Sunday, October 04, 2009
Reflection on Jesus and Children
Matthew 18:1-5: At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 2 And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them 3 and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 5 “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, 6 but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.
19:13-15 - Then children were brought to him that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples rebuked the people, 14 but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” 15 And he laid his hands on them and went away.
When the disciples ask a question about the greatest, Jesus uses a child as a model. Jesus uses a child to say “unless you turn/change/convert (all are valid translations of this word) and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Now Jesus did not mean act childish, the disciples were already good at this. “Who's the greatest?” already is a childish question. Paul says we grow up and put away childish things. It's almost as if it is like Jesus says: stop having the bad qualities of a child and get some of the good ones.
And Jesus gets a lot of mileage out of this example. The child offers an example for
2)How to welcome others
3)The responsibility we have to others (in the graveness of sin)
I once heard John Piper say that one of the traits he looks for in an elder is how they interact with children. Is the Christian Life a matter of one's individual piety and outward cleanliness? Or is it found in community and not the individual? For Piper, children were the ultimate test because they are needy, they can be annoying (as they were to the disciples later), and they can give you nothing back for the time you give them. They may, if an infant, sit there and look cute, but they will not return the favor. You don't take them out to lunch then they get the bill next time. A child may say thanks but then runs off to do his own thing.
So what I think Jesus is getting at in “becoming like one of these” is in rank and importance. It is not acting childish, though the innocent trust of the child is held up. It is humility, welcoming people like children who cannot give you something, and in not leading them into sin.
But as a side note before we get these traits in action in the rest of this chapter, I want to also show how this is a great argument for infant baptism. I'm serious. In other words, it is not entirely spiritualized that the kingdom community belongs to the children. In Matthew 19:13-15, the disciples may have only taken this as spiritual, and as people brought children to Jesus the disciples send them away. In Luke, it tells us that mothers carried babies to Jesus to touch. Children that could not come of their own accord, that had little knowledge of what was being done to them. The disciples did not see that children belonged in the new community that Jesus was making just as they belonged by circumcision in the community of Israel, as Jesus says that indeed they are members of the kingdom subject to his Kingship. Peter, I believe, gets it in Acts 2:38-39. When he invites the first Jews to new covenant obedience in receiving their Messiah and submitting to baptism, Peter says “for the promise is for you and your children.” Peter learned by this point children were included. Clement of Alexandria has a great line about this incident: “In Jesus' time mother brought their children to Jesus to touch, as they continue to do today in baptism.” There. My short case for infant baptism based on Matthew 18 and 19.
But I do think it is true. Having children as covenant members reminds us of the importance of community. We then see the dependence that child has on others. The community is not a social club where strong pious individuals, that are maintained by their individual personal piety come together. It is ground of the individual growing. Think of trees growing out of the building of the church, rather than trees growing out side of the church that stick a branch in the building. A child's dependence reminds us of our dependence. That a child is brought unable to help itself to have Christ touch reminds us of our helpless condition apart from being carried by the workings of the Spirit.