Paragons, Problems, and Possibilities
“People were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them; and when the disciples saw it, they sternly ordered them not to do it. But Jesus called for them and said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the realm of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the realm of God as a little child will never enter it.” – Luke 18:15-17
We’ve heard this one, more than once. It’s a natural for Church School Sundays, when we remember the preciousness and precociousness of children as they learn the stories that convey faith’s meanings. The passage can be used to idealize the openness of young people if we imagine they receive the realm of God uncritically — even though the same kids won’t eat their spinach at home. There’s a problem with putting anyone on a pedestal, whether a child or a hero. They no longer squirm and talk back.
We’ve heard the story preached other ways, too. The disciples tried to stop the people who were bringing out their youngsters for just a touch from Jesus. Why? Scripture doesn’t say. Perhaps because the disciples assigned little value to infants, who were the “least” in family structures. Perhaps the disciples knew that humility was required of them, and didn’t want the competition: it’s hard to be humbler than a baby. Perhaps Jesus’ friends knew that every touch allowed some of his power to flow out and thought it was wasted on children.
It’s a challenge to relate to infants as whole human beings, to avoid seeing them as either paragons or problems. It’s disconcerting — nay, terrifying — to applaud our children and then remember that Jesus refused to be lifted up, except onto a cross. It’s confounding to imagine a tiny person’s vulnerability, utter need, unbridled curiosity, and heedlessness of the world’s dangers are conditions for entering God’s realm. Is there hope for us whose instincts have been tempered by experience?
Jesus, Teacher, I have put aside childlike ways. Yet you gave your lesson to grown people, like me, weary and wary of the world. Which could mean that an infant’s openness still exists — even in me. May I live inside that heavenly possibility today. Amen.
John A. Nelson is Pastor and Teacher of Church on the Hill, UCC, in Lenox, Massachusetts.