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Children in the Kingdom of God

by Donna Aust

This week in our journey through Matthew, Jesus will once again put forth children as examples for his followers, preparing us for his exchange with a rich man who is unable to enter into the kingdom of God because of his wealth (Matt 19:13–30). This story also appears in Mark’s Gospel. In this article, Donna Aust examines Mark’s telling of Jesus’ encounter with these children, in order to help us better understand the heart of discipleship.

Children in Jesus’ World

Literary documents, including the New Testament, reveal that childhood in both the Greco-Roman and Judean worlds was often viewed as a treacherous stage of life, and that a child’s social status ranked him or her among the marginalized, poor, sick, powerless, dominated, and exploited.[1]  The child was seen as being among the “least,” along with women, the poor, and the unclean. Children were easily dominated, even exploited, and were dependent on adults. Further, they were not regarded as legal persons in the Palestinian Jewish culture in which the gospel was first preached.[2]

Accordingly, Mark presents children as those who stand at the bottom of the social hierarchy. This is evidenced in Mark 10:13: “People were bringing little children to Jesus to have him touch them, but the disciples rebuked them.” The inference is clear: children were regarded as insignificant and bothersome. Jesus’ attitudes toward children are quite different, not only here in this text, but throughout all four Gospels. We see Jesus healing children and even bringing at least one child back from the dead—he raised Jairus’ daughter (Matt 9:18–26; Mark 5:22–43; Luke 8:41–56), cast demons out of a Gentile Syrophoenician woman’s daughter (Matt 15:21–28; Mark 7:24–30) and the son of a common man (Matt 17:14–19; Mark 9:14–28; Luke 9:37–42), and healed a royal official’s son (John 4:46–54).

Setting the Stage for Discipleship: Mark 9:36–37

Following Jesus’ second passion prediction (about which the disciples lacked understanding) and in response to the disciples’ concern for honor (Mark 9:36), Jesus points them to the one with the least amount of societal honor: a little child. Jesus hugs the child, welcomes him/her to the center of the group and utters the stunning two-part aphorism: “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me” (v. 37). In a culture where children were not legal entities, the disciples would have been shocked at this radical notion. Jesus, their teacher, identified himself with the neediest and most vulnerable.

Jesus settles his disciples’ dispute over who will be greatest by reversing the values of society and giving a new definition of greatness. He does this by welcoming someone, not of equal or higher honor, but of lower, if not the lowest, status—a child! Welcoming the lowly amounts to welcoming the one with the highest honor, God himself. Being first can only be achieved by serving others, which equates to being last. Jesus is the exemplar of servanthood and expects his followers to walk in the same manner. This idea of servant discipleship is characterized by service and identification with the disempowered, not by authority and power. It is this view that pushes a fresh understanding of Mark 10:13–16.

Let the Children Come to Me

Mark 10:13–16 reads as follows:
“[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.”

There is no change of setting between 10:12 and 10:13. Any indication that Jesus was about to leave the house where he had just concluded his teaching about divorce is lacking. Both events appear to take place in the same setting.

Verse 13 begins, “They were bringing children to him . . .” Who are “they”? Most commentators believe this would be either mothers, fathers, or perhaps older children.[3]  Okure suggests it would have most likely been women, the mothers or nannies of those little children, since men did not normally carry small children in private or public.[4]  Children in Mark’s Gospel are designated by the Greek word paidion (little child), which implies vulnerability.[5]  And why were they bringing these children to Jesus? The answer is given immediately: “In order that he might touch them.” These children might have been sick or demon possessed, and the mothers may have expected him to heal them. The text doesn’t tell us.

There can be no doubt that the disciples were having enormous difficulty assimilating Jesus’ reversal of human values. Their rebuke of the people who were bringing children to Jesus is ample evidence that the problem persisted, and it sparked Jesus’ indignation. According to Mark, “the disciples rebuked” the mothers who brought their children. The word for “rebuke” is severe, and is used elsewhere in Mark of Jesus’ attitude towards demons and unclean spirits (1:25; 3:12; 9:25), the stormy sea (4:39),[6]  and of Peter’s opposition to God’s will (8:30–33). Although Mark spoke earlier of Jesus’ anger at the leper’s doubt (1:41),[7]  verse 14 is the only passage in the Gospels where Jesus is said to be “indignant.” The Greek word used here (aganakteō) means “‘to arouse to anger,’ that is, ‘to vent oneself in expressed displeasure rather than simply brooding about it.’”[8]  Here Jesus is indignant at least and perhaps even outraged. Jesus’ displeasure reveals his compassion and his defense of the helpless, vulnerable, and powerless.

Jesus continues, “Let the little children come to me; do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these” (v. 14). This statement again reveals Jesus’ unique authority, for he unashamedly presumes to correlate the kingdom of God with himself. In coming to Jesus, the children are coming to the one in whom God’s present reign is made manifest.  In 9:36–37 the child was introduced by Jesus to illustrate status in the kingdom of God, and the specific issue raised was that of “receiving” such a child in Jesus name. Here, it is other people (the mothers) who take the initiative rather than Jesus.

This verse combines a positive exhortation (“allow the little children to come to me”) with a prohibition (“do not continue stopping them”). The reason for both is “for to such belongs the kingdom of God.” One must receive the kingdom of God as a child receives, as Edwards writes, with “no credits, no clout, no claims. A little child has absolutely nothing to bring, and whatever a child receives, he or she receives by grace on the basis of their sheer neediness rather than any merit inherent in him- or herself.”[9]

Theologian Peter Spitaler contends that Mark interlocks narrative frame and speech, embedding an ambiguous simile (to welcome God’s kingdom like a child, v. 15) within the larger context of a story (10:13–16).[10]  This enables us to interpret Jesus’ words in light of his actions: “Welcome the kingdom as one welcomes a child.”[11]  According to this view, the point of comparison illuminated by the simile is “welcoming” and not “becoming”—one cannot enter the kingdom unless one welcomes the kingdom as one would welcome a child. In contrast, the traditional interpretation, (welcoming God’s kingdom as a child welcomes it) dissociates Jesus’ words from his actions. The disciples apparently lack this spirit of receptiveness; otherwise they would not have rebuked those who came to receive the blessing from Jesus.

The passage ends with Jesus taking the little children into his arms, laying his hands on them, and blessing them (v. 16). Jesus’ actions resemble the ritual priestly blessings that were well-known in Israel, which suggested authority. This epitomizes God’s gracious reception of the vulnerable and needy by welcoming and blessing the children.

Conclusion

To receive the kingdom of God means “to become like a child,” whose lowly and humble demeanor identifies with the least in society, the marginalized, and oppressed. Furthermore, it challenges us to welcome God’s kingdom as one would welcome a child.[12]  In this double-imaging, we can receive the kingdom of God as both gift and task. Receiving the kingdom as a little child implies the welcome and blessing of Jesus for us as we recognize ourselves to be vulnerable and needy. And it also invites us to receive and embrace the vulnerable “child” in our midst. This view is consistent with the overall theme reflected in the gospels, such as we find, for example, in Matthew 25:40: “Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of mine, even the least of them, you did it to me.”

Whether it’s taking on the posture of a lowly, marginalized child and becoming the “least” of them, or following Jesus’ example, and welcoming the least of them, Jesus invites his disciples and the church today into a new reality of discipleship. When we come to him in our utter brokenness and humility, like vulnerable children, and embrace the poor, marginalized and oppressed among us, we can expect Jesus to scoop us up into his arms, lay his hands on us and bless us with his perfect love and unconditional grace! That’s what it means to receive the kingdom of God.


[1] Throughout Mark’s Gospel we learn about daughters who die (5:21) and are demon-possessed (7:25), as well as a son seized by a spirit (9:17), and children who are servants (9:35), rejected (10:13), left alone (10:29), and betrayed (13:12).
[2] Teresa Okure, “Children in Mark: A Lens for Reading Mark’s Gospel,” in Mark: Texts & Contexts, ed. Nicole Duran, Teresa Okure, and Daniel M. Patte (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2011), 130.
[3] John D. Grassmick, “Mark,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, ed. John F. Walvoord and Roy B. Zuck, 2 vols. (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1985), 2:149.
[4] Okure, 137.
[5] Ibid. This word, also used in 5:39, can refer to anyone ranging from babies to preteens. Note that Luke 18:15 calls those who were brought “infants” (brephē). See Grasssmick, 2:149.
[6] While this demonstrates Jesus’ authority and power over even that which is perceived to be evil and terrifying, it also precedes Jesus confronting the fearful disciples about their lack of faith, which may have contributed to Jesus’ passionate rebuke.
[7] This is based on a reading of Mark 1:41 adopted by the NIV, but not by some other major translations, such as the ESV and KJV. While some favor the reading, “moved with pity” (Gk. splagchnistheis; Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 4th ed. [New York: United Bible Societies, 1994], 65), others, rather convincingly, favor “angered” (orgisheis; R. T. France, The Gospel of Mark, NIGTC [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002], 115).
[8] James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark, PNTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 306.
[9] Edwards, 307.
[10] Peter Spitaler, “Welcoming a Child as. Metaphor for Welcoming God’s Kingdom: A Close Reading of Mark 10:13–16,” JSNT 31 (2009): 439.
[11] Okure, 138.
[12] Spitaler, 424.

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