Let the Little Children Come to Me

There is a short section in Matthew 19 that deals with children who were being brought to Jesus. The disciple rebuke the people then Jesus says, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.”

How many of you find this to be a surprising text? Surprising not for the way in which Jesus reacts, but for the way the disciples seek to prevent the children from coming?

I was thinking about my own reaction to the story, and I think it is a great credit to the church today that so many are shocked at the disciples. We read it and say to ourselves, “Where do they get off trying to stop children, of all people, from coming to Jesus?” But we only say that because so many in the church have worked in the intervening centuries to do as Jesus did and welcome children. Children are to have a place in the church and we celebrate them. So many places in our society leave no place for kids. They are a nuisance or inconvenient. But in a church that seeks to follow Jesus here, the very opposite is true.

If churches were not a place that embraces children as a legitimate part of the community, but rather saw them as not-yet-important part of it, we’d read this passage and be more surprised that Jesus welcomes them. What the disciples did was probably not unexpected to their audience, but thankfully when I read it I’m taken aback and say, “What were they thinking?”

Good thing Jesus set us straight.

An Assault on a Promise to Abraham

For the sons of Judah have done evil in my sight, declares the Lord. They have set their detestable things in the house that is called by my name, to defile it. And they have built the high places of Topheth, which is in the Valley of the Son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire, which I did not command, nor did it come into my mind. (Jeremiah 7:30-31)

Reading through the prophets you come across a long list of the sins of God’s people, a people who are called to be set apart from their neighbors, who are supposed to be a holy nation. To me, this one stands out among the rest. They have not only been guilty of evil, but they have done their evil in the house of God. They have built up Topheth for a horrifying practice, sacrificing their sons and daughters. These “sons of Judah” have sacrificed their own flesh in pagan practices by throwing their children into the flames.

Michelangelo’s depiction of Jeremiah from the Sistine Chapel.

How much sorrow must this cause our God? He has many times seen his people turn away from him, which causes him grief. But here the sin of the parents is to destroy their own children. Judah is taking the lives of God’s people and in so doing, upending the promises of God. They are no longer cherishing the promise of God to Abraham and his descendants. Instead they cast the promised children into this Valley of Slaughter.

God promised Abraham offspring so numerous they’d be impossible to count and Abraham longed for a child. Children were an honor and a blessing. But here in Jeremiah as descendants of Abraham receive this promise, they mock God and his promises. It is evil in God’s sight as they slaughter their own kin–something so far from God’s mind.

This is a clear reason why Jeremiah comes to preach judgment, and good reason that he is known as the weeping prophet (Jer 9).

Jesus Loves the Little Children

Even though we’re reminded in Scripture not to hold some spiritual gifts and ministries in higher esteem than others, since we are all part of the same body in need of the unique callings and work of all its parts, we can at times fall into that trap. One area that can be tempting is in regards to the gift of teaching. You may find yourself thinking that the higher up the educational ladder you are, the more spiritually accomplished you are. If I can teach wise, elder members of a congregation that is more impressive than “just” teaching some little kids. You’ve really got to be real spiritual to do the former, and the latter is just glorified child care, right?

But listen to these words of Jesus from Mark 9:33-37:

And they came to Capernaum. And when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you discussing on the way?” But they kept silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest. 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.” And he took a child and put him in the midst of them, and taking him in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.”

The disciples are wrapped up in who is the greatest. Maybe it is a discussion about who is the most spiritually mature. Jesus’ response is to take a child into his arms, and challenge these bickering disciples to do a great work–to receive a child in his name.

That’s not a work that is leftover for those who can’t do something else. He says this to his twelve disciples, future leaders of the early church. Working with and for children is a great, high calling. It is a wonderful witness that within the church children are valued so much. They are not a nuisance nor are they a distraction of the real work of the church. Receiving a child in the name of Jesus is part of what we are called to do.

We have been gifted by God in different ways, so don’t let the differences lead you into ranking these works or associating some with differing levels of spiritual maturity. All of God’s gifts are needed and valuable to him.

So today I give a special thanks to all who work with children. Know you do a special work of Christ in sharing his love with those little ones.