Then children were brought to him that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples rebuked the people, but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” And he laid his hands on them and went away. – Matthew 19:13-15 (ESV)
At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
“Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, 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.
“Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation comes! And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire.
“See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven – Matthew 18:1-11 (ESV)
Sometimes it surprises me how often the teachings of Jesus and the early church are compared to socialism, especially in light of the fact that the Jewish law demands that the poor and the foreigner among us be shown at least basic hospitality. In other words, I do not believe Jesus was being especially innovative with the kind of economic lifestyle he asked from most of his followers… (more on this next week). However, one thing Jesus was especially innovative in was his teachings and actions regarding children, something I do not believe I have seen a facebook status or email forward about in many years. What does that say about us? Does that show us as caring more about taxes, about our money, than our children? Does it mean that we find Christian teachings about how we use our money more controversial or harder to accept than the teachings about children? Maybe we think we live in a society that so embodies Jesus’ view on children that we don’t really have to think about it at all.
I believe that, although we may feel that we live in a society that places a high value on children, or that at least we ourselves do, we are often mistaken. Before I go any further I should clarify, for those of you who do not know me personally: I have no children of my own and my primary interaction with children is from a teacher or pastor role. While I have not had the experience of actually raising children and caring for them day to day, I have seen the extremes that come out teaching in Junior High classrooms at school or leading youth lock-ins at church. I may not have seen all of it, but I have seen enough to not be entirely naïve or ignorant of the challenge of raising children.
It is true – raising children is no walk in the park. They push our boundaries, try our patience, break our hearts… it is most certainly a challenge. But it is a challenge that Jesus specifically calls us to meet as the Church. When mothers brought their infants to Him, to bless, the disciples began to turn them away supposing that this was far beneath Jesus. He was changing the world with His teaching and could have much more impact on a community speaking with the leaders of the people, or at least people who could understand and apply His teaching. These infants could not understand any part of the Sermon on the Mount… they had not learned to talk yet. Jesus thought differently. Jesus had taught, in the Sermon on the Mount, that the Kingdom of God belonged to these children: the Meek, the Poor in Spirit – and he reiterated again to the disciples. The Kingdom of heaven belongs to these little ones.
Earlier, when asked who the greatest in the Kingdom was, Jesus had called a young child to Him and put him among the disciples saying, “unless you become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” This even stronger statement was followed by the lesson that, not only does the kingdom belong to children, but woe to anyone who should cause one of those children to stumble, for “they always see the face of my Father who is in heaven.” Not only are children to be valued, they are to be nurtured and protected as well. Nowhere else do we see Jesus take such strong words and severe warnings. The disciples are never given such dire consequences if they don’t pay their tithes or fail to give enough money to the poor. There were no extreme measures taken when they couldn’t seem to stay awake long enough to pray for Jesus on the night He was betrayed, arrested, and eventually crucified. There was no punishment for the way they abandoned Him or denied Him… but don’t you mess with His kids, for He is the Good Shepherd that watches over and protects them.
Now, thus far, most of us probably are in full agreement with Jesus. Typically, we in the church today rationalize God’s love of children by saying that they are our future (i.e. a means to an end) the continuation of all that we work to maintain. While this may, or may not be true from a practical standpoint, God does not love kids just because He thinks there would be no church 50 years from now without them. He does not value them, or anyone else, for what He can get out of them, and neither should we. He loves them because He made each one of them and they are His.
It is the implications of this love that can be troubling for us. Certainly we would claim that we want the best for our children, but does that include bringing them to God, to opportunities for them to learn about, experience, and worship God? Are we so willing to bring them when we are struggling with God ourselves and do not feel like going ourselves? How do we deal with the world that tells us we should let children choose for themselves and Jesus command not to be a stumbling-block to them and their faith? What about when we take them to church where they learn about God and the life He has for us, but we do not demonstrate that life and love at home… are we causing them to stumble then? Oh this becomes a much more troubling teaching and our job so much more challenging. It means we have to actually live as a Christian witness 24/7 365 days a year, not just whenever we are ready to share our faith. This then is the really difficult part. Jesus gave this teaching to his disciples, who were not holding back their own children, but the children of strangers in the villages Jesus had visited. So our responsibility to show children God’s love is not just for parents who have children of their own, but to each and every one of us… to be shown to all children, everywhere. We are not to be stumbling-blocks for the faith of our neighbor’s children, who may not have anything to do with church at all. Each one of us, who holds the Holy Spirit within us, the Spirit of Christ is called to share that with all the children who cross our paths. You see, as important as Sunday School and Children’s Church programs are, God’s love for children extends far outside the walls of our church buildings. We are all called to share God’s love with the children in this world He loves so dearly.