This story has some familiar contours. The disciples fail, Jesus rebukes them, and then attempts to transform their thinking. It is like the song, “second verse, same as the first.” This cycle is repeated several times in Mark’s Gospel, particularly in Mark 8-10.
This story functions to center a major theme within the narrative. It falls between the two occasions in Mark when the disciples are arguing about who is the greatest (Mark 9:33-37 and Mark 10:35-45). Both arguments, ironically, follow Jesus’ own prediction of his suffering and death (Mark 9:30-32; 10:32-34). Between these occasions, Jesus advises the disciples on how to receive the kingdom of God.
Of course, the kingdom of God is the fundamental theme of the Gospel of Mark. Jesus has heralded the arrival of the kingdom of God as good news (gospel; Mark 1:14-15). The disciples have anticipated the coming kingdom. Indeed, this is what they argued about—who would be the greatest in the kingdom?
The occasion for this teaching moment is Jesus’ encounter with little children—more “little ones” (cf. Mark 9:33-50). Parents (presumably) were bringing their children to Jesus that he might “touch” them. “Touch” is an important word in Mark. Jesus touched others (like the leper) to heal them (Mark 1:41; 7:33) and others wanted to touch Jesus to be healed (Mark 3:10; 5:27-28, 30-31; 6:56; 8:22). This word is always associated in the Gospel of Mark with healing, just like the laying on of hands which Jesus does as well (Mark 1:31, 41; 5:23; 6:5; 7:32; 8:23, 25; 16:18). It seems likely that parents were bringing their children to Jesus for healing.
Astoundingly, the disciples rebuke the parents. This is a strong action. Jesus rebuked the demons (Mark 1:25; 3:12; 9:25), the chaotic winds (Mark 4:39) and Peter on one occasion (Mark 8:33). But the disciples were in the habit of rebuking as well—they rebuked a blind man (Mark 10:48) and even Jesus himself (Mark 8:32). The disciples were not immune to a strong rebut and, on this occasion, they rebuked the parents who were bringing their children for healing. The text is silent about their reason though we may suppose that Jesus was tired, busy or presumed to be uninterested. We may presume the best motive, that is, protecting Jesus’ rest, or we may think of their potentially worst motive, that is, they were focused on themselves and their own greatness.
But Jesus’ response is equally strong. Jesus was displeased and indignant. Mark uses the same word to describe how the other disciples felt about James and John’s request to sit at the right and left hand of Jesus in the kingdom (Mark 10:41). Jesus was angry and frustrated with his disciples.
The theology embedded in Jesus’ words to the disciples is significant. The children must have access to Jesus because “the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” The kingdom of God is for the little ones; it is for the broken, marginalized and hurting. Children represent the “little ones” for whom the kingdom of God comes. The disciples should not hinder those for whom the kingdom of God was designed.
A further theological point provides the content of the teaching moment for the disciples. Those who would receive (or enter) the kingdom of God must become like little children. Interpreters differs as to what quality children possess that is a means of receiving the kingdom of God. Innocence is a popular one, but this seems extraneous to the context.
Given the location of this story within Mark’s narrative, it seems better to see the quality as one of social location and powerlessness. Children are not “great;” they are usually last rather than first (cf. Mark 9:35). Children are the most powerless group in society and often treated in ancient cultures as the least. They are the “last” of society rather than the “first.”
If the disciples want to “receive” the kingdom of God—if they want to participate in the kingdom of God—then they must become like little children. They must stand with those who are last; they must become servants. The kingdom of God is not populated with the “greatest” but with servants. They must become one of the least of these.
Jesus received the children just as the kingdom of God does. Jesus embodied the kingdom of God by embracing, touching (healing) and blessing these children. The church must do the same. Children are God’s people too.
The kingdom of God receives children, and the kingdom of God is populated by those who become like them—those who assume the last place rather than the first. The greatest are not those who promote themselves but those who place themselves at the end of the line among the last. In this sense they become like little children.