A large stained glass window dominates my memories of the parish church where I grew up and received all my childhood sacraments. It depicts Jesus surrounded by children, his face welcoming and his body stooped a bit to greet them. His adult followers in the scene are either looking on in wonderment or trying to get the children to back away. As a child, that window invited me to feel at home, and I did.
The familiar scene is a combination of two Bible stories. One is a teaching from Jesus about what it takes to be great in the kingdom of God, and the other is an account of Jesus blessing a group of children who are brought to him. These scenes are found in three of the four Gospels. While the stories have a cozy feel to them, there is a very challenging message that addresses us as adults.
In the ancient world, and in parts of our world today, there were practically no social safety nets. Old age was a privilege that depended largely on the ability to sustain a family farm or care for sheep or other cattle. Giving birth to children was an essential part of the process of extended life. Those children, once grown, were valuable assets but, in infancy and childhood, they were undervalued, as were most women.
The male head of the family had to provide shelter, and food for all those mouths. This is not to suggest that they did not love their children, but in lean economies children were not the center of a family’s universe. There was little room for romantic notions about children and childhood. Given the historical and cultural context of Jesus’ time and place, it is little wonder that the attention Jesus gives to children becomes part of the church’s shared memory.
A further bit of background might also be helpful. A number of scholars point out that in ancient Palestine children were often beggars, hanging at the edges of crowds, hoping for a simple coin or a morsel of food to be thrown their way. They may have pestered the adults holding out their dirty hands. Artfully ignoring these children may have been the norm.
Now, we imagine the scene with Jesus and his closest disciples (Matthew 18:1-5; Mark 9:33-37; Luke 9:46-48). Mark’s version of this event has them arriving in Capernaum which would have been like a home base for Jesus in the region of Galilee. Jesus knows they have been arguing on their journey about who is the greatest but they refuse to admit it. Then he calls them together, tells them, “If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.” To illustrate his point, Jesus picks a child (perhaps from the band of children following them) and puts his arms around the child. That gesture itself spoke volumes—embracing the least significant, a pesky, needy little boy or girl—and probably put the disciples to shame.
The second scene, similar but slightly different is found in Matthew 19:13-15; Mark 10:13-16; Luke 18:15-17. Modern translations often refer to this scene as the blessing of the children. It asks us to picture people bringing their children to Jesus to be touched by him. When his disciples try to keep the children away, Jesus proclaims that the kingdom of God belongs to those who are like children: “Whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it.”
Jesus knew the importance of touch, and the power of a tangible lesson. By embracing and blessing the very people who were often just an afterthought, he was saying God’s kingdom is completely counter to our cultural norms. The children themselves are needy and they know it. Knowing our need also brings us closer to the embrace of Jesus.
Catherine Upchurch is the general editor of the Little Rock Catholic Study Bible and contributes to several biblical publications. She writes from Fort Smith.
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