‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. 15Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’ 16And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.
Mark 10: 14-16 – NRSV
What do we make of the phrase ‘whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it’? When we think of little children, the characteristics that come to our minds are maybe these: innocent, humble, obedient, trustful, joyful, unselfconscious, receptive, wondering, mischievous, tolerant and maybe even resilient? But it’s extremely difficult to piece together exactly what Jesus meant by the phrase ‘as a little child’. Our problem is that our society’s so distant from first century Palestine, that its’ almost impossible to put ourselves in their place. What I want to suggest to you is that maybe Jesus didn’t mean any of the characteristics of children that come to our twenty first century minds, but something that’s much less obvious and miles more challenging.
We think of children as a gift; as demanding our nurture and protection; many of us would go so far as to consider our roles as parents as possibly the most important we ever undertake in adult life.
But things were different in Jesus’ time and we kid ourselves if we believe children had an honoured place in that society. First of all, whether we like it or not, we have to accept that the birth of a girl, as in some Middle and Far Eastern societies even now, was greeted with sorrow in the time of Jesus, as women were considered inferior beings to men in every respect. But even male children were the legal property of their fathers (note, not mothers). Unwanted babies, particularly those from non-Jewish families, were often dumped on rubbish heaps and if they were rescued at all, it was so that they could be sold into slavery. There was much infanticide, particularly of girl babies and children had no rights, no value and no position in society. They only became of value when they were old enough to start work.
So I think it’s fair to speculate that when Jesus said that the kingdom of God belongs to small children, what he was saying was that they were absolutely without status or value. In this sense, his teaching on children very much accords with the message that we read elsewhere in the gospels: prostitutes, the unclean, lepers, the destitute, women and, yes, children, are the ones that God is blessing and to whom he is holding out the promise of a better future. It’s one small example of Jesus’ revolutionary teaching, that turns the world on its head.
We’ve come so far from the first century approach to the value of children, that maybe to bring the story to life, we need to consider who Jesus might have pointed to, to make his point in Britain in our time. To whom, in our country in 2020, does the Kingdom of God belong? We might think of destitute immigrants, or of the homeless, sleeping in cardboard boxes? Or of those who have no job, no home, no friends, no money and no prospects? All of these would have received Jesus’ compassion, but if we look for those with no influence or status at all, maybe we need look no further than the elderly with dementia in Care Homes? Like small children, such people are totally reliant on the compassion and goodwill of others.
They are, I think, the people, and those like them, whom Jesus had in mind when he said that the Kingdom of God belongs to little children.
What he was saying was that we need to become like nobodies, like people with neither power nor status, if we’re to understand what he truly expects of his followers. It’s one of our Lord’s toughest and most uncompromising messages. And at a time when Care Homes are in the press in a way that they aren’t normally, it’s maybe an example of how we should pray that things change, once the current restrictions have been lifted?
Loving Father, we know that Jesus brought his message specially for those with the least power and influence in his time. As we go about our daily lives at this challenging time, please remind us to keep uppermost in our prayers those who can no longer pray for themselves. Amen