What disciple of Jesus would ever want to hinder children from coming to Jesus? I doubt if anyone would want to do that though the disciples, in the circumstance described in the Synoptic Gospels, did. Perhaps they were protecting a fatigued Jesus from the onslaught of the chaos of playful children….maybe that is what they thought. Who really knows? When Jesus rebuked them they must have cowered in their own embarrassment. I know I would have.
“Now they were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them. And when the disciples saw it, they rebuked them. But Jesus called them to him, saying, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” Luke 18:15-17 (cf. Mark 10:13-15; Matthew 19:13-14)
In line with my previous post, I want to suggest that something profoundly relevant to the contemporary church is uttered in this saying of Jesus. He is not talking about baptizing children [his ministry did not baptize children] nor is it simply a pithy morality saying about childlike humility. Rather, it says something about the status of children in the faith community.
Jesus invites children to come to him because (gar) the kingdom of God belongs to them.
I think we need to stew on that sentence for a while and let it sink deep into our theological souls. What does it mean to say that the kingdom of God belongs to children? What does it mean to invite children to experience Jesus because (not “so that”!) the kingdom of God belongs to them?
It seems to me that Jesus recognizes that children are the sons and daughters of God, that is, they belong to the kingdom of God. Jesus touches them, holds them and shares his love with them because children live and breathe the air of the kingdom of God.
Unfortunately many use this text to theologize and moralize about how adults should not hinder their children’s path to Jesus. While there is certainly nothing wrong about that point–and the disciples did hinder children–I don’t think this is the theological substance of the text itself. The reason adults should not hinder children is because children already belong to the kingdom of God and adults need to become like children themselves in order to participate in God’s kingdom.
The theological point is that children are kingdom people too! They do not stand outside the kingdom of God as if they are “heathens” seeking admittance or “sinners” needing conversion. To the contrary, they already belong to the kingdom. Jesus embraces them, loves them and enjoys them.
I think this speaks volumes regarding a “theology of children” within the contemporary church, especially among churches that only practice adult baptism. Just like these parents, we lead our children to Jesus so that they fall in love with him just as he loves (and has already loved) them. But our children do not come to Jesus as outsiders. Our children are not “potential disciples” or “conversion prospects,” but rather they belong to the kingdom. I regard them as “maturing disciples” (see Greg Taylor and I discuss this in Down in the River to Pray, pp. 210-215). They are not “non-members of church,” but members of the kingdom.
Consequently, we invite our children to participate in the faith community as members of the kingdom. We lead them to Jesus in age appropriate ways, and we lead them to the table where they, too, may eat with Jesus. We do not treat them as “non-members,” but as disciples in training for adulthood, as catechumens who already belong to the kingdom of God.
Ultimately, we lead them to Jesus so that they may follow him and become his disciple as they own their own faith. When they are ready to commit to the way of the cross–to take up their own cross and follow Jesus–then they will follow him into the water that they might also take up his mission as their own. Following Jesus into the water they own their own faith and affirm their kingdom allegiance.