Mark 10:13-16 – Receiving the Kingdom of God

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.

9 Responses to “Mark 10:13-16 – Receiving the Kingdom of God”

  1.   Jr Says:

    I’m curious as to your thoughts on another interpretation I ran across while writing a paper on John 3:5. There is a lot to it, but I’ll be as brief as possible: It considers that one of the main ideas of the text in the Mark passage is “entering” the Kingdom (Mark 10:15). There, Jesus says that one must become like a child to “enter” it. This has drawn parallels to the phrasing in John 3:5, where Jesus tells Nicodemus that to “enter” the Kingdom one must be born of water and spirit – signifying the need for spiritual birth (i.e. born from above/born again; John 3:3). Therefore, Jesus uses the children as a symbol for being born again (they being “fresh” and “new-like”) and thus he says one must enter the Kingdom like a child (must be born again). At the least, the parallels in phrasing and meaning with John 3:5 (and also with Matthew 19:14 and Luke 18:15-17) are interesting. And to go along with that…

    This also makes sense with your main point; that is, when considering the issue of being “least”. We know in Matthew 11:11 Jesus tells his disciples that John the Baptist was the greatest of men (naturally born), but whoever “is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he”.

    All this together would say that unless one is born again by the spirit (symbolically, like a child, new-like) one cannot enter the Kingdom; and those who are least in the Kingdom (like a child being “least”) are greater than anyone who has simply been born of natural birth – which brings in the context of Mark regarding who is the greatest.

    [There is also the issue of Matthew/Mark use of “little ones” and similar phrases to speak exclusively about Jesus disciples (those who follow him); but I’ll leave that be.]


    Grace be with you –

    •   John Mark Hicks Says:

      My initial response is that “born again” or regeneration language is not Markan language. I don’t think you can read Mark as thinking something equivalent to John’s language. The context of Mark in terms of children and little ones is about the “last” in opposition to greatness. The greatness/least contrast in Mark is for those within the kingdom of God or such that belong to the kingdom of God.

      Entering the kingdom of God is a broad idea that can carry the weight of many particular concepts or metaphors. So, in a broader NT theology one might make some parallels or connections but in terms of the context of Mark itself it does not seem likely to me. One might have a better case with Matthew, however.

      •   Jr Says:

        John Mark: Thank you for your take on that. For reference purposes, I dug up the article and (in case you or anyone else is interested), it comes from: Lindars, B. “John and the Synoptic Gospels: A Test Case.” New Testament Studies 27 (1981): 287-294.

        After re-reading my notes on the article just a minute ago, he does focus more on the Matthew parallel (though he does relate it to the Mark and Luke passages as well). He attempts to reconstruct how the original greek tradition read. After doing so, he proposes that “become like children” does not mean “become childlike” but it is to be in the same situation as children; that is, to be born again. Both phrases represent radical renewal. He writes, “the metaphor of becoming a child certainly refers to spiritual regeneration, and the source of regeneration is to be found, not in man as he is by nature, but in God,” (292).

        Interesting stuff. Thanks again!
        Grace be with you –

  2.   Bob Bliss Says:

    It is ironic that the disciples were marginalized by the Pharisees and other leaders who used their power and greatness to keep the likes of the disciples out of the kingdom. Yet here the disciples are arguing over their greatness and they use their power and greatness (or delusions of) to keep out those without power. I agree that it is probably the status and the powerlessness of the children that Jesus is emphasizing rather than their innocence or humility. Jesus here seems to be taking on his rather familiar statement, the first shall be last and the last shall be first. So he is encouraging the disciples to become as children, those last in line.

  3.   Bob Bliss Says:

    I’m not sure where I read this but some commentator wrote that John uses double entendres in his gospel. Jesus uses a word that can be understood in two ways. Then someone with whom he is speaking takes it one way and Jesus corrects him or her. In the discussion with Nicodemus the word Jesus uses could mean “born again” or “born from above.” Nicodemus thinks born again but Jesus corrects him. From above is the correct way to think of this word (John 3:31; 8:23; 10:11). This is a motif in John to show that the kingdom is not of this world (below) but from above (heaven). We are actually not born again Christians but born from above Christians.

    •   Jr Says:

      Using double entendres doesn’t necessarily eliminate one of the meanings. In the John 3 case, being born from above is being born again; and being born again is being born from above.

  4.   Stephen M. Kenney Says:

    With the march on Jerusalem around the corner, having seen the glorified Lord, and anticipating the coming revival of Davidic rule (wonder where our thrones will be in relation to his?) it’s quite likely that the disciples began to fixate on power in terms humans are used to experiencing. In that culture, no one was as powerless as a child. So Jesus has to remind the disciples that it’s not power as usually perceived that will characterize this kingdom.

    This vignette has been used for a lot of bad psychologizing lessons about discipleship. We should become like children! They’re so forgiving, so cooperative, so willing to share, so humble…. all very good points unless you’ve actually met a human child! No, the point is that they have no worldly power. The disciples need this corrective. They think they’re doing important kingdom stuff so there’s no time for the powerless. When you’re selecting the cabinet for your new administration, you don’t have time to watch Barney & Friends. That is, unless your new administration is unlike anything seen on earth.

    Grace & Shalom,
    Steve Kenney

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