Matthew 19: 13-15
Parallels Mark 10: 13-16; Luke 18: 15-17
13 Then little children were being brought to him in order that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples spoke sternly to those who brought them; 14 but Jesus said, “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.” 15 And he laid his hands on them and went on his way.
This beloved passage is often taught in Sunday schools to demonstrate Jesus’ care for children and when I was growing up was often accompanied by the song ‘Jesus loves the little children.’ While the sentiment of Jesus caring about children remains true, the placing of this story in Matthew’s gospel also highlights the barriers that adults often place between families seeking blessing for their young children and Jesus. The question of divorce and relationships naturally flows to the question of children and their place within the community. As we saw in Matthew 18:1-5, even when Jesus is directly addressing the disciples the crowds and the presence of children is never far away from Jesus and those with him. Communities of ‘little faith ones’ are to be places where ‘little children’ are welcome, for the kingdom of heaven is for them as well.
In this kingdom of heaven where the first are last and the last are first a rich man has a difficult time entering the kingdom (those who in the society have the highest value) but infants (the Greek paidion is an infant or very young child) are those who belong naturally. The disciples are still learning how to discern the boundaries of this community and become the very stumbling blocks Jesus mentions in the previous chapter when he places a child in their midst. The disciples don’t merely ‘speak sternly’ to the crowd, the Greek epitimao is rebuke. This is what Jesus does to the wind on the sea (8:26) or to cast out a demon (17:18), or when he orders crowds not to make him known (12:16). Perhaps more directly it is what Peter does to Jesus when Jesus foretells his death (18:22) and what the crowds will do to attempt to silence the two blind men crying out for Jesus’ intervention. (20:31) The disciples are attempting to silence these infants and those who bring them, but Jesus’ voice overrules them. Matthew removes the indignation that Jesus’ expresses in Mark, and perhaps for Matthew we see Jesus continuing to model and teach for his disciples the way they are to embody. Little ones are not to have barriers placed before them, disciples are not to become stumbling blocks (see 18: 6-10) and babies and young children have a place in this kingdom.
This community of Jesus is an alternative to the ways communities that formed the imaginations of the crowds and the disciples. Children become an example for adults of what the kingdom of heaven is like and the greatest in the kingdom of heaven is like a humble child (18:3), lost sheep are sought after while the rest of the herd is left on the mountain (18:12-14), sinners are sought after multiple times with the chance of reconciliation and those who exclude others invoke their lord’s anger (18:15-35). It is a community where women are protected in relationship at the cost of formerly assumed rights by men to dissolve a relationship (19:1-12) and children have a place in the kingdom while rich, able bodied men find it impossible (outside of God’s intervention) to enter. It is a strange place where those who renounce their maleness (as eunuchs do) and who are separated from the normal path of marriage and procreation have a place in this kingdom of heaven, and those who renounce family and fields will receive a hundred fold and encounter the life of this new age.