READ : Mark 10:13-16
The best place to learn what it really means to be human is the life of Jesus Christ. His example demonstrates the importance of having a tender heart.
One of the qualities of the greatest American president, Abraham Lincoln, which deeply impressed his contemporaries was his tenderheartedness. In the midst of the most terrible war in American history, Lincoln loved to spare the lives of condemned soldiers whenever he could. He would pardon a man every chance he got. One snowy winter evening during the Civil War, an Indiana congressman came to plead for the life of a soldier from his district. Apparently the boy had fallen asleep on sentry duty, an offense punishable by death. Lincoln listened to the case, then picked up a declaration of presidential pardon, remarking as he put his name to it,
Some of my generals complain that I impair discipline by my frequent pardons and reprieves; but it rests me after a day’s hard work that I can find some excuse for saving some poor fellow’s life, and I shall go to bed happy tonight as I think how joyous the signing of this name will make himself, his family and his friends.
One of Lincoln’s associates said of him, “No man clothed with such vast power ever wielded it more tenderly and forbearingly. No man holding in his hands the keys of life and death ever pardoned so many offenders, and so easily.” That description fits someone else I can think of even better than Abraham Lincoln, doesn’t it?
“LET THE LITTLE CHILDREN COME”
The world likes its leaders to be tough and strong, even with a nasty streak. Any sign of softness is perceived as weakness. Any expression of tender feelings is dismissed as sentimentality. But the greatest man who ever lived was never afraid to show tenderness toward others, especially toward people who were marginalized or excluded from society.
I don’t think there is a scene in the New Testament with more charm and appeal than this one, described in Mark 10:13-16:
People were bringing little children to Jesus to have him touch them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” And he took the children in his arms, put his hands on them and blessed them.
Even as Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem and the cross, he stopped long enough to bless some little children who were being brought to him by their parents, and he rebuked his overly-protective disciples for trying to prevent those children from approaching him. Then Jesus issued his famous welcome, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to people like them” (v. 16).
This warmth and tenderness toward children is all the more striking when we recall the place children had in the ancient world. An old proverb says that children should be seen and not heard. That gives some idea of how people thought about them in pre-modern times. Jesus’ disciples give a clear indication of how insignificant children were thought to be. When parents were bringing their little ones to Jesus for him to give them his blessing, Jesus’ disciples stepped up to stop them. It’s obvious what they were thinking. The disciples believed their master was far too busy and important to be bothered by such people. So they took it upon themselves to protect him from this supposedly unwarranted intrusion. But Jesus put an abrupt halt to their interference. He opened his arms to the children and welcomed them. His heart, always tender toward all who were lowly or despised, went out to them.
I really wonder about those disciples sometimes. How could they have been so close to Jesus for so long, and yet so completely have failed to understand his character and thinking? Mark reports that at the same time Jesus was welcoming and blessing the little children, his disciples had been arguing over their personal status and debating which of them would be the greatest in God’s kingdom (see Mark 10:35-41). So while Jesus, on the way to the cross, pauses to bless some lowly children, his disciples are jockeying for the best positions of power and prestige in what they think is going to be his soon-to-be-inaugurated glorious reign of power. As Jesus is preparing to sacrifice himself for the sins of the world, his closest friends are there trying to prevent the very ones Jesus wants to reach from approaching him. If his own disciples could so fail to know and share the mind of Christ, I wonder how many of us really understand him.
HOW TO ENTER THE KINGDOM
This picture of Jesus and the little children is touching and heartwarming, but we must not miss the most important point of the whole scene. Jesus does want to communicate something else to us here besides his love for all people (including these “least of all”). In his blessing of the children the Lord was also teaching something important about the only way to share in his salvation. He gives us an important clue to his thinking when he says this: “I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” In order to be saved, to “enter the kingdom” of God, we must become like children.
Now what does that mean?
To begin, let’s be clear that Jesus is not speaking about literally becoming children, or trying to pretend that we are not adults with adult concerns and adult questions. He did, after all, say we needed to be childlike, not childish.
Nor did Jesus intend us to understand from what he said that in order to be saved we must strive to develop some of the qualities of a child. He is not suggesting that the way to enter God’s kingdom is by trying to imitate a child’s virtues such as innocence or purity, or by learning to trust God with a simple, childlike faith. I know that Jesus’ saying is often interpreted that way, but wrongly so, I think.
To do that is to romanticize the nature of children. After all, children are just as fallen and sinful as adults. Children don’t get into heaven because they are innocent. The fact is, they’re not! As any parent can tell you, while children often can be sweet or trusting or kind, they can just as often be stubborn, self-centered, cruel and willful. Christ’s point was not that people should try to imitate some of the supposed traits of a child in order to be saved, but that they had to be willing to become what the child itself was. Notice what he said: “The kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” In other words, to people who were willing to adopt the same position as children. The key thing was the child’s objective position in the biblical world, not its subjective qualities.
LIKE A CHILD…
The way a culture views children can undergo radical change from age to age and place to place. Contemporary western society, for example, esteems children very highly. We see them not only as precious and important, but as the very center of our lives. So we organize everything around their needs and desires, catering to their interests, investing in their future. But in the ancient world it was very different. Children there were largely non-entities, without status or importance – which is exactly why the disciples were turning them away. But they were wrong. In thinking that Jesus had time only for big-shots and important people the disciples were following human reasoning, not God’s.
This is the way the world sees things, to be sure. “Nobodies” don’t get to meet the President or the Prime Minister, apart from a few selected representatives during carefully staged photo opportunities. But only “somebodies” have the chance to really spend time with the high and mighty of the world. That’s not how it is, though, in God’s kingdom. In the world it is self-assertive people who advance. But in the kingdom it is the self-denying and the self-abasing who are welcome. In order to meet Jesus, you must give up your pretensions to importance. You must be willing to humble yourself, to admit that after all you really are a nobody in God’s sight. In short, you must become like a little child.
To be child-like in Jesus’ terms means to accept a child’s humble status, or rather non-status. And it also means to adopt a child’s helpless position. Notice Jesus’ wording: “anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” A little child has only what it has been given. It does not have the strength to take things, to provide for itself. This is what we must become in spiritual terms. To enter the kingdom we have to receive it the way a baby receives everything, without claim of merit, not as a reward or a prize, not as a result of our own efforts, but simply as a gift of God’s love. “To receive the kingdom as a little child is to allow oneself to be given it” (C.E.B. Cranfield). You cannot enter as a learned theologian, proud of your knowledge and subtle wisdom. You cannot enter as a faithful church member, presenting your years of service as an admission ticket. You cannot enter as a community leader, trusting in your position and political clout. You cannot enter as a rich man, in the habit of buying whatever you want. You can only enter as a little child, humble and completely dependent on the gifts of others.
FRIEND OF SINNERS
Of all the names and titles Jesus has in the Bible, I think perhaps my favorite is this one: he is “the friend of sinners.” That is a phrase that gives a glimpse straight into the depths of Jesus’ heart. Look there and you will see tenderness and compassion for people who aren’t successful, for people who have tried life and failed at it, people who have used up all their chances, people who know they can’t make it on their own, people who don’t deserve God’s favor, who can’t merit his acceptance. In short, people who are sinners. I don’t know about you, but if that’s the basic requirement for friendship with Jesus, I certainly qualify.
Salvation is a gift. It is only given to those who acknowledge their need, and their undeserving. Christ reaches out his arms to bless us. His heart is tender toward us. He will pour his grace into our lives. But we can only receive that love and blessing with empty hands. If we go on clutching our money and stuff and status and shreds of self-righteousness, then Jesus’ love will find no room in our hearts. God looks with favor upon the lowly; the proud he sends empty away. To enter the kingdom we must turn and become like little children. As long as you go on thinking you are Somebody Special, you’ll stay on the outside. You can only get in if you are willing to become a nobody like the rest of us. That’s a hard lesson to learn, but I can’t think of any that is more important.