"Where are the children?" "Families belong together." "Childhood is not a crime." Protesters demonstrating against a zero-tolerance immigration policy hold these signs to express their outrage at the treatment of children whose families come to the US seeking refuge from violence in their home countries. So easily and frequently overlooked, children have brought US immigration policy to the forefront of national (and international) debate.
In a story that appears in Mark 10:13-16 (with parallels in Matthew 19:13-15 and Luke 18:15-17), Jesus puts children front and center in his ministry. This short narrative and its visual interpretation by Lucas Cranach provide an opportunity to reflect on the treatment of children in our homes, churches, and communities and on what it means to "receive God’s kingdom."
"And they were bringing children to him so that he might touch them" (v. 13a, NASB). Although some English versions identify the people who bring children to Jesus as "parents," the Greek text does not identify them as such. It has simply "they" and "children." Although it might well be that parents are bringing their biological sons and daughters to Jesus, it is intriguing to consider the possibility that "they" are bringing other people’s children. In her book Welcoming Children, Joyce Mercer encourages us to think not only of our own children's wellbeing, but also of the welfare of all children. She writes, "Jesus called on his followers to welcome, touch, and bless those members of the society most precariously positioned, the children; not only 'their own,' but also the children of others."
In response, the disciples "rebuke" them. Don’t the disciples get it that Jesus loves the little children? Earlier the disciples do not try to prevent people from bringing children to Jesus. They do not stop Jairus, who asks Jesus to heal his daughter (Mark 5:22-24). They do not stop the man who brings his son for healing (9:17-29). In fact, Mark’s short Gospel frequently describes interaction between Jesus and children that is unhindered by the disciples. So why now would they want to prevent children from approaching Jesus?
Scholar Judith M. Gundry observes that this narrative occurs at a turning point in Mark’s story. Jesus has twice explained his mission to the disciples, and they have twice misunderstood Jesus’ purpose. Thinking that Jesus’ mission has to do with power and status, they argue over who among them is the greatest (9:34). Later, they ask for positions of honor in the kingdom Jesus will establish (10:37). Gundry proposes that the disciples are impatient for Jesus to get on with his mission of bringing in the kingdom, which they incorrectly think will convey power and status to Jesus and those who follow him.
In Cranach’s painting, the disgruntled disciples are nearly shoved out of the frame by the women, children, and infants who surround Jesus. The facial expressions and body language of the men convey their disapproval. By contrast, the women and children appear joyful. They smile and embrace one another.
I love the bustle of activity around Jesus in Cranach’s painting. One infant even seems to be crawling on Jesus’ back! In the center of it all, Jesus holds a child to his cheek and rests his other hand on a child in a gesture of blessing. Although I have never thought of Jesus as a “hugger,” Mark uses a Greek word in this passage that means “to put one’s arms around someone as an expression of affection and concern—to embrace or to hug.” The International Standard Version is one of the few English versions to use the word “hug” here: “Then after he had hugged the children, he tenderly blessed them as he laid his hands on them.” We know today how important it is for children to be held. I like thinking that Jesus not only blessed the children, but also held and hugged them.
It would be easy to criticize the disciples for wanting to restrict access to Jesus. When we read Bible stories, we tend to see ourselves on the correct side of a conflict or disagreement. But think about it. How often are we like the disciples? Don’t we, too, get annoyed when others interrupt our work? Don’t we say to children “I’m busy—go find something to do until I finish this task.” Like the disciples, we adults are eager to get ahead with our projects, often at the expense of children. Children in God’s kingdom
Jesus corrects the disciples with an indignant response. “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it” (NRSV). Not only does Jesus welcome the children; he also proclaims that God’s kingdom belongs to “such as these” and that if we receive God’s kingdom, we receive it “as a little child.”
In the 16th century, Martin Luther used this passage to argue for infant baptism (over against the Anabaptists, our own spiritual ancestors). Interpreters today suggest that Jesus’ followers must adopt some childlike quality or characteristic, such as innocence, humility, or absolute dependence.
Still others suggest that, rather than defining entrance requirements, Jesus here describes the nature of God’s kingdom. In Jesus’ teaching, children represent those who are vulnerable and socially marginalized. If God’s kingdom belongs to “such as these,” it belongs to those at the bottom of society’s social ladder. God’s kingdom is one in which status and power no longer apply—which is why James and John are wrong to ask for seats that will indicate their position of power and glory “at the top.” All who are ignored and overlooked in humanly constructed social orders find that in God’s kingdom they are hugged, held, and blessed by Jesus.
Questions for reflection
What might we do differently in order to attend to the welfare of "other people’s children"?
How is our understanding of church affected if we think of God’s kingdom as a community in which those commonly ignored by society are "hugged, held, and blessed by Jesus"?
Judith M. Gundry, “Children in the Gospel of Mark,” In Marcia Bunge, Terence E. Fretheim, and Beverly Roberts Gaventa, eds., The Child In the Bible (Eerdmans, 2008). Gundry, who teaches New Testament at Yale Divinity School, discusses in depth the role of children in the Gospel of Mark.
Joyce Ann Mercer, Welcoming Children: A Practical Theology of Childhood (Chalice Press, 2005). Mercer, who teaches pastoral care and practical theology at Yale Divinity School, frames her study of children within the context of western consumerist culture.
Lucas Cranach, the Elder
A German painter and engraver, Lucas Cranach (1473-1573) created woodcuts to illustrate Martin Luther’s translation of the New Testament into German. Cranach’s son, Lucas the Younger (1515–1586), was also an artist. The Cranach workshop produced over 20 illustrations of the Gospel scene in which Jesus holds, touches, and blesses children.
This article appeared in the September 2018 issue.
Christina Bucher is professor of religion at Elizabethtown (Pa.) College.
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