13 Then children were brought to him that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples rebuked the people, 14 but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” 15 And he laid his hands on them and went away.
Charles Dickens once wrote, “In the world of little children, the greatest hurt of all is injustice.”
I suspect there might be something to that. And if there is something to that, then the little children mentioned in Matthew 19 risked being very hurt indeed! For an injustice was being perpetrated against them. Namely, they were being kept from Jesus and their parents were being rebuked by Jesus’ closest followers!
This could have gone down as a very ugly episode, but Jesus would have none of it. In fact, Jesus’ reaction to the children and their parents being turned away changed this into something profoundly beautiful!
The disciples revealed themselves to be products of their day in their treatment of these children.
We begin with the offense. Listen:
13 Then children were brought to him that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples rebuked the people
Parents (and grandparents?) were bringing their children to Jesus. The disciples (a) stopped them and (b) rebuked those who were bringing them.
It is, admittedly, easy to beat up on the disciples here, but let us admit that their intentions were not necessarily malicious. Perhaps they were simply being protective of Jesus. Perhaps they knew how tired He was on this occasion. Perhaps they were concerned about a mob. After all, had not Jesus once put a little distance between Himself and a pressing crowd by getting in a boat and pushing offshore? Was this the intent of the disciples?
Or was it malicious. Were they knowing demonstrating an elitist attitude that saw these children and their parents as a nuisance, as not worthy of Jesus’s attention?
It is hard to say. Some of this depends on how charitable you choose to be in interpreting this. But this much is clear: in hindering the children and rebuking the parents, the disciples were exhibiting, knowingly or not, the tragic attitude of the dominant culture of the day towards these children. I am speaking here of Rome. These disciples were actually acting like Romans, regardless of their intentions or motives and regardless of whether they realized it or not.
Let me explain.
The historian Tom Holland has written of the way that the Romans viewed children. Some selections of this thoughts:
Hardness was a Roman ideal. The steel required to hunt out glory or endure disaster was the defining mark of a citizen. It was instilled in him from the moment of his birth. The primary response of Roman parents to their babies appears to have been less tenderness than shock that anything could be quite so soft and helpless. “An infant, like a sailor hurled ashore by savage waves, lies naked on the ground, unable to speak a word, utterly dependent on other people for his survival.” To the Romans, such a condition verged on the scandalous. Children were certainly too weak to be idealized, and the highest praise a child could be given was to be compared to an adult. The result is, to modern eyes at least, a curious and frustrating gap in ancient biographies. Never do the great figures of the Republic appear chillier or more remote from us than when their earliest years are being described. We are offered portraits of them as prodigies of physical toughness or learning—stiff, priggish, implausible. Anecdotes that portray them as children rather than as mini-adults are few and far between. The greater the figure, the less adequate the portrait of his childhood is likely to appear. The early years of a man such as Caesar are effectively a blank..
…A Roman did not become a citizen by right of birth. It was within the power of every father to reject a newborn child, to order unwanted sons, and especially daughters, to be exposed…
…The Romans lacked a specific word for “baby,” reflecting their assumption that a child was never too young to be toughened up. Newborns were swaddled tightly to mold them into the form of adults, their features were kneaded and pummelled, and boys would have their foreskins yanked to make them stretch. Old-fashioned Republican morality and newfangled Greek medicine united to prescribe a savage regime of dieting and cold baths. The result of this harsh upbringing was to contribute further to an already devastating infant mortality rate. It has been estimated that only two out of three children survived their first year, and that under 50 percent went on to reach puberty. The deaths of children were constant factors of family life. Parents were encouraged to respond to such losses with flinty calm. The younger the child, the less emotion would be shown, so that it was a commonplace to argue that “if an infant dies in its cradle, then its death ought not even be mourned.” Yet reserve did not necessarily spell indifference. There is plenty of evidence from tombstones, poetry, and private correspondence to suggest the depth of love that Roman parents could feel.
This kind of overall negative approach to babies and to children was being demonstrated in the attitude and actions of the disciples. They were, to put it bluntly, acting like Roman pagans! This sets the stage for the stark contrast of both Jesus’ words and Jesus’ actions in response.
Jesus shifts their focus from “ground-up” to “Kingdom-down.”
Yes, the disciples were acting like pagans. They were viewing this whole situation from the “ground up.” That is, they were seeing the inconvenience of these children and the presumption of their parents. They were viewing this in human terms and looking at it through very human lenses. But notice what Jesus says:
14 but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.”
Jesus, far from viewing the situation from the “ground up” viewed it and responded instead from the “Kingdom down,” from Heaven down. He makes three statements:
- Let the children come.
- Do not hinder the children.
- To such belongs the kingdom of heaven.
Frederick Dale Bruner points out that the word “such” in “for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven” “means that not only little children but also persons like little children make up the heavenly kingdom…” Yes, Jesus is speaking of all those in society that people consider small, insignificant, as unworthy of coming to Him.
For to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.
The Kingdom is for children and to “such” like children. This is not the first time that Jesus spoke of the Kingdom in these terms. In Matthew 18, we read:
1 At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 2 And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them 3 and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.4 Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5 “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, 6 but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.
In our text, Jesus says that the Kingdom “belongs” to children. In Matthew 18, we are told that we should become like children, should humble ourselves as children, and should receive children because, in doing so, we are receiving Him. Here, childlikeness is connected to the Kingdom, to the Christian, and, indeed, to Jesus Himself, in terms of reception. What is more, causing a child to sin is condemned by Jesus as a great crime against Him and the Kingdom, with severe results!
In Mark 9, we read:
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.”
Here again, the child is a model for the humility and trust that the believer should possess and demonstrated (“If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.”) and receiving the child is presented by Jesus as a picture of receiving Him.
We see, then, that Jesus was challenging them to view children and all the humble of the earth not only as uniquely prized in the Kingdom of Heaven but as a picture of what we all should be! To reject the child is to reject all that the Kingdom holds dear. To reject the child is to reject the type of mentality and heart that we all should possess. And in a very real sense to reject the child is to reject Christ!
Our perspective matters! Do we have a Kingdom perspective? Jesus, in saying what He said here and elsewhere, was calling on the disciples to have just such a perspective.
Jesus, in blessing the children, confirmed their value and significance.
Jesus next does something that sets him in stark contrast not only with the disciples in this moment but also with the dominant world system.
15 And he laid his hands on them and went away.
He laid His hands on them. He blessed them. He saw them. He acknowledged them. He welcomed them. And, in so doing, He confirmed their value and significance.
The importance of verse 15 rests in the fact that Jesus moves from words to action, from preaching to enactment, from Kingdom verities to Kingdom incarnation.
Jesus does not love us from a distance. Jesus’ welcoming of the lowly is not theoretical. Rather, it is concrete. It is real. “And he laid his hands on them and went away.”
The disciples and the world hold up hands of protest in the face of the so-called inconvenient, the lowly, the unimportant, the small. Not so, Jesus! Jesus extends hands of welcome! Jesus’ words stung the disciples but His actions shamed them.
I have read of the pastor of a megachurch in one a major southern city who has a standing rule that his congregants cannot touch him. No hugging. No hand shaking. None of that. They cannot touch their pastor! What a rebuke this passage is to such arrogant aloofness! Jesus, the Savior of the world, invites the children and then lays His hands on them! May we thank God for the welcoming touch of Jesus!
It also strikes me that Jesus’ actions also redeem this moment and make of something very ugly something very beautiful. Had Jesus not acted, these children and their parents would have forever associated Jesus with the rejection of the disciples. That would have been utterly disastrous to their very perception of the Lord!
In East of Eden, John Steinbeck wrote:
When a child first catches adults out—when it first walks into his grave little head that adults do not have divine intelligence, that their judgments are not always wise, their thinking true, their sentences just—his world falls into panic desolation. The gods are fallen and all safety gone. And there is one sure thing about the fall of gods: they do not fall a little; they crash and shatter or sink deeply into green muck. It is a tedious job to guild them up again; they never quite shine. And the child’s world is never quite whole again. It is an aching kind of growing.
Yes. Making allowances for Steinbeck’s unique way of putting this, this is certainly so. When children become disillusioned with adults by virtue of adult meanness or foolishness or wickedness, their worlds are marred by the jarring realization from that point forward. That might have been their experience in the case, had Jesus not moved to speak and act. However, because of Jesus, when these children and their parents looked back on this moment, they saw not Steinbeck’s “fall of gods,” but rather the shining glory of the one true God who says, with open arms, “Come to me! Come to me! And I will give you rest!”
 Quoted in Seamands, David A. (2010-11-01). Healing for Damaged Emotions (Kindle Location 1536). David C Cook. Kindle Edition.
 Holland, Tom. Rubicon (pp. 111-114). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
 Frederick Dale Bruner, Matthew. Vol.2. Revised & Expanded Edition. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004), p.282.
 John Steinbeck. East of Eden (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2002), 20.