4 min. to read.
Welcome to the 10th day of Lent. This year, part of my practice is reading Brian Zahnd’s Lent devotional, The Unvarnished Jesus. Then I journal on his reflection and the scripture’s he’s selected. I’ll be posting daily (or near-daily) meditations that emerge from this.
Matthew 19:13-15 is the passage for today, the scene of Jesus and the children.
Some parents wanted to bring their children to Jesus for a blessing. The disciples thought this was not a good use of Jesus’ time and blocked the way. Jesus countered with the famous line: “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.”
This passage has inspired a hundred illustrations found on the walls of church nurseries and provides the key scripture for the annual invitation to volunteer in children’s ministries. But does it say anything more than that?
I read the whole chapter for context and was struck by an observation. This little scene stands out like an isolated island in the text. It’s sandwiched between two much more important and “grown-up” conversations.
Much more important…
Just before, Jesus was approached by a committee of religious people asking his opinion on the matter of divorce. Then as now, this was a controversial conversation. There were deeply disputed disagreements between liberal and conservative theological schools of thought. Whatever Jesus had to say, he was undoubtedly going to please one side while offending the other. (Sound familiar?)
While the theologians gathered to debate, no one mentioned that this wasn’t just theology. Every divorce represented real people. Most were experiencing disappointment and loss. Some were trying to escape abuse. Then, even more than now, divorce would leave the woman without much of her social and economic protection. This debate had profound implications for real people’s lives, bridging the gap between social justice and theology.
Then, just after blessing the children, the scene shifts again to another important conversation. An influential young man approaches Jesus asking, “What must I do to have eternal life?” I mean, what could be more important than this? The young man thought he was a good person and said so. As is so often the case, Jesus challenged him to go to a deeper and more self-sacrificial place. This was a vital conversation about personal morality and salvation.
These two conversations seem to encompass the whole of religion. On one side, we debate theology, often ignoring the implications for hurting people. On the other side, we come to God asking self-centered questions about our own righteousness and salvation. We want to know the truth. We want to be certain of God’s will. These things seem very religious. We’re engaging Jesus, aren’t we?
Between these two conversations lies the scene with the children. Is it any wonder that the disciples wanted to keep the children away? Jesus had much more important conversations to attend to! But here is where we hear Jesus explain the priority of God’s attention. He says, “for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.” Who is he talking about? The theologians intent on getting to the bottom of the controversy? The moral man seeking to justify himself? No. It’s the children who simply want to be near Jesus.
I’m most comfortable in my head. I love to study and write and articulate big ideas so people can grasp them. I also consider myself a generally good and compassionate person who is willing, in many cases, to sacrifice for others. I can easily feel like those things qualify me for Jesus’ special attention.
Reflecting on this sequence for stories, I am challenged to consider what really locates me with Jesus. Jesus didn’t say, “Bring me all your theological debaters, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” He didn’t say, “Bring me all your self-righteous questions about salvation.” He said, “Let the little children come.” What locates me with Jesus and places me square within the Kingdom of God is a desire to be in his presence.
Lent invites us to trade some of our God-talk for God-time. This way is life.