This sermon originally was preached in 2014.
It is a pleasure to worship with you. Today, we’re exploring a famous passage – one you likely have heard at one time or another, whether you are a Christian or not. It’s not only quoted often, but also has been depicted in various paintings throughout history. It reveals a beautiful, counter-cultural image, where Jesus welcomes children. Children, especially in Jesus’ day, ordinarily were ignored or disregarded in public settings. Most often, people quote this passage out of context apart from its surrounding scenes. When this passage is taken out of context, hearers miss a significant point Jesus is making. While the issues at stake in the Bible have not changed, we may be more apt to receive the fullness of the passage these days as we are paying more and more attention to child development amid a turbulent world.
Let us hear God’s Word for us today, in Matthew 19:13-15.
Then little children were being brought to Jesus in order that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples spoke sternly to those who brought them; but Jesus said, 'Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.' And he laid his hands on them and went on his way.
This is the word of the Lord.
If you have not read the chapter of Matthew 19 in one sitting, I encourage you to do it. In fact, an excellent study sometime is to read the entire book of Matthew and consider how each chapter or section relates to the one before and the one after. Matthew very much is written as a contextual book, where each part feeds into the next and draws on the one before it. Matthew also writes to help hearers connect significant points related to prophetic images expressed in the Hebrew Bible.
Unfortunately, too often, we take this passage and lift it out of its context, almost like a hallmark card of playful puppies, to ooh and ahh over what we imagine is a much more sweet and cuddly statement than more likely was intended. In fact, preachers have avoided the context so often that most people are completely unaware that Jesus says, “Let the little children come to me,” before a crowd that was just arguing over topics of complex social and household relationships.
Do you recall, being a child, what it felt like to hear adults have tense conversations? What did it feel like in your body? Did your stomach clench? Did your head ache? Did you worry or feel scared?
The children in Matthew 19 suddenly find themselves amid a very public argument. Jesus and his disciples are in Judea. Some of the religious leaders begin taunting Jesus, hoping to catch him in the act of discarding the law or heresy. They bring up the challenging topic of divorce. And Jesus replies: When a man and woman marry, they become one flesh. No longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate. They taunt him again, reminding him how Moses allowed for divorce. Was Jesus discarding Moses’ teachings? He reminds them how the people had hardened their hearts and begged Moses for leniency. He says the only exception for divorce is when either have been emotionally or physically unfaithful to the other.
Then, Jesus ups the ante. Do they really want to have a conversation about sexuality and romantic relations? Well, then, let’s have the conversation. How about the experiences of eunichs, Jesus asks. Surely, he says, you’ve noticed how not everyone is able to marry because some are born eunichs, some choose to be eunichs, and some are forced to be eunichs by other people. The religious leaders fall silent. This was not the conversation they wanted to have.
It’s at this point that caregivers begin bringing children to Jesus. Perhaps you can resonate with this inclination for refuge when the adult conversation has become so intense. As a child, did you ever seek an adult out for support when conversations heightened, maybe even when adults began fighting with each other? Have you ever had a child seek you out for refuge in those times of great tension?
In these moments, children often pull at their caregiver’s leg, crawl up into their laps, and suck their thumb or rub fabric between their figures – waiting for their quickened heart rates and shallow breathing to settle again. Something’s not right, they intuitively sense, but being close to a loved one will help make it better.
Jesus was safe. Jesus was trustworthy and reliable. Jesus cared about them. He was the best place for them to turn to in a time of heated emotions and big evocative conversation. When we read today’s passage in the context of the whole chapter we are invited to observe how children and their guardians seek after Jesus in tenuous times and how Jesus welcomes children who seek him when adults nearby disregard them and mindlessly argue.
Understandably, most people do not want to discuss divorce or the many complications related to sexual lifestyles when also talking about children – it’s easier and sometimes feels better to separate those out, perhaps especially in church.
In stead, most people like to talk about how “children are so resilient.” How they seem to rally, when the adults around them are still falling apart. Maybe people say that because they wish it were so, even when its not. Mostly, though, I think people say that because it seems that way. Children easily go on playing or focusing on normal aspects of life – their school routines, their friends, playing, eating, sleeping. Maybe you’ve observed children seeming resilient, too, or been on the receiving end of someone telling you how resilient your kids seem after a particularly hard time in your life.
Personally, I don’t agree. Working as a pastoral therapist and having been deployed to numerous disaster sites, I don’t believe children are resilient – at least, if you mean by that unaffected or having little lasting impacts.
Instead, I think children postpone dealing with what has happened until they have more development tools at their disposal and review past events later. I don’t think this is a particularly conscious effort, just what tends to happen developmentally. After all, if we didn’t postpone processing pain in our childhoods, why else would so many of us be in therapy as adults?
We do children no good if we only try to keep them from pain in our world, and we try to separate out or shelter childhood entirely from real pain in the world. In fact, some children develop significant disorders when they are constantly lied to and told what happened in life wasn’t real. Rather, most important for children and young people facing hardships is to have trustworthy and reliable adults in their life who encourage safety amid turbulence. Mr. Rogers famously said that when scary things happened in the community, instead of shielding him from them, his mom would point to the helpers who were there too. She made a point of showing him how and when relief occurs amid the trouble in the world. You are on a fool’s errand if you try to keep children from the truth. Mostly because, children already know. They may not know verbally, yet, but eventually children grow to have the verbal skills to articulate what they sensed early on. For example, children know what a divorced family feels like. They know it evokes all sorts feelings, ranging from relief to heartache, depending on the child and the family. Also, children know what a family riddled with domestic violence, or substance or sexual abuse, feels like. Children know when there are family secrets, even if they don’t know exactly what the secrets are. They can feel the gaps in conversations or the ways parents avoid certain topics. Children also know what it feels like when revered leaders in the community publically argue. They might not be able to explain what exactly is going on, but they can feel the immense tension in the air.
Like the children in our passage today, seeking Jesus out, children today can sense when something is not right – when the conversation is pitching toward harm.
See, a key in our passage today, is not simply that Jesus welcomes children. I know, in an era when children were largely overlooked or ignored, simply that Jesus welcomes them can seem like a huge thing in and of it self.
Amid the complexities of life, one way we help children best is by doing what Jesus did. Being a safe, trustworthy adult who responds to children in their moments of need. Sometimes, children don’t need anything more than a warm smile, a safe hug, or a shoulder to cry on. All of these non-verbal responses acknowledge and value them, and emphasize how even amid adversity there can be safety and goodness. It doesn’t fix the problems, but allowing them to draw near assures them they are cared for even when problems arise.
Countless social science studies have proven, when a child has even just one trustworthy adult in their life who they interact with on a regular basis – it doesn’t even need to be an adult in their own home… it can be an adult at church, at school, or in their neighborhood – that regular interaction of being seen, acknowledged, and valued, can provide them with enough stability to overcome great adversities in their life.
I believe, as Christians, Jesus calls us to be trustworthy agents of good in the world.
I am reminded of a response the famous author, G. K. Chesterton, once had for a mother who wrote him to say she was concerned that fairytales introduced children to gruesome ideas about the world. To paraphrase Chesterton: Fairytales don’t teach children that dragons exist. Children are well aware dragons exist. Fairytales teach children the dragons in their lives can be defeated.
While we should not go around introducing children to horrors in the world, we also need not pretend terrible things do not happen. Rather than denying dangers in the world, instead, we should spend more of our time – as Jesus models for us in our passage today – offering refuge to children when they become worried or uncertain.
We live in a world with great adversity. Whether it's great tragedy and trauma, or the common challenge of developing loving relationships in our own homes, you don’t have to look far to find it. Every day, we have the opportunity to follow Jesus in welcoming children and young people who seek safety and trustworthiness when the dragons in life – and the dragons in our homes – emerge. Rather than "moving on" from these experiences or, worse, pretending they don't exist, instead may we live as people on the watch, ever ready, for ways to affirm real goodness and real helpfulness in our homes and in the world, pointing these out to the children of our community, with joy and fervency.
Notes on the Bible, faith, community, and congregational care.