Suffer the children

A Bible study on Jesus’ teachings about “becoming like children”

by Ken Sehested

Written with gratitude for the Children’s Defense Fund,
on the 25th anniversary of its “Children’s Sabbath” program.

      From the intimate environment of the home to the callousness of war-ravaged regions, the scale of violence against children is numbing. A few examples:

      •A child dies every 10 seconds due to a combination of undernourishment, impure water, and easily preventable diseases.

      •More than 100 million children under the age of five are undernourished.

      •An estimated 1.2 million children are trafficked each year.

      •In the U.S., 20% of children live in poverty.

Right: Art by Ade Bethune, ©Ade Bethune Collection, St. Catherine University, St. Paul, MN.

      There is something particularly widespread and outrageous about the ways young people suffer. By and large, children are given little voice in the situations they face. They are made powerless by social systems that hold them captive, by churches that make them invisible, and by home environments whose impact in forming capabilities both for contempt and compassion are often profoundly underestimated.

"Unless you become like children"

      Anyone familiar with King James’ translation of Scripture will recognize the phrase “Suffer the little children to come unto me,” spoken by Jesus in rebuffing the disciples’ intent on keeping young ones at arm’s length. (See Mark 9:33-37 and 10:14, with parallel stories in Matthew 18 and Luke 18.) The synoptic writers’ retention of this odd story serves as a point of entry into the Gospel story as a whole.

            Children generally are absent or nameless in Scripture, even more so than women, and their place in society was clearly subservient. In his commentary on Mark, Ched Myers notes that the subjugation of children was the building block for wider socio-political structures and patterns of domination.*

            The Synoptic Gospels' story of Jesus' welcoming the children is as puzzling as it is familiar. The three writers tell it with slight variances. Let's focus on Mark's 10:13-16 account.

      Jesus has just crossed over into the region of Judea. Crowds have gathered to hear him teach. Suddenly, children are on the scene. The disciples attempt to screen this intrusion, try to shoo them away. Jesus notices the commotion and, as the text says, "he was indignant"—the only time in which he is so described in the New Testament.

      No doubt thinking they were being responsible stewards, having Jesus' best interests in mind, the disciples were a bit stunned when Jesus contradicted them, saying "Let the little children come to me; do not stop them" (v.14, NRSV). And then he uttered those startling and mysterious words: ". . . 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."

      The story ends with the narrator noting that Jesus not only blessed the children but actually took them into his arms, visually reinforcing his far-reaching comments.

"Become like children"

      The Gospels contain other similar comments by Jesus. In Mark 9:37 (with parallels in Matthew and Luke): "Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me, but him who sent me." Uniquely in Matthew Jesus says "unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven" (18:3).

      This locating of the kingdom's entrance in child-likeness is mystifying.  Doesn't Scripture elsewhere note that, in order to obtain maturity, we must put away "childish things" (1 Corinthians 13:11)?

      In order to understand the meaning of this text, it would be useful to examine what it doesn't mean. Our reading of these statements from Jesus—read through the lens of prevailing cultural ideas about children and youth—has been glamorized, idealized, romanticized, and sentimentalized. As a result, these stunning biblical metaphors have been drained of their power to reorient out thinking.

      (1) A focus on children in Jesus' teaching might seem, at the outset, to play right into the hands of those charged with manipulating consumer preference in our culture. The glamorization of youthfulness has created a myth to which we have become enslaved. The very notion of "mid-life crisis" to which people of my generation attend with such earnestness—and for which an entire psychotherapeutic service industry has been created—is a direct result of an artificially created standard equating youthfulness with well-being. Facial wrinkles and greying hair are vigilantly camouflaged. The glamorization of youth has become, in our day, a form of discrimination against the aged, and is one of several ways we distance ourselves from the reality of death and dying.

      (2) The idealizing of youth occurs when we adults focus on our own faded memories of youthfulness. Nostalgia is a great deceiver, engendering complaints about today’s young people in comparison to “when I was young.” The truth is, such complaints are common literature for as far back as history is recorded. I seriously doubt that the general moral grit of today's youth is any different from ours, or of our parents or grandparents. But the complexities which today's children face are far greater. Even if there were a kernel of truth to the charges of declining character among the young, the indictment is on us. Concerned about nihilistic, value-barren behavior? Look at our national leadership, our economic priorities, and the way our nation conducts its foreign policy.

      (3) Our tendency to romanticize the children in Jesus' sayings, to project on them a mythical state of innocence, creates another layer of insulation between the text and our responsibilities as nurturers of the young. We see them as morally pure, humble, no doubt full of joy, trust, and spontaneity—the things we all feel when we watch those adorable children in the church Christmas play. But children are not always as adorable as we like to imagine. This romanticizing habit creates distance between the children of which Jesus speaks and our own children, and excuses us adults from the rigorous, hard work of instructing and forming our young ones "into the paths of righteousness."

      (4) Sentimentalizing the children embraced by Jesus creates distance between the text's imperative and our ability to respond. We love to latch on to the language unique to Matthew's account ("Whoever becomes humble like this child. . . ."), rendering "humility" to a subjective state of mind. But Jesus makes no moral claim concerning children. As when Jesus blesses the "poor in spirit" and the "meek" in the beatitudes, the "humility" of which he speaks is not a reference to character but to social, economic, and political vulnerability. Referring to someone "of humble origins" is a polite way of calling them poor.

      The sentimental way we envision the children to whom Jesus is available allows us to side-step his claim on our loyalties. It's nice to teach these things to the kiddos in Sunday school. And it's always good to hear the poetry of Isaiah's vision—of an adorable child leading the parade of animals (how sweet!), along with the special music and the decorations—during the Christmas season. But we secretly recognize that the "real" world doesn't work that way, dismissing both Isaiah and Jesus as naïve about power, rendering innocuous the demands of discipleship.

"To such as these. . . ."

      The instruction to suffer the children—to welcome them, to treat them with respect and dignity—is but one variation of a consistent theme not only in the Gospels but throughout Scripture. The children in Jesus' arms are to be honored not because they are morally pure, any more than are the ones near to us, but because they are defenseless. To be on the Way with Jesus involves giving priority attention to those who, in countless ways, do not count in the world’s security arrangements and to be with these “little ones” not as saviors but as friends.

      This story of Jesus' indignant rebuke of the disciples is not a lesson about the nature of children—but about the nature of God and the way God operates . . . and, by implication, the way we are to operate as children of God. It is simultaneously an indicative (of the nature of God) and an imperative (of how we're to live).

      This teaching is one of many variations in Scripture about God's reversals of value. Each of the Synoptic Gospel texts which instruct that we are to "receive one such child in my name" appear immediately following accounts of the disciples discussing "who will be the greatest" in the kingdom of heaven. In God's upside-down ordering, the first shall be last; those who lose will find; the great will be the servant of all; those unaccustomed to royal feasts will be the very ones sought out as guests. Those who are shut out of the world's provision will, in the end, inherit the promise of well-being envisioned by God at the beginning. In short, the way the world is currently ordered is in opposition to God's New Realm. And that New Realm is on its way, even as we speak, breaking out here and there.

Right: The author offering a prayer of dedication for his new granddaughter, Easter Sunday 2008.

      The God who "suffers children" is not goo-gooing over cradles, much as we prefer that image. No, that is simply one of Jesus' ways of speaking of a God whose gifts are gratuitous, given freely, not based on human ingenuity, power, or any other measuring rod of competence. There is no merit system in the matter of grace. No heroic standard qualifies; no level of moral turpitude disqualifies; no degree of moral purity is sufficient. Only empty hands. Only trusting hearts, willing, like children, to be picked up and embraced, without negotiation or calculation.

      In suffering the children we are not doing nice things for the weak—we are attending to our own need for conversion. The experience of grace makes us graceful; the reality of being forgiven generates forgiving behavior. As a lover responds to the beloved—lavishly, expansively, without thought of recompense—so we respond to God’s embrace by likewise embracing the "little ones" of this world about whom God is so terribly passionate.

This is the good news of the Gospel. It also is a spirituality which threatens the very fabric of our social, economic, and political status quo. To suffer the children entails active, even conflictive, opposition to any who cause, or permit, the children to suffer.

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For information about the Children's Defense Fund "Children's Sabbath."

*"The subjugation of the child thus represents the basic building block of socialization into wider socio-political structures of domination." Myers also quotes psychoanalyst Alice Miller's finding that the result of children's experiences of humiliation creates a "vicious circle of contempt for those who are smaller and weaker." These, says Myers, generate "patterns of domination that are maintained and psychically enforced intergenerationally." Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark's Story of Jesus, Orbis Books, 1988, p. 269.

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