There is something about kids that captivates our hearts. Even if you do not have children, when you see a bunch of kids gathering together and laughing and smiling, it does something to your heart. When you see images of children who are hurting or who are sick, it captivates your imagination and causes deep down sympathy. There is something about our deep sense of humanity that causes us to want to protect, care for, and dote on our children. That’s one part of us, but you don’t think I’m going to make it that colorful, do you?
For there is another part of us that absolutely gets annoyed with children. Don’t think I’m being a kill-joy. You know it’s true. Kids are a disruption. They get loud and obnoxious. They get pushy and want their way. They do not follow the spoken and unspoken rules that we have as adults. They do not allow us to do the things we want to do and say the things we want to say, and they cry and whine and fuss and argue. And we generally think that they are a generation of spoiled brats! ! I think in every cultural period, people have worried about the youth of the day being, well, immature. Consider a few of these quotes from folks who lived long ago:
They [Young People] have exalted notions, because they have not been humbled by life or learned its necessary limitations; moreover, their hopeful disposition makes them think themselves equal to great things -- and that means having exalted notions. They would always rather do noble deeds than useful ones: Their lives are regulated more by moral feeling than by reasoning -- all their mistakes are in the direction of doing things excessively and vehemently. They overdo everything -- they love too much, hate too much, and the same with everything else. –Aristotle
"The world is passing through troublous times. The young people of today think of nothing but themselves. They have no reverence for parents or old age. They are impatient of all restraint. They talk as if they knew everything, and what passes for wisdom with us is foolishness with them. As for the girls, they are forward, immodest and unladylike in speech, behavior and dress." (From a sermon preached by Peter the Hermit in A.D. 1274)
"I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words... When I was young, we were taught to be discreet and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly wise [disrespectful] and impatient of restraint". (Hesiod, 8th century BC)
At this point, you may be thinking that I am laying the groundwork to make a defense of our children and to encourage our children’s ministry here. Rest assured, I am not. I am not because the text we have before us from the Gospel of Mark is not about children. Much like America’s Funniest Home Videos uses children to suck us in and watch their programming, Jesus uses children to teach His disciples an important lesson–a lesson about God’s kingdom.
Let’s turn to the text. People were bringing children to Jesus that He might touch them. This was a common practice in the ancient world. If people knew a holy person was in town–a priest or a rabbi or other such leader, they would often bring their children to receive a blessing. Obviously, people had heard about Jesus being in the area, and they brought their kids.
However, the disciples weren’t exactly receptive to these people. They rebuked the folks who were bringing their kids. The Greek word here for “rebuke” is epitimao, which is the exact same word that is used by Mark when Jesus rebukes the demons. It is the same word that Mark used when Peter rebuked Jesus and when Jesus rebuked Peter back. It is a very, very strong word that shows the disciples’ almost disdain for the parents who are bringing their kids.
Jesus becomes indignant with the disciples. Again, we have another strong Greek word. Mark Edwards in his commentary says, “The word for “indignant” means “to arouse to anger” that is, to vent oneself in expressed displeasure rather than simply brooding about it. The object of a person’s indignation reveals a great deal about that person. Jesus’ displeasure here reveals his compassion and defense of the helpless, vulnerable, and powerless.”
I agree with what Edwards says, but I think it goes much further than simply Jesus compassion toward the children. There is more going on. For if you remember a couple of weeks ago, Jesus had an encounter with His disciples about who was greatest. The disciples had been arguing about who was greatest, and Jesus gave them an important illustration. Let me read to you just a few short paragraphs before today’s text from Mark chapter 9, “Then He [Jesus] took a little child and put it among them; and taking it in his arms, he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
Let that sink in for just a minute or two. “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes who? And by welcoming JESUS, the One who sent Jesus is also welcomed!!!” Jesus taught this explicitly to the disciples, and they are failing miserably. They are failing to welcome not “one such child” but a whole host of children, and so they are rejecting Jesus and by virtue of rejecting Jesus, they are rejecting God the Father. Is it any wonder Jesus is so indignant??!!!
Jesus hammers His disciples, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the Kingdom of God belongs.” We are not going to spend time on this statement because it is pretty self-explanatory. However, the next statement is of utmost importance.
Jesus says, “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”
This statement deserves a bit of time. For it strikes, not at the hearts of kids, but at our hearts. If you do not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, you will never enter it. What does it mean to receive the kingdom of God as a little child. Does it mean that we are to accept the kingdom of God just like we accept children? Let’s first understand how children were viewed in ancient Israel.
Almost all the commentaries agree on this point, and I’m going to go with the best quote on this one. Again, from Mark Edwards:
Ancient Jewish society...did not regard children with the same affection (as Western society). Children, like women, derived their position in society primarily from their relationship to adult males. Sons, to be sure, were regarded as a blessing from God, but largely because they insured the continuance of the family for another generation–and increased its workforce. Childhood was typically regarded as an unavoidable interim between birth and adulthood, which a boy reached at age 13. One will search Jewish and early Christian literature in vain for sympathy toward the young comparable to that shown by Jesus.Children were only seen as precious commodities–as those who could contribute in their later years toward the family’s well being. They were seen as hands for the farm or retirement care. Little children were a burden. They only received their value and worth from their parents. They knew they had no standing. They knew they had only the value placed on them by their parents. The majority of them were poor and disenfranchised. Life was rough and tumble. It was dog eat dog. They were not fed first. They had little or no toys. They soon learned that everything they received was a gift. And they learned gratitude.
Why is this important? William Lane had an interesting comment in his commentary, one that I think gives a partial answer. Lane says, “Unlike adults, who do not want anything to be given to them, children are comparatively modest and unspoiled.” Now, I would have to argue a bit with Dr. Lane. I would qualify this statement and say that some adults want nothing given to them. Some adults believe they must work for everything and refuse to accept any sort of free gift. Some adults are too prideful to admit they need help and assistance. Some adults want to work for everything they get. Why? Because it is their accomplishment; their work; they take great pride in their accomplishments because it is THEIR accomplishment. Accomplishing much gives them a sense of value and worth, and if they take something without earning it, they feel shallow.
Of course, this does not encompass all adults. For we also know there are adults who expect things to be given to them. There are adults who have a sense of entitlement. There are adults who believe that they have a right to all sorts of goods and services without having to pay for them because they simply are. They believe they deserve anything and everything that is given to them. What is the result of such behavior?
The results from both ways are the same: a sense of self-righteousness. One way says, “I have worked my way up. I have accomplished all by my own, two hands, and I deserve to be rewarded for my efforts.” The other way says, “I am good in and of myself, and I deserve to be rewarded for being me.” Both of these paths are self-centered and self-serving. One bases worth and value on work. The other bases worth and value simply on being. Neither leads to gratitude. Neither leads to humility. Both are self-aggrandizing, and you will not enter into the Kingdom of God if you are self-aggrandizing. You will not enter into the Kingdom of God if you believe you deserve it. You will enter the Kingdom of God if you realize that you do not deserve it, that you have not earned it, and that it is an undeserved gift given through and by God.
This brings us right back to Jesus’ comment about children. Remember what I said earlier quoting Mark Edwards: children received their value only through their fathers. Children received everything they had through their Father. They realized they were totally dependent upon their Father for everything. And these are little children!! They have not reached the age where they become resentful–this is important. In a conversation with one of my congregation members this week, I was informed that she was engaged in learning about children and how they act before they reach a certain age. Before they become entangled in all of our problems as adults, they understand gratitude. They understand sharing. They understand compassion. They understand that they receive everything from their parents and guardians. They understand that everything is a gift, and they have a sense of gratitude and excitement about it. Little children know their dependence upon their parents; know it is undeserved; and respond with thanksgiving.
You will not receive the Kingdom of God unless you receive it as a child.
Without a sense of having earned it.
Without believing you are entitled to it.
How can you cultivate this attitude?
Did you catch my purposeful attempt to mislead you? You will cultivate a sense of gratitude and humility if you believe you have received something without having earned it. You will cultivate a sense of gratitude and humility if you understand that you have received something that you didn’t deserve. Gratitude and humility comes by knowing you are gifted something without having done anything on your part.
Christianity calls this sheer grace. Christianity calls this the act of God on our behalf to bring salvation to us–not because we deserved it. Far from it. We didn’t. In fact, it was our sinfulness that brought Jesus to the cross. It was our lack of ability to accomplish the following of the Law that required justice to be served. Someone out there might ask, “Well, what law did I break?” Think about it for just a moment. Think about the standards that you hold everyone else to. Think about how you think everyone else should act in the world. Do you live up to even your own standards? I can almost guarantee you, you do not. None of us do. There is a universal law that every culture, every religion, and every philosophy holds, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Every culture has it. Every culture breaks it. Admit it–you do too. And if you are judged by that standard, you must admit failure.
Yet, justice must be served. And rather than that justice falling upon you, God took on human flesh and allowed justice to be served upon Him. He took the punishment you deserved because you failed to do unto others. He stepped in to offer you the Kingdom when you didn’t deserve it. For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that all those who believe in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved by Him.
Not by your actions and deeds. Not by any sense of entitlement because you were an important person or being, but by sheer grace.
No one has room to boast.
No one has room to hold one’s head high.
All are failures just as all are deeply loved. Such a thing brings humility and gratitude–a child like faith. A faith that comes when you remember what Jesus has done.
Oh, the text isn’t quite finished. There is one more verse. “And Jesus took the little children up into His arms, laid His hands upon them, and He–again we see the weakness of translation, for Jesus doesn’t simply bless them–according to the Greek, He lavishes rich uber-blessing upon them. Just as He lavishes such blessing upon you through the cross as He bears your sin. May your heart be moved to gratitude and humility as you come to know the gift of His sheer grace. Amen.