)
This coming Sunday is Children’s Sunday in both of the churches I serve. In one of the churches, the children do the entire service, leading worship, reading scripture, ushering, presenting skits, singing songs. There is a wider age group from pre-school through high school in this particular church than in the other one. Since the age range in the other church is much smaller (toddler through second grade with a few 10-12 year olds), the sermon time is about all they can do because of short attention spans. Our scripture lesson is Luke 18:15-17 which tells about Jesus rebuking the disciples when they tried to keep the children from him. This same story appears with a little variation in Mark 10:13-16 and Matthew 19:13-15.
When we look at these passages, we tend to overlay our 21st century ideas about children and romanticize them into the sweet, precocious, behaving children that have been depicted in so many paintings and drawings about Jesus and the children. I would prefer it that way, but if we are realistic about this, we have to know about the ways children were treated in Jesus’ day. Since the male head of household had the final say about EVERYTHING, and since women and children were considered property of their fathers or husbands (or other male head of household), the leading male also made the decision about who was “in” and who was “out” including babies. If a baby wasn’t acceptable to the man, it could be banished from the house, and many were “throw away” babies.
The mortality rate of infants was high, possibly 30% of infants born, and the next 30% often didn’t make it past nine years old. The society and culture saw children as a nuisance until they were able to grow up and become productive in the family system. Sons were particularly welcome, and daughters were seen as a means to marry off so they could produce offspring for someone else’s family. Marriages were arranged, and the girls were married as soon as they could bear children, many of them died in childbirth. So, children weren’t seen as the cute little sweethearts of the family, but as “things” to keep quiet and in the background until they could become a part of the family in significant ways. Twelve was a common age, and that is when boys went through their Bar Mitzvah and declared a man.
Also in this passage, Jesus blessed the children – laid hands on them, which was more commonly used language for healing. So many of the children brought to him could have been sickly. For Jesus to welcome the sickly and to bring healing to them with laying on of hands meant that he would be considered unclean. For him to welcome the poorest of the poor by valuing children made a statement to the disciples that EVERYONE was welcome into the family of God; there were no distinctions in age, gender, social status, economic status, or anything else – EVERYONE was welcome.
Perhaps we all are the most vulnerable. Perhaps we all need to recognize that, without Christ, we are nothing. Perhaps we can only see the kingdom of God when we put aside our own egos, our own ladder climbing, our own “stuff” so that we can clearly see Jesus and ask for his healing touch and the grace of God in our lives. Our hospitality to each other, to strangers, to children, to the sick, the homebound, the homeless, the poor in spirit reflects how we relate to Jesus and live out his teachings. May we receive the kingdom of God as children – as all God’s children. Amen.