Sunday 26 February 2017 – Suffer the little children…
In the King James Version of the Bible Jesus tells his disciples to “suffer the little children”!
Isn’t that just the way it is, sometimes? Don’t you just wish they’d stop running around shouting and making a noise with some toy or other and simply give you a bit of peace & quiet?! Maybe they could read a book or do some drawing – better still: have a little nap!
When they’re tiny – once they’ve got the hang of sleeping for at least four hours at a stretch – it’s not too bad; they’re predictable. You squeeze as much milk (and then later, slushy, baby food) into them as you possibly can and then watch their eyes close as they drop off to sleep. Bliss! But then, by the time they’re about three years old, they get to a stage that seems to last until they’re ready to leave home: as soon as they’ve eaten, the proteins and carbohydrates (or whatever) seem to be transformed instantly into energy! You’ve just eaten, too, and your body is taking time to digest the meal. For the next 20 minutes you need to sit down with a cuppa and relax. They, on the other hand are back to “running around shouting and making a noise with some toy or other”. It’s not fair!
If you’ve been at Riverchurch over the past few Sundays, you may have noticed an increasing number of children amongst us. They’ve not been “running around shouting and making a noise with some toy or other” but, by the very nature of being children, they are more exuberant than many of us adults and, if that’s what was going on in Mark chapter 10, it’s no wonder Jesus told the disciples to suffer the little children; to “suck it up”!
Of course, that’s not what Jesus really said. I’ve taken that phrase out of its context and cut off the words that followed it. This is it in context:
They brought young children to him, that he should touch them: and his disciples rebuked those that brought them. 14 But when Jesus saw it, he was much displeased, and said unto them, Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God. (KJV) (Mark 10.13-14)
Jesus was displeased, much displeased, that the disciples were trying to stop people bringing children to him. Don’t forbid them, he said, because the Kingdom is made up of people like them. Even as it stands, then, Jesus is on the side of the children and their parents. And, of course, language has changed since the time of King James 1st – that translation of the Bible was published in 1611: 400 years ago! We’re talking Shakespeare’s era! Using the word “suffer” to mean “allow” has gone out of use. We hardly ever even use it to mean “tolerate” or “put up with”. The word has taken on an almost exclusively negative aspect. And so we do better to read the passage in a translation that takes that change in our language into account. Let’s look at it in the language of today:
People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. 14 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.15 Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.’ 16 And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them. (Mark 10.13-16)
This passage – and its parallels in Matt 19 and Luke 18 – is key to our understanding of how God sees children.
Jesus notices children
Do you notice children? Are you so concerned with what’s happening for the adults that you’re not even aware of the children “in the background”?
It wasn’t the disciples who brought the children to Jesus’ attention. He saw what was going on and that the children were being held back. Children are important to Jesus and he is watching out to see that nothing prevents those who want to come to him from doing so.
Of course parents are responsible for their children – but if Jesus is looking around for them, to see what’s happening with them, shouldn’t we be, too?
Jesus doesn’t think adults come before children
Presumably the disciples thought that the adults were more important. That’s why they were holding the children back: “The Lord has important things to say and do with these adults; don’t bother him with these children. Look, there’s a crèche over there; someone will keep them amused while the adults listen to Jesus.” Are we a bit like that?
But Jesus says, “No, let them come to me. Don’t hold them back. God’s Kingdom belongs to children like these.”
We have a tendency to want children to become mature and to make an adult decision to follow Jesus. But in fact we got it upside down. Jesus wants people to make decisions like children to follow him! We’ll look in a minute to see what that means. But the point right here is that Jesus was angry at the disciples because they were preventing children coming to Jesus as children.
Let’s be careful we don’t get in their way – do you want Jesus to be indignant with you? To rebuke you in front of everyone?
Jesus has an enthusiastic love for children
The parents just wanted Jesus to put his hand on their children’s heads and to bless them. Jesus did bless them, but look, “he took the children in his arms” and blessed them. He picked them up; he hugged them; he spoke directly to them; not as a whole crowd but as individual children. I expect he knew their names without even having to ask them. (Remember how Jesus knew about Nathaniel, sitting under the fig-tree, before he called him to be a disciple, in John chapter 1?)
How about us? Do we show love towards children? Do we know their names? We don’t need to have the Holy Spirit gift of knowledge to be able to know the names of the children that come regularly to church. We can ask them – or we can ask their parents. And then use repetition to remember them, saying “Hello, Katie; Hi, Jeffrey, Bonjour, whatever-your-name-is…” Ah, no, you see my point, there, don’t you?
Shrewd and innocent
The past few years have seen great strides forward in the area of the protection of children – in part because of greater awareness of physical cruelty to children, but also because of the revelations about sexual abuse. Operation Yewtree – the investigation into widespread, and even organised, abuse of children particularly by celebrities or others who were in positions of trust. Because of all that, there can be a tendency to be so wary of our actions around children that there may be a counterproductive effect: children may be deprived of the natural friendship and affection they should receive from adults.
We should take note of Jesus’ words as he sent the disciples out into the villages of Galilee:
‘I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.’ (Matt 10.16)
All that I have said so far is in the context of our community relationships – our attitudes and actions towards children in public, in group contexts, when friends, parents and other people are around. Safe environments, in other words. Be innocent – it should go without saying – but be wise, too, so that no-one can ever make false accusations.
Receive the Kingdom like a little child
Let’s go back to what Jesus mean by “receiving the kingdom like a little child”.
Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it. (Mark 10.15)
What does Jesus mean? We talk about having child-like faith, child-like trust. But that doesn’t mean blind trust. If you think children don’t ask lots of questions, you’ve not spent much time with children! Children do ask questions but, unlike many adults, it’s not as a smokescreen to hide the fact that they don’t actually want to believe. A child asking a question really does want to know the answer. And if he finds the answer to be a satisfactory explanation – satisfactory as far the rest of his understanding of things goes – he’ll accept it and take the next step. A child builds up his trust of a person by his experiences with them. Shy to begin with, perhaps, but then opening up and giving them his full confidence as they earn it.
We are to be like that with God. Yes, shy and questioning to begin with but, once our questions are answered, once we see that we can trust him in small ways, we should begin to put more and more trust in him – putting absolute faith in him rather than holding back for no good reason.
Enter the Kingdom of God like a child, Jesus says. Yes, look around a bit first; check out that it seems good; that other people you know and trust are in there; ask some questions; but then jump in with enthusiasm and abandon. Going back to last week’s picture of coming to faith as jumping into the deep end of a swimming pool, think of how children are at a pool. A little bit hesitant but, once they’ve jumped in and conquered that initial uncertainty, then there’s no stopping them! They’ll be jumping and diving and bombing all day, pulling others in with them.
Let’s be like that.
And let’s not be stumbling blocks to the children around us.
When I was a child our family went to church twice on a Sunday. We went in the evening as soon as we could stay up late enough. The Sunday School was after the morning service, so my brother and I didn’t go to the morning service until we were old enough to sit still. My Mum used to give us fruit gums at 10 minute intervals to see us through. Neither of the services was geared to children but all the adults were welcoming. They would laugh and talk with us and tease us (after the services); the man giving out the hymn books on the door in the evening would have half a packet of fruit pastilles for each of us; we’d do social things with even the older people. I’m sure that my deciding for myself, publicly, (aged 11) to follow Jesus, was greatly helped by the friendship and love that I experienced from all my parents’ Christian friends. Like my parents, they’re now all in heaven – but they stayed in touch with me right on into adulthood. And some of their grownup children are still in touch with us.
Far from being a stumbling block – we should all be encouragements to our friends’ children. If, like some of our leaders’ kids, they have to come early on a Sunday – and getting to have biscuits from the coffee table when they get here is what they look forward to, then, hey, let’s find out what kind they like best and get them in! I’m sure that’s what Jesus used to do!