Spirited Reflection: Jesus heals and blesses children
Continuing with the Epiphany resource, Listen to the Children: A Worship Resource for Justice Seekers (digital) (print) and Écoutez les enfants , this week we see how Jesus included children in his teachings.
Throughout his ministry, Jesus speaks about a new reality; it is often translated as the “Kingdom of God” but might better be described as the “God’s Shalom” or the “Beloved Community” or, keeping with the relational focus, “God’s Kin-dom.” Moving from a masculine, political and territorial term to an emphasis on relationships is particularly apt as we consider the place of children. Jesus usually uses metaphors or parables to describe what God’s Kin-dom is like. In Mark, Jesus does not describe this Kin-dom; rather, he explains that God’s Kin-dom belongs to children, and that to enter the Kin-dom, people must receive the Kin-dom as children do.
In this biblical story, Jesus is in the region of Judea, and a crowd gathers around him. He teaches them. At one point, people start to bring children to Jesus. They hope he might bless the children and pray for them. The disciples scold those who were bringing forth the children. Jesus, however, admonishes the disciples and encourages the children to come to him.
Becoming like a child
Over time, there have been different understandings about what this story really means. Some interpretations state that to receive the Kin-dom, one must become like a child—that is, to embrace child-like qualities such as wonder, enthusiasm, innocence or trust. (Such qualities tend to be stereotypical qualities of children who have never suffered childhood trauma.) It is, however, extremely difficult for many adults to become like children; hence, a parallel has been made that it is difficult for many people to enter God’s Kin-dom.
Some recent interpretations have noted that the story is not as much about the characteristics of children, but rather, their social status. In biblical times, children were considered as “the least.” They had very few rights and little social status. Children were therefore extremely vulnerable and easily exploited. By stating that people must receive the Kin-dom as children, Jesus clarifies that God’s Kin-dom is not about social status; it is about creating authentic space for people who are the most vulnerable in society.
To further understand this, it is important to recall an earlier conversation that Jesus had with his disciples (Mark 9). Then, the disciples argued over who was the greatest. Jesus states that “whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all”. He goes on to explain that “whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me”.
Power, status, and self-imposed greatness are not requirements for God’s Kin-dom. Becoming community and offering welcome for people who are vulnerable and dependent are.
Nancy Eiesland wrote about vulnerability and dependency in her book The Disabled God. She disputed the notion of a powerful and completely self-sufficient God, and instead wondered about the image of God as a quadriplegic who uses a Sip-and-puff wheelchair. This God would have some agency but would also be dependent on others. This God would not be completely helpless but would still rely on others for help. This God-in Jesus would bring a personal and lived understanding of what it means to be vulnerable, stigmatized and pre-judged.
This God reminds us that we are mutually dependent upon one another. This God reminds us that we are all created in God’s image and invites us to co-create true community together.
With this as context, the meaning in Mark could be to challenge all of us to use our social power to benefit others, to give up our unearned social privileges for the betterment of community, and create space for people who are vulnerable or who have the potential to be exploited. It reminds us to notice the image of God in one another, and particularly those among us who are vulnerable.
It also shows us that God, and God’s Kin-dom, depends on us to act. How might we respond to this understanding of God and the Kin-dom? How might we tangibly challenge our own power and privilege? What does it mean to make room for people on the margins? And how might we offer the true kind of welcome that Jesus invites us to?
Holy God, we gather our prayers today giving thanks for people and places that affirm children as full members of the community and society. Holy God we listen to you As we listen to the Children
We pray for our church and leadership, for our workplaces, schools and places of learning that they are safe places that nurture and uphold all people. Holy God we listen to you As we listen to the Children
We pray our actions together will transform our lives and the world. Holy God we listen to you As we listen to the Children
For communities, individuals and institutions who are caught in conflict, we pray for inner calm, for deep listening and respectful resolution, that all may live lives of peace and justice.
With thanks to the KAIROS Epiphany Team, including all the child/youth consultants and Shannon Neufeldt, to Adele Halliday – team leader for Discipleship and Witness at the United Church General Council Office, on maternity leave – for this reflection and to Su McLeod for the Prayer.