“People were also bringing babies to Jesus for him to place his hands on them. When the disciples saw this, they rebuked them. 16 But Jesus called the children to him and said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. 17 Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.’ “(Luke 18: 15-17)
This passage is often chosen for services of Christening and the like. The first verse would seem to suggest that usage. Isn’t that what vicars do, to stand in the place of Jesus to bless the babies?
The word translated “place his hands” is Greek hapto, “to make close contact, as a means of conveying a blessing.” In Matthew’s account we read, “Then little children were brought to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them” (Matthew 19:13a).
As a pastor, I have had the privilege of taking many little children in my arms at infant dedications, placing my hands on them, praying for them, and speaking a blessing over them. It’s a really wonderful experience. No wonder these parents wanted this blessing for their own children when Jesus was teaching.
And the disciples say no.
You can imagine why. Parents are bringing babies, and letting their toddlers run up to Jesus, and Jesus would, with great joy, scoop them up and pray for them. When Jesus did this once, other parents saw it and came down towards the front. They wanted this for their children, too, for their children were often with them in the audience.
But the disciples would have none of it. Jesus was doing important stuff- teaching and healing. They couldn’t allow this work to be interrupted by mere kids running wild. They began to stop the little children, and tell off the parents in no uncertain terms. The word translated “rebuked” is Greek epitimao, “to express strong disapproval of someone, ‘rebuke, reprove, censure,’ also ‘speak seriously, warn’ in order to prevent an action or bring one to an end.
And Jesus steps in, rebuking the rebukers. “Let the children come!”
“But Jesus called the children to him and said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.’ “ (Luke 18:16)
He doesn’t say that the Kingdom belongs to little children or that they are already in the Kingdom. He says that those who inherit or possess the kingdom will be “like” these children.
So what characteristic of children is Jesus pointing to as an essential characteristic of disciples? There are several possiblities:
- Innocence? Probably not. Judaism didn’t emphasize a child’s innocence, but rather a child’s immaturity and foolishness.
- Openness, trust, and receptivity? It’s possible, for this is surely an essential characteristic of disciples. But nothing in the context of the passage seems to point to this interpretation.
- Humility? This is much more likely, given the context of the story of the tax collector in the Temple. In the culture of the day, children were considered unimportant and second-class. To Jesus, the children’s humble station itself is symbolic of the humility required to approach God.
“I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” (Luke 18:17)
So how do the little children come to Jesus? Freely, openly, humbly. They come to God with no posturing of worthiness, like the Pharisee in the preceding parable (Luke 18:11-12). Rather, they come because Jesus calls them to him. They come in simple faith, like the tax collector (Luke 18:13).
Lack of pretension, openness, humility – these are the qualities of children that Jesus seems to be holding up as necessary for entrance to the Kingdom.
But there is another word here which mustn’t be missed. It’s the word “receive.” It reminds you of another frame of context in the Gospel of Luke, of parents who know how to give good gifts to their children …and of children who know how to receive. It picks up the thread of those who have learnt to “pray and not give up,” asking, seeking, knocking at a friend’s house at midnight until they get what they want.
So there’s another question: how do children receive gifts?
With passion and intensity, fiercely ripping open the package. There’s no question of restraint or holding back. They are seized by the joy of discovery.
And that’s how you receive the kingdom, says Jesus.
In The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry writes, “Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them.”
And as we grow and develop decorum, we forget what it is to grab for the biggest bit of cake.
And this, surely, is what was happening as Jesus watched the children eagerly scurrying around him, enjoying his presence and anxious to get as close as possible. It was their enthusiasm and drive, as if they were on fire from within. It was their innate knowledge that the onlylife worth living was a life full of passion, purpose, magic and miracles.
And this is what it is to receive like a child. All our words come together here. I receive innocently,because his love is stronger than my guilt. I receive openly, trustingly, receptively -like a happy puppy!- because his love is uncritical. I receive humbly because I know I have nothing to bring to the table except my appetite!
And yes, I receive voraciously, hungrily, determined to savour the last tasty morsel, because it is good to be beloved! It is wonderful to be so honoured! It is exciting to be so blessed. Such a fuss he makes over me!
For this is not just receiving the kingdom, but coming into an eternal relationship with the king.
In Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, there is a passionate description of what Heathcliff meant to Cathy:
“I cannot express it; but surely you and everybody have a notion that there is or should be an existence of yours beyond you. What were the use of my creation, if I were entirely contained here? My great miseries in this world have been Heathcliff’s miseries, and I watched and felt each from the beginning: my great thought in living is himself. If all else perished, and he remained, I should still continue to be; and if all else remained, and he were annihilated, the universe would turn to a mighty stranger: I should not seem a part of it. My love for Linton is like the foliage in the woods: time will change it, I’m well aware, as winter changes the trees. My love for Heathcliff resembles the eternal rocks beneath: a source of little visible delight, but necessary. Nelly, I am Heathcliff! He’s always, always in my mind: not as a pleasure, any more than I am always a pleasure to myself, but as my own being.”
Do you see the point? If all you read in Luke 18 is the desirability of humility, then you miss much. God is summoning us into the passion of children.