(This is an excerpt from my book Waking Up Slowly. I don’t care how pundits, politicians, and propagandists cherry pick the words of Jesus to support their side. I do care about how the radical rabbi viewed these precious children. His teachings rocked the culture. They still should.)
Jesus had some subversive teachings about children and women. We forget how revolutionary His message was in that culture. Children were viewed as expendable. In his book When Children Became People: The Birth of Childhood in Early Christianity, historian O. M. Bakke details Jesus’ radical teaching among the people of His day. An infant boy was not named until the eighth day, and an infant girl was not named until the ninth day, enough time for parents to decide if they wanted to keep their child. Those less fortunate infants, ones who were deformed or just happened to be girls, would often be killed or left to die of exposure. Bakke makes a compelling case that civilization changed because of a radical rabbi’s actions in moments like this from Mark’s Gospel account:
One day some parents brought their children to Jesus so he could touch and bless them. But the disciples scolded the parents for bothering him. Mark 10:13, NLT
I always read this through modern eyes. The kids were just annoying the grown-ups. Go somewhere else and play!
But the real truth is that the adults believed those children had no right to be there.
When Jesus saw what was happening, he was angry with his disciples. He said to them, “Let the children come to me. Don’t stop them! For the Kingdom of God belongs to those who are like these children.” Mark 10:14, NLT
Some translations say Jesus was indignant. As a general rule, I would prefer that Jesus feels neither angry nor indignant toward me. Here comes the good part and I like the way The Message describes the scene.
“Don’t push these children away. Don’t ever get between them and me. These children are at the very center of life in the kingdom. Mark this: Unless you accept God’s kingdom in the simplicity of a child, you’ll never get in.” Then, gathering the children up in his arms, he laid his hands of blessing on them. Mark 10:13-16, MSG
We can’t comprehend how radical Jesus’ words were to the people hearing them. This was a remarkable declaration of value. Children were truly disenfranchised in the Roman and pagan culture. Unwanted babies were left in public places as “unclaimed things,” which could legally be claimed by whomever might want the child for whatever purpose. The child could become a slave, a play companion for another child, or a prostitute. Another could be mutilated, then sold for begging purposes. A Roman father could sell his son three times before he was declared free. Children were even treated as pets. Some children were loved and educated, but many, if not most, were kept simply for entertainment or gratification. This is uncomfortable to write about, but it helps to clarify how truly revolutionary the teaching of Jesus was and why the establishment hated Him so much. Jesus truly upset the “good old boy” system of both the pagan and religious cultures.
It is heartbreaking that our culture still does not take the words of Jesus seriously enough about the value of children and our responsibility to instruct and protect them. To be sure, children are born with a sin nature. But they are also born without prejudice, bigotry, and classism. They are unimpressed by status and wealth. We adults teach them those things by our words, our lives, or our indifference.