13 And they were bringing children to him that he might touch them, and the disciples rebuked them. 14 But when Jesus saw it, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. 15 Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” 16 And he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands on them.
On June 17 of the year 1 B.C., a man named Hilarion wrote a letter home from Alexandria, Egypt, to his wife, Alis, in Oxyrhynchos, a city in the middle of Egypt. What is fascinating about this little letter is, first of all, that it reveals what day-to-day life was like two thousand years ago. What is more, we actually have this letter. It has survived all of these years.
In the letter, we learn that Hilarion had apparently traveled to Alexandria for work and was writing back to his pregnant wife to inform her that even though the people he was living with were traveling back to Oxyrhynchos, he was going to stay in Alexandria. He tells her that when he gets paid he will send some money home to her.
Then Hilarion, in the midst of making these innocent enough comments says something truly disturbing. Let me share his letter and see if you can spot what I am talking about.
Hilarion to his sister [note: a common term for one’s wife] Alis, many greetings, also to my lady Berous and Apollonarion. Know that I am still in Alexandria; and do not worry if they wholly set out, I am staying in Alexandria. I ask you and entreat you, take care of the child, and if I receive my pay soon, I will send it up to you. Above all, if you bear a child and it is male, let it be; if it is female, cast it out. You have told Aphrodisias, “Do not forget me.” But how can I forget you? Thus I’m asking you not to worry. The 29th year of Caesar, Pauni 23. (verso) Hilarion to Alis, deliver.
Almost as an aside, Hilarion says something that makes our blood run cold: “if you bear a child and it is male, let it be; if it is female, cast it out.” Exposing unwanted infants was legal at this time, though the chilling matter-of-factness of Hilarion’s instructions really does catch us off guard!
I am not suggesting that all children were viewed with such callous indifference two millennia ago, but I am suggesting that the fact that such a sentiment could be communicated in an otherwise loving letter home speaks volumes of the ancient world and how it viewed children. Furthermore, while we can be sure that the Jews of Jesus’ day did not go around callously exposing unwanted children, they nonetheless lived in a cultural milieu that had devalued children to a very real extent. One can see this, for instance, in the words of Rabbi Dosa b. Harkinas who wrote;
Morning sleep and midday wine and children’s talk and sitting in the meeting-houses of the people of the land put a person out of the world.
To say that children were hated is certainly to say too much! Undoubtedly most parents loved their children then as most do now. Even so, their presence was seen as a distraction from the real world, from real life. This can be seen in many ways in the ancient world. One of the most interesting ways is found in Mark 10:13-16. The disciples reflect the dominant view of the world towards children. Jesus’ response reflects something very different indeed!
Human beings naturally value people on the basis of strength, power, and ability.
We begin with the disciples trying to thwart little children being brought to Jesus.
13 And they were bringing children to him that he might touch them, and the disciples rebuked them.
Parents are bringing children to Jesus so that Jesus can touch them. This likely means so that Jesus can bless them or pray over them. We tend to think of the “they” here as “their mothers,” though it is interesting to note that the “they” is masculine. This may mean that it was the fathers who were bringing their children though it is just as likely that this means parents and families as a whole were coming to Jesus with the children.
We are perhaps surprised and taken aback to see the disciples rebuke “them,” that is, the parents. But as we have already said we should not be surprised by this. Again, while the Jews were not as calloused as a thoroughly pagan Roman could be concerning children (and I repeat that not all Romans were), the Jews still existed in such a cultural context. What is more, they had their own ways of communicating the devaluation of children. Adele Collins has chronicled some of the rabbinic arguments concerning whether or not children who died would be resurrected.
The rabbis debated whether children would be raised from the dead and included in the age to come. Rabban Gamliel argued that the children of the impious in Israel would have no share in the age to come. Rabbi Joshua argued that they would. The rabbis agreed that the children of non-Israelites would neither be raised nor judged. They debated what age an Israelite child had to have reached before death in order to be included in the age to come. One taught that all who had been born would be included; another, only those who had begun to speak; another, from the time when they could answer “Amen” in the synagogue with understanding; another, from the time when they are circumcised. Near the end of the collection of rabbinic views, the opinion that all those who have been born are included is restated. The passage ends with the declaration by Rabbi El’azar, that even children who have been miscarried will be raised; he based his opinion on a midrashic reading of Isa 49:6.
This is all quite fascinating and it helps us understand yet again what was behind the disciples’ attempt to thwart the parents from bringing their children to Jesus. Even so, behind these theological wrangles, we may discern a more basic human disposition towards children specifically and the lowly in general: human beings naturally value people on the basis of strength, power, and ability.
What this means is that whatever else you might call the disciples’ actions, “natural” must certainly be included. It was natural for people to think that one so important as Jesus did not have the time to be or the desire to be bothered by children. After all, children can be an imposition. They can be loud. They do not know the rules of decorum, of space, of timing, of volume! They can be intrusive. And, in the minds of the disciples, they were, after all, kids, which is to say, occupiers of a lesser strata of social importance.
Perhaps the disciples were already nervous because of the object lesson Jesus made of the child in Mark 9.
33 And they came to Capernaum. And when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you discussing on the way?” 34 But they kept silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. 35 And he sat down and called the twelve. And he said to them, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” 36 And he took a child and put him in the midst of them, and taking him in his arms, he said to them, 37 “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.”
Does our text demonstrate that they had not understood what happened in Mark 9 or that they had and they were too frightened to face that painful teaching yet again? Regardless, they did not want the children to come to Jesus. Perhaps they feared a repetition of the social inversion that Jesus pointed too so recently before. Perhaps they did not want to see the full flowering of a teaching that, if left unchecked, would turn everything on its head.
The poet W.H. Auden has masterfully captured the threat of Jesus on the social order by envisioning King Herod as contemplating what the coming of this new King, Jesus, could mean for society. Here is what Auden has Herod say:
One needn’t be much of a psychologist to realize that if this rumor is not stamped out now, in a few years it is capable of diseasing the whole Empire, and one doesn’t have to be a prophet to predict the consequences if it should.
Reason will be replaced by Revelation…
The New Aristocracy will consist exclusively of hermits, bums, and permanent invalids. The Rough Diamond, the Consumptive Whore, the bandit who is good to his mother, the epileptic girl who has a way with the animals will be the heroes and heroines of the New Tragedy when the general, the statesman, and the philosopher have become the butt of every farce and satire
Naturally this cannot be allowed to happen. Civilization must be saved even if this means sending for the military, as I suppose it does. How dreary. Why is it that in the end civilization always has to call in those professional tidiers to whom it is all one it be Pythagoras or a homicidal lunatic that they are instructed to exterminate. O dear, Why couldn’t this wretched infant be born somewhere else? Why can’t people be sensible?
The coming of Jesus and the very possibility of His allowing children, of all people, into the inner circles of importance was a threat too great to the natural assumptions of a society in which value was defined by strength and power.
The heart of Jesus treasures the lowly and is indignant towards the proud who look down on them.
Even so, the reaction of Jesus demonstrates that the heart of Jesus treasures the lowly and is indignant towards the proud who look down on them.
14 But when Jesus saw it, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God.
Mark tells us that Jesus was “indignant” toward the disciples. R.T. France has pointed out that this is the only time that Mark uses this word of Jesus. The word, France says, “covers both irritation at their failure to learn and repugnance at their attitude in itself.” That is well said. Jesus is irritated and repulsed by the disciples’ shortsightedness, pride, and failure to grasp what He had just taught them!
Jesus responded, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God.” In doing so, he revealed that He treasured the lowly. Jesus loves the lowly! In fact, the kingdom of God “belongs to” the lowly. That is to say, the Kingdom of God is upside-down from a human perspective but right-side-up from God’s. The kingdom of this world seems hardwired to reward the strong, the powerful, the wealthy, the beautiful, and the successful. But the in the Kingdom of God it is the lowly, it is those who mourn, it is the poor in spirit, it is the cross-carriers, it is the peacemakers who are celebrated. God’s heart is open to those to whom the world’s heart is closed.
“For though the Lord is high,” David said in Psalm 138:6, “he regards the lowly, but the haughty he knows from afar.” In Isaiah 57, Isaiah prophesied that God loves the lowly.
15 For thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite.”
As the heart of God is open to the lowly so too the heart of the Church must be. Conversely, whenever the Church closes its doors to the lowly, it likewise closes its door to God.
I was once at a church social and I happened to take my seat across from a very wealthy woman. While we were talking a man who had recently joined, a man who had considerably less than this woman, a man who was somewhat rough in manners and who did not know the unspoken rules of decorum that every cultural context seems to develop over time, came up and loudly and joyfully spoke to me. I liked this man immensely. I will never forget that he came up to speak to me, interrupting my conversation with the lady. He and I both laughed at a joke he told me. I found his rough edges charming and he was a good friend to me. As he turned to go he sloshed some corn off of his plate and onto my shoulder. I personally found this pretty funny as well. I recall looking back at the lady to find that she looked seriously put off by the gentleman. She rolled her eyes in thinly veiled irritation. I instantly looked away from her and refused to return her reaction.
Some might say that such a reaction was a small thing. I think not. We should be careful of looking down on people, of rolling our eyes at those that the “important” people consider “lowly.” We should beware of making those little overtures that say, “You are beneath me. You are an irritation.”
Jesus does not roll His eyes at those “on the outside.” Jesus opens His arms. He does not close them. To such belong the Kingdom of God!
We truly know Christ not only when we love the lowly but when we likewise become lowly.
Jesus next moves from welcoming this specific group of children to fleshing out the full and radical implications of His doing so. He does this by calling His obstructing disciples to become like the children they were forbidding. If the Kingdom of God is for the lowly, then we must likewise become lowly to enter it and to be at home there!
15 Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”
In what way do we “receive the kingdom of God like a child”? I agree with Barclay when he points to four particular qualities of children:
- A child’s humility
- A child’s obedience
- A child’s trust
- A child’s short memory
We must come to Jesus like this: humbly, obediently, and with trust. To receive the Kingdom like a child is to receive it with childlike joy and expectation. Jesus calls His disciples to this and, in so doing, calls us all to this. Then, Jesus does something profoundly beautiful.
16 And he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands on them.
The Lord Jesus welcomes the children then embraces the children. I love Victor of Antioch’s beautiful 5th century words about the significance of this act.
Fitly does he take them up into his arms to bless them, as it were, lifting into his own bosom, and reconciling himself to his creation, which in the beginning fell from him, and was separated from him.
That is, in embracing the children, Jesus embraces the world, for the children are lowly and we are all lowly. But this reveals yet another fact about Jesus: Jesus came lowly to reach the lowly. Jesus calls us to become like a child because Jesus Himself became a child. This is why the powerful and the mighty oftentimes find it difficult to see and find Jesus. This is why, as Jesus said in Matthew 19, it is hard for such people to enter the Kingdom
23 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”
Why is it hard for such people to understand Jesus, to see Jesus, to come to Jesus? Simply put, on their way to the top they miss Him on His way to the bottom. Where is Jesus? He is back there in the dirt playing with the children. To find Him, we must become like children.
Fred Craddock told the story of Rachel, a woman who was misunderstood because she figured out how to become like a child, how to become lowly.
I want to pause here and tell you about Rachel, but I am very hesitant. She is so quiet, and her life has been so hidden from public view that such exposure as this brief story will bring might embarrass her. Rachel recently entered a retirement home where others can be to her the family she never had. After graduation, she took a teaching job in the grade school of a small town, and there she remained for forty years, introducing children to books and ideas and to each other. Before her retirement she had taught boys and girls, and their boys and girls, and their boys and girls. Of course, she threatened to retire many weary springs, but threats by Rachel were very much like little boys’ threats to run away from home. The fact is, she was pained by the springtime and the simple rituals of promotion by which her boys and girls were lost to her. She felt delightfully guilty when a favorite pupil (and weren’t they all favorite to her?) was detained another year. Summers and weekends were spent gathering objects to help her teaching. I wonder how many pumpkins, flags, witches, turkeys, Santa Clauses, and valentines she had stuck on her classroom windows.
No one could have been more shocked than Rachel when the chairman of the school board told her that she was being given early retirement. Do not misunderstand: She never for a moment took it as a personal criticism or lack of confidence in her abilities as a teacher. Her response was shock simply because it vibrated against her finally achieving the one ambition of her life: to become a child. Not childish, that sad state of those who try to negotiate adult life with a child’s reasons and behaviors. No, I mean she became a child. Rachel moved totally out of the adult world into that of the children. Their laughter, fears, anticipations, games, pains, and friendships were hers. At Halloween at Christmas, at Valentine’s Day, she was totally a child. Finally she had done it! No more generation gap, no more distance in vocabulary and perspective and vested interest, now full rapport and perfect communication. “Poor Rachel,” said the adults who had once been her pupils but had so completely moved out of a child’s world that they did not recognize in her present manner the full flowering of those childlike qualities she possessed only in part when they were in her class. But finally after forty years, for the sake of the children, she had become one of them. The perfect teacher! “She will have to be retired,” muttered the school board. “For the sake of the children we will have to let her go.”
No parents raised an outcry; they accepted in silence the decision as painfully right. Only a newcomer, with more reason than feeling, asked why. “Because she has become like the children.”
And He became in every way as we are. Of course, we had to get rid of Him.
The strong, the powerful, the mighty do not know what to do with the lowly. But lowly Jesus came to the lowly! He is found even today among the lowly! To find Him, we too must humble ourselves, set aside our power and all the things we use to exalt ourselves, and become lowly like a child.
Jesus set aside His might to embrace us in our lowliness. Do not miss Him because you are too busy guarding what you see as your own strength and power and might.
Come to Him as a child.
Come to Jesus as a child.
 William Lane, The Gospel According to Mark. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Gen. Ed., Joel B. Green (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974), p.50-51. http://papyri.info/ddbdp/p.oxy;4;744
 Quoted in Joel Marcus, Mark 8-16. The Anchor Bible. Vol.27A (New Haven, CT: The Anchor Yale Bible, 2009), p.718.
 Adela Yarbo Collins, Mark. Hermeneia. Ed., Harold W. Attridge. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2007), p.472.
 R.T. France, The Gospel of Mark. The New International Greek Testament Commentary. Gen. Eds., I. Howard Marshall and Donald A. Hagner. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002), p.396.
 William Barclay, p.250-251.
 Quoted in Joel Marcus, p.71.
 Fred B. Craddock, Craddock Stories. (St. Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2001), p.20-21.