In our passage this morning we discover that some people are bringing little children to Jesus in order that he might touch them. It is interesting to me that Mark does not tell us who these people are. Let us, at first, assume that these people are the parents of the children. That is a normal assumption, and it makes good sense. And it is cute, or perhaps quite touching. Here we have loving parents bringing their children to someone who is perceived to be extraordinarily loving. It makes sense that good parents would want their children to be near Jesus. It even makes a tremendous amount of sense today. Children need to know Jesus. Children have always needed to know Jesus. Children have always needed to know God’s people. Children have always needed to know what it means to be a part of God’s family. A profound measure of a congregation hinges on how well it treats its children.
So why were these people wanting Jesus to touch these children? Was it so that the children could receive a blessing from Jesus? That is certainly a very real possibility, and Mark concludes verse 16 by saying that Jesus did bless them, and that he “…laid his hands on them and blessed them.” But when we read that the people brought these children to Jesus so that he might touch them, and when we read that Jesus laid his hands on them, it just might be that some, or all of these children are sick, and that they need a healing touch from Jesus. Childhood diseases have been around for as long as there have been children.
And there are several instances in the Scriptures, where parents, concerned for the lives of their children, earnestly sought out Jesus, with a sincere belief that Jesus could make their children well. And it fits the context wonderfully, doesn’t it? Once again, we have loving parents, bringing their sick children to Jesus for his miraculous healing touch.
And yet, there may be a more troubling option also. There may be more to this than initially meets the eye. Mark is very non-specific when he describes the people who are bringing the children to Jesus. As with every language, Greek has some very specific words to describe the parent-child relationship. And if Mark had chosen to do so, he could have used the word “parent” in this passage. But he did not use it at all. And so it may be that these “people” who are bringing the children to Jesus, are not the children’s parents. It may be that they are the workers at the local orphanage. That would be kind of neat, and very nice. But more ominously, these people may be representatives of the local child rescue league.
In every age, and in every culture there are children who come into this world who are not wanted. This is both historical and universal. There is, in one of the commentaries in my office, a portion of an ancient letter, dated June 17th in what we now call one BC. The letter is from a husband who is presumably away on a business trip, and who is making the assumption that his wife has given birth in his absence. And he writes this: “If it was a male child, let it live. If it was female, cast it out.” This letter is making reference to the ancient and contemporary practice of “exposure”. Exposure is the casting out of a live child into an inconspicuous spot, such as behind a building, or out in the woods, or in the middle of a field. The child would, of course, die in a very short amount of time, either because it became food for a wild animal, or because it succumbed to heat or cold. In some places and in some cultures, this method of dispatching an unwanted child is still practiced, albeit, perhaps in a more sanitized setting.
But sometimes, before an abandoned child died, someone, perhaps a member of a child rescue league, would rescue the baby and provide for it. And so if these people who are bringing the children to Jesus, are members of a child rescue league, or are the directors of the local orphanage, or both, this makes the behavior of the disciples completely unacceptable, especially if the disciples know who these people are.
In Jesus’ heart, these children are all very, very special. And they ought to be as special in the hearts of the disciples as they are in Jesus’ heart. These children are extra special because they are unwanted by others, because they have been set aside, and because they have been abandoned.
And so when Jesus discovers what the disciples have done, he becomes indignant, and he says “Let the little children come to me: do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” Jesus is saying that the kingdom of God belongs to those who have been abandoned and cast away. The kingdom of God belongs to those whom nobody else will have; the kingdom of God belongs to those who have no pedigree, no lineage and no inheritance, just like these children who have been cast away. The kingdom of God belongs not to the great and mighty, but to those who are able to become like children.
Jesus says, “Truly I tell you whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” That is very strong language, very strong language, and we preachers are guilty of mushing it up. We like to say things like, “When we come to Jesus, we must come with an innocent, child-like faith.” But that’s not at all what Jesus is saying. Jesus is saying that we must come to him with nothing in our hands. In this context, we must come without pedigree, lineage, or inheritance. We must come to Jesus utterly helpless and without resource. We must admit that we are in desperate need of rescue, lest we die. We must come with utter destitution and poverty of spirit. We must understand that nothing is earned, nothing is merited, and that all is grace. Like the naked child in the field, we bring nothing but our absolute need. This is how we inherit the kingdom of God.
And as if to drive that point home, Mark immediately includes the story of the man who had many possessions. In other Gospels, he is called the rich young man. This man, though, is on a quest. It is his mission to inherit the kingdom of God. He is very serious about discovering the pathway to eternal life. And so he comes running up to Jesus, and he kneels down in front of him, and he’s probably out of breath, and he asks Jesus, what must I do to inherit eternal life?
Unlike the naked baby in the field, this man has much to bring to the kingdom of God. He possesses many good things that go far beyond the wealth that he has also managed to amass. He is a very good man, and he is a “doer” on top of that. He’s done the Commandments, and he’s done them well. He’s kept them all, and he’s kept them since he was a wee lad. That’s impressive! I don’t know about the rest of you, but I always have to pray along with the psalmist, Lord, “Do not remember not the sins of my youth.” But this guy got through his impetuous youth without a scar! And he’s rich, and if he didn’t just inherit it, he might have earned it all by himself, and legitimately so. In terms of religious piety and worldly success, he’s all over it like ink on a newspaper. He’s got it covered. He can bring much to the kingdom of God. He will be a tremendous asset.
But this man, in addition to being a doer, is also a thinker. And deep down, in spite of everything that he is, and everything that he has, he knows that something is missing in his life, and he has convinced himself that Jesus can help him find it. And something tells me that he isn’t just looking for a nice word from Jesus. He’s not looking for assurance, or a pat on the back. He is looking to fill the empty hole in his heart. He doesn’t want Jesus to tell him, you’re fine! You’ve already earned or inherited eternal life! He doesn’t want Jesus to say, good job, man, you are very religious! You are a very good person! You are successful! Your good deeds and obedient character speak for themselves! This man is looking for nothing of the sort. He wants none of that kind of affirmation. He wants to inherit eternal life.
And Jesus, of course, knows this. He knows all of our deepest yearnings, even the illegitimate ones. And so Jesus is ready to help this man to become a child. Jesus is ready to lead him down the path of utter helplessness, because utter helplessness is what he lacks. And so Jesus says to him, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” Please note, that the only thing that this man lacked, was lack itself. He lacked lack. He desperately needed lots of lack.
Unfortunately, though, the man just couldn’t receive the gift of lack that Jesus was offering him, and so he went away. But he went away grieving. He went away with the empty spot still in his heart. I suppose that he might have learned to cope with that empty spot eventually, but he could have become the child that Jesus invited him to become. He could have embraced the gift of lack that Jesus offered him. He could have become one of Jesus’ disciples. But he didn’t do any of those things, and he did not inherit the eternal life that he so earnestly sought. He did not understand that there was great gain to be had in discovering the helplessness and joy and peace that only lack could have provided him.
O Lord, this story ends very darkly, help us to see the light of your kingdom as our eternal inheritance. Amen.