It’s no coincidence that right after talking about divorce Jesus then turns to embrace children in the Gospel of Mark. I say it’s no coincidence that Mark placed this section about children right after Jesus answers the Pharisees question about divorce because just like today the ones who suffer the most during a divorce are the children. The Pharisees asked this question because it was an issue then just as it now. But nonetheless people were bringing children to him and yet the disciples rebuked the people for doing so. Why? Because in Jewish antiquity children were considered to be nonentities, they were not seen as persons, they had no status or power. And so in the disciples’ minds why would Jesus want to spend time with them? After all they truly were the least of these. And so Jesus became indignant at their rebuking of the children and said, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly I say to you whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”
This past Sunday I preached on this text in celebration of my home congregation’s 100th anniversary. It was interesting to meditate on this text, to prepare a sermon on this text in the place where I grew up, in the place where I was a child for many years. It may seem obvious to some but what struck me was that I had no say in where I was born, who my parents would be, where I would go to church and what I would believe as a child. All of these things were laid out before me. I was truly helpless as a child. Interestingly enough, I needed someone to feed me, to clothe me, to love me. Without such things I would have died both physically and emotionally. And then to bring those truths back to the text. No child has a choice in their parents getting a divorce and yet they are the ones who suffer the most during this process. My mother works for divorce lawyers and she can tell you a host of stories in which time and time again it’s the children who suffer the most during a divorce. And yet where can they go? They’re children and therefore entirely dependent upon the adults around them. The children who go through such things are truly helpless. Again, they are truly the least of these, the last in a culture where everyone wants to be first.
Pondering this text all week I noticed how where I grew up and the people I encountered ended up having a huge effect on my worldview before the Gospel really grabbed a hold of me. Culture is an incredible beast to fight against when its values stand predominantly against the values of the Gospel. Concepts like loving one’s enemies or giving to the poor or forgiving those who hurt you ended up being nothing more than fairy tales to me because I never really saw such things practiced or valued for that matter. New York is a hard place to grow up. Unlearning such things takes time and a whole lot of relearning, of becoming like a child again. Throwing off the old and beginning with something new like the Gospel, like Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus wasn’t kidding when he said that we are to become like children if we are to enter the kingdom of God. He’s not telling us to become like cute naive children rather children in the sense that we know nothing. He’s calling us to throw off the trappings and understandings of this world and to begin anew like a child comes into this world brand new. Paul wasn’t kidding when he told the people of Rome to not be conformed to this world but rather to be transformed by the renewal of their minds through the Holy Spirit. Becoming like a child means throwing off the old that we learned as helpless children.
In the midst of all my pondering and preaching on this text I spent Sunday afternoon with an old close friend. This close friend was the victim of an abusive alcoholic father. As a teenager I got to witness some of his father’s behavior. Sadly, my friend has had previous bouts with addiction and alcoholism. He got really bad towards the end of our years in high school and I think it’s fair to say that his problems stem from the childhood that he had. What hit me as we were talking and reminiscing was that he was a helpless child. He had no control over the fact that he was born to an abusive alcoholic father. He was helpless and in turn this effected his life permanently and in disastrous ways. The consequences of having such a father reverberate to this day. I wondered if these are the kind of things that caused Jesus to be so indignant and angry when the disciples rebuked the people from bringing children to him. I guess it could be said that there is no bigger victim than a child, especially a child born into a situation of emotional and physical abuse. For children really are the least of these.
But for once someone comes along and offers a way out. And that way out is through the Human One, Jesus of Nazareth. And it is through Jesus of Nazareth that such things can be healed and thrown away by becoming like children. But this time we won’t be helpless but helped and shown the Way. The Way of God, the Way of Truth and Life. Let us enter the Kingdom, throwing off what’s old, following our Lord on the Way.