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.)