This past Sunday, I listened to a sermon delivered by my friend, Gene Kissinger, the Outreach Pastor at Cherry Hills Community Church in Highlands Ranch, CO. The sermon topic was "At-risk Children."
Gene opened by reading Mark’s account of the children that were brought to Jesus to be blessed:
People were bringing little children to Jesus to have him touch them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.’ (Mark 10:13-15, NIV)
After the reading, Gene displayed a painting of this scene, but pointed out that the children were too smartly dressed, healthy and comfortable. He went on to explain the dire conditions of children in first-century Palestine – high child-mortality rates, low expected lifespans, and terrible sanitary conditions that led to severe illnesses.
I have pondered this on quite a few occasions. I’ve seen many of the artistic representations of this event. As an artist myself, I even considered painting it a few years ago. I was always struck by how ‘white’ the children were in the depictions and wanted to correct it accordingly.
While serving on the missions staff of Bent Tree Bible Fellowship in Carrollton, TX, I purchased a framed print for the office of little children gathering around Christ. It was a whimsical version of the story where each child was of a different ethnicity and wore clothes and embellishments indicative of their respective cultures. It was a great improvement. It was beautiful. But, alas, all the children were healthy, clean and well off. Perhaps part of the message that the artist was trying to convey was that Jesus heals and makes whole. But the children certainly don’t come to Him that way.
They most probably didn’t come to Jesus that way in the Biblical account either. In the synoptic Gospels we see the account sandwiched by events and teachings that support a heart for the poor and humble. In all three versions, we first see the crowds of people that came to Jesus to be taught and restored to health. These crowds would have mostly been comprised of dusty commoners and people seeking healing, the types of people that Jesus really resonates with.
In Luke’s account, Jesus tells the story of the Pharisee and tax collector directly before the blessing of the children. The prideful Pharisee thanked God that he was not like other men – robbers, evildoers, adulterers – and tax collectors. The tax collector simply came before God in humility and cried out, "God, have mercy on me, a sinner." Jesus then made the point that, "everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted."
Directly after the blessing of the children, we hear of the rich man that asks what he must do to inherit eternal life. After a short dialog, Jesus pronounces that he must, "Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me." Jesus subsequently looked around and said to his disciples, "How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!"
Given this broader context, the blessing of the children occurs directly in the middle of events and teaching that support a heart for the meek and the poor; that admonish the destructive wealth and pride of the religious leaders, rulers, and upper class. Jesus certainly wasn’t just giving a blessing to the children of the rich rulers and the wealthy elite. That would have stood out as too much of a stark contrast to the preceding and succeeding stories. The whole chapter of Luke (Chapter 18) is comprised of commoners, the persistent widow, the humble tax collector, the blind beggar, a rich ruler exhorted to give away his wealth…and…the little children. It is all a beautiful whole.
Many of the children that came to Jesus that day would have come from over-crowded homes that were small, all-purpose one room dwellings with mud brick walls and dirt floors. No running water. No refrigerators. No medical care. A lot of them would have been achy, dusty, clothed in rags, hungry, wounded, and feverish. The Kingdom of God belongs to such as these. They would not have been clean, white, healthy children clad in Victorian robes and other fine adornments like the traditional paintings portray. Some would have come close to fitting that bill, comparatively, but most would have reflected the lower-end of a spectrum representing the great wealth divide of the time.
You may also notice that in all the Gospel accounts we are told that "People brought little children" to Jesus. In none of the versions are we told that "Parents brought…" Yes, surely some or most of the children were being offered by their parents or relatives, but the text is intentionally general and inclusive. We of course know from Scripture the plight and regularity of widows and orphans in ancient Israel. Given the deliberate broadness of the language, we can assume that orphans were among those being brought. Life expectancies of 40 years old would also support that orphans were among the children on that day of blessing.
The reality is that many of the world’s children are orphaned, abandoned or "at-risk" due to a whole host of desperate events and circumstances. These are a great part of the children that we are to bring to Jesus today; that we are to prevent obstacles and hindrances from stalling. The encumbrances and impediments often come in the form of abuse, slavery, exploitation and abandonment. We must fight these things so that they can indeed come unhindered.
Let the children come. Let them come from the streets and slums. Let them come from the gangs and predators. Let them come from the brothels and sweatshops.
Break down the barriers. Release them. Rescue them. Bring them to Jesus…His church.