“Suffer the little children”

The hot Judean sun bakes the dusty roads north of Jerusalem. From the brown hills of Judea, the Dead Sea is lost in a haze of blue and gold. In the distance, a donkey brays under its master’s load. Dust from a passing Roman cohort chokes the dry air. By the side of the road, a large crowd congregates around a rabbi from Galilee. The year is approximately 30 AD.

It is towards the end of the afternoon. As the crowd presses towards the man they call Jesus of Nazareth, the healer and holy man from the north, his disciples’ tempers begin to fray. It is hot and they are thirsty. As the shadows begin to lengthen, Peter, the chief disciple, glances impatiently at the people. The crowd are mostly poor, uncouth. As Jesus concludes his message of the kingdom of God, the people bring their little children to him.

And they brought unto him also infants, that he would touch them: but when his disciples saw it, they rebuked them.
But Jesus called them unto him, and said, Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God.
Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child shall in no wise enter therein. (KJV Luke 18:15-17)

“Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God.”

I do not think that we have typically grasped the significance of this scene. The disciples were more than just bad tempered adults irritated by the exuberance of children. New Testament scholar John Dominic Crossan tells us what an infant meant in the ancient Mediterranean:

“It was quite literally a nobody unless its father accepted it as a member of the family rather than exposing it in the gutter or rubbish dump to die of abandonment or to be taken up by another and reared as a slave. In that world, a child was a nothing, a nobody, a non-person.”

As Crossan points out, in the ancient world children were often a disposable commodity. I once read a three thousand year old legal contract from the city of Emar in Syria where a poor woman is forced to sell her children in order to eat. In similarly awful fashion, an ancient Egyptian labourer writes to his pregnant wife at home: “When the child is born, if by chance you bear a son, let it be; if it is a girl, cast it out…I urge you not to worry.” These were harsh times, scarcely imaginable today.

Coming as they did from this cultural background, it may be easier to understand why Jesus’ disciples resist the children, these “non-persons.” This is not to say that the ancients did not love their children, but the exigencies of pre-modern life and the terribly high levels of infant mortality did not afford them the gentle view of children we now, thankfully, enjoy. A child was not truly a person until it reached a certain age. The infants (Greek, brefos) who enjoyed Jesus’ love were “nobodies.” If his is a kingdom for “little children,” Jesus is, in a profound way, also saying that his is a kingdom for all those whom the world considers to be “nobodies.” And in Jesus’ world, that meant the poor, the sick, the slaves, the sinners.

To our modern eyes, this scene in Luke 18 seems so charming. In reality, it is shocking. Scholar and preacher Tom Long writes:

“By placing a child in the center Jesus asks his disciples to think the unthinkable…It is, in effect, a command to knock down the barriers between the church and all the ‘little ones,’ all who lack worth and status in the eyes of the world. What Jesus is teaching is not just kindness, but kindness directed toward those who never experience the kindness of the world; not just tenderness, but tenderness toward those who never feel a loving touch; not just hospitality, but a wide welcome toward those for whom all other doors are slammed shut.”

Who today are the “little children”, the “nobodies,” those who lack worth and status in our world — even among the Latter-day Saints — those for whom all other doors are shut? I invite us to consider the profundity of this scene and see the “little children” in much wider terms than a casual reading often allows. Such was the genius of Jesus, who came not only to open the kingdom of heaven to us through his atonement, but also preached the principles of love that will allow us to enter into that kingdom. When we love these “little ones,” the weak, the lowly, the sinner, the outcast, the poor, we love Jesus himself:

When ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are only in the service of your God. (Mosiah 2:17)

In the Book of Mormon a similar scene plays out, only in more dramatic fashion. It probably had much the same meaning to an ancient American audience as it did to Jesus’ followers in Judea:

He took their little children, one by one, and blessed them, and prayed unto the Father for them. And when he had done this he wept again; And he spake unto the multitude, and said unto them: Behold your little ones. And as they looked to behold they cast their eyes towards heaven, and they saw the heavens open, and they saw angels descending out of heaven as it were in the midst of fire; and they came down and encircled those little ones about, and they were encircled about with fire; and the angels did minister unto them. (3 Nephi 17:21-24)

———-

Of course, sometimes little children are just that, little children, and as we are so often reminded, we are commanded to be like little children, to be childlike. In the Book of Mormon, king Benjamin offers the following counsel:

[Become] as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit to all things which the Lord seeth fit to inflict upon him, even as a child doth submit to his father. (Mosiah 3:19)

Reflecting on the biblical scene where Jesus blesses the children, Christian writer Frederick Buechner shares these beautiful thoughts:

“Jesus says that in order to enter the kingdom of Heaven we must become like children, and this gives rise to the most poignant kind of awareness of how we ourselves were children once but are no longer, of the dreaming innocence we lost without ever intending to lose it, of a summery, green world where everything was possible, where in the end the evil dragon was always slain and the princess rescued from her tower — all of this replaced now by a winter world about which we feel we know far too much. For it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.”

Innocence. Faith. Enthusiasm. Humility. Curiosity. Love.

My children are, as I know yours are too, beautiful examples of the virtue of little children. That is not to say that they are perfect (are we not all childlike and childish in equal measure?), but they teach me important lessons, when I let them.

Our little Maryland Mary, so full of love and enthusiasm for me, who greats me with joyous smiles when I walk through the door, her pigtails bobbing in excitement for a cuddle, a tickle, a kiss. When did we learn to take each other for granted, to lose the enthusiasm for each others’ miraculous existence? May we cherish — and share — the expressions of unconditional love we learn from our children.

William shares love with no thought of reward. It is a natural expression, without guile. Though the middle child, William is strangely protective of his older brother, often offering comfort when he is upset. When Jacob was disturbed by a loud firework show, it was William — without prompting — who asked to come down off my shoulders to give his brother a hug. At the age of two, I do not think he is acting out a script. It is a love inherent in his nature.

From Jacob I learn a wonder for the world, a desire to learn, to understand. He is a thirsty student, eager to grow. The kingdom of God asks us to grow and to learn and to constantly improve our station. In his choice of friends and his willingness to meet and mix with people from all walks of life, Jacob also teaches me another lesson. For Jacob, words such as rich, poor, white, black, gay, handicapped, immigrant, non-member, have no meaning. His is a world that has not yet divided between saint and sinner, one not influenced by considerations of race, or income, or creed.

My children also know the virtue of brevity, so I will close. Thank-you for hosting my family in your Ward these past four years. May God bless you. I hope we can learn to be more like our children, and also consider the lowly, in age and in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

(Given in Sacrament Meeting at the Jones Falls Ward, Baltimore, Maryland Stake, June 11, 2006.)

Comments

  1. Julie M. Smith says:

    This lovely talk combined with your accent must had them eating out of the palm of your hand. I imagine women swooned.

    Thank you for sharing this. It is perfect; a model of exactly what a sacrament talk should be.

  2. Thanks Julie. As I speak just like everyone else in England, my accent has never caused any British women to swoon. This has always been a great disappointment…

    A great deal of the inspiration for this talk came from the thoughts of Reverend Eugene Nelson, whose sermon got me to consider the deeper meaning of this beautiful scene.

  3. Well Ronan, your acccent always makes _me_ swoon. :P

    Thanks for your talk — it puts some great context on a scripture that I often overlook. And it’s a nice reminder to me, to listen more to my own children, and to be less prone to frustration when they decorate the kitchen walls with peanut butter, like today. And to spend more time with them, and less time blogging. (Whoa – no need to be _too_ drastic!)

    Anyway, I hope you have fun on the other side of the pond. And I hope that England eventually figures out how to score its own goals. Though it will be fun to mock you if they don’t.

  4. Very good, Ronan–I love it. Really powerful; this has always been a passage that seemed nice but not, you know, important. You’ve made me see it with different eyes. Thanks.

  5. Ronan, very well done. Best wishes to you and your family as you move.

  6. Bravo, Ronan. Bravo.

  7. Ronan, thank you. I learned a great deal from your message. I also hope that we will not be deprived of your familiarity when you leave the US.

  8. Ed Snow says:

    Amen, Brother Ronan, amen.

  9. Antonio Parr says:

    I was there to witness the talk, and must say that the delivery was every bit as magnificent and moving as the script. Not to mention the fact that Ronan’s better half was equally eloquent and insightful. It was a very good day to be a Latter-Day Saint.

  10. Very Nice.

  11. Elisabeth says:

    I love this talk, Ronan. Your children are truly a joy. You and Rebecca should be proud of the wonderful examples your beautiful children are to others.

  12. Kevin Barney says:

    As usual, I agree with Julie: this is a model of what a sacrament meeting talk should be.

    We actually had a couple of good talks yesterday, too, so we’re on a bit of a roll.

    Your comments reminded me of a story my wife recently told me. She teaches private art lessons to a boy in our ward. The other day his younger sisters came running over to where they were working, their hands filled with pill bugs they had found in the yard. “Look!” they shrieked with delight, “It’s pill bug heaven!”

  13. Thanks Ronan.

    Yesterday, I listened to a radio rebroadcast of Music and the Spoken Word from April 23, 2006 titled “The Hope of the Children.” The “message” portion contains insights from Lloyd Newell into what it means to become as a little child, in the sense Jesus means:

    Nearly every day we see portrayed in the media innocent children suffering the violence of war, the ravages of nature, and the pain of disability. We see little ones wide-eyed with fear or glassy-eyed from hunger, clinging to desperate parents or crying alone. The world can be so cruel to those who deserve kindness the most.

    But the faith of children is not easily shaken, so they pray to a loving God, who is aware of the trouble they face. He hears their prayers over the blast of a car bomb and above the din of street fighting. Whether they are kneeling in supplication or pleading silently in their hearts, children seem to know intuitively that God will hear them. There is no disability, no man-made uproar, no natural disaster that can hinder the heartfelt plea of a child.

    The answer to such prayers comes in the form of humble hope. Like the first hint of dawn following a long night, there comes the sweet assurance that things will be better, that all is not lost, that the future holds a promise of peace and joy. The darkness of conflict can give way to a brilliant gleam of trust in the victory of good over evil and right over wrong.

    This hope must find a place in the heart of each of our precious children. Whatever their station in life, despite the troubles that surround them, they need to believe that somewhere there is room for them to grow and to feel the love of Divine Providence. Surely somewhere we can find a place—a place of safety, a place of peace, a place of love for each child who prays for hope. (emphasis added)

    Your talk reminded me of the bolded portion. I must admit that this “spiritual thought” from M&SW seems a little simplistic and optimistic. I agree that God hears their prayers (such is my faith that He really is there and listening), as suggested in the second paragraph, but I have often wondered just how much “hope” the mere hearing of prayers is supposed to give children who are in the midst of their undeserved troubles, inflicted by the abuse of the depraved or the cruelty of nature and chaos. I am not so sure that God has given a commitment to bail anyone out of these predicaments. Being as a little child means being willing to face a new day despite all adversity put in our way, and humbly submitting to God despite these things.

  14. Ronan, thank you for posting this. This was a very welcome extension of the spiritual uplift I received in our Sacrament Meeting yesterday, themed upon “prayer.”

  15. Ronan,

    I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this posting since I read it yesterday. The other shoe dropped for me this morning: in the cultural context you’ve given us, as shocking as was Jesus’ message about who is included in God’s kingdom, his message about who is *excluded* would be no less shocking when he gave it:

    1. At the same time came the disciples unto Jesus, saying, Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?
    2. And Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them,
    3. And said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, *ye* shall *not* enter into the kingdom of heaven.
    4. Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
    5. And whoso shall receive one such little child in my name receiveth me.
    6. But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.
    7. Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!

    (Matt 18:1-7)

    Again, thank you for sharing this very disturbing and refreshing insight.

  16. I am one of those weak, for whom all doors seem shut. See my blog post of today. Sorry if any of it hurts or offends, but when you put EVERYTHING of yourself into trying . . .

    Anyway.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] The following is a talk I gave on my last Sunday in this ward. It was inspired by the talk from the last General Conference by Henry B. Eyring entitled “As a Child”. You can also read my husband’s farewell talk at BCC. [...]

  2. [...] Reading the Christmas narrative this year has yielded surprising insights into the birth of the Savior, His life, and the meaning of the holiday season. This, in large part, is thanks to a post Ronan made at BCC several months ago on children and the Kingdom of God. Ronan’s thoughts had a profound influence on my subsequent understanding of Jesus’ teachings, and recently (during a family reading of Luke 2 and Matthew 3) sparked a train of thought that led to the following musings, which juxtapose the Savior’s kindness toward children and insistence on their place in the kingdom against Herod’s horrific reaction to rumors that Messiah had been born. My dependence on Ronan’s insights should be fairly obvious to anyone who takes the time to read his original post (which I highly recommend). [...]

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