07 January 2013

off-sides or off-balance?

Matthew 19:13-15 holds the short-but-well-known story of the children coming to Jesus, momentarily being delayed by the disciples, but eventually reaching the one who welcomed them.  Such a succinct passage is placed by Matthew topically, and highlights the failure of the disciples to learn how Jesus regards such little ones (cf. Matthew 18).  One cannot help but wonder, even if we account for the obtuseness of the disciples, why it was such a problem for these children to come to him.

The context of the passage is the Second Temple Jewish world of Palestine, where children were at the lower end of the social status.  Precedence was given to tradition and age, and children held neither of these.  Still, life was valued in the Jewish culture - abortion and infanticide were both against Torah - and parents sought to raise their children in loving, godly homes.  We can observe this also in the general observation that these children were being brought to this unique individual for him to give God's blessing.

The wider context of Second Temple Judaism was the Greco-Roman world in general.  The Hellenization of many Jews, along with the Roman occupation, had shown its influence.  It is up for debate and discover just how much influence was present in any particular geographic or theological region, but we can safely figure that some degree of influence was present in Palestine.  The Greco-Roman world placed children at the lowest level, and did not have the respect for life that the Jewish world displayed.  Infanticide via exposure was widespread and, because life wasn't perceived as beginning until the father had ceremonially welcomed the newborn into the family, was not understood as illegal or immoral.

In either culture children were often viewed as being interruptions, just as they so often seem in the busyness of our world.  Probably every parent has had to battle this feeling at some point or another.  Granted, these are not our best times as the caretakers of God's precious gift, but it is a reality nonetheless.  The disciples direct these children away from Jesus because they want to be respectful of his time and energy.  In other words, they simply assert that Jesus has 'more important' things to do.  They are mistaken, however, for Jesus evidently does not have more pressing matters than these children who have come to see him.

An ancient sermon on this passage says, "Who would merit to approach Christ if innocent children are kept back from him?" (Homily 32).  It seems that children matter in God's kingdom, even though too many of us still think of them as interruptions to the more important work that we have today.

That the disciples fall into this not only shows that they have missed Jesus' earlier instruction on the care and importance of children, but that they are also being pulled from the larger culture which surrounds their Jewish world and faith.  Maybe it is the Greco-Roman world or maybe there is enough of a dismissal attitude available to them in their Jewish context, but they abandon Jesus' words over this issue regardless.  Whether we are speaking of children or any other issue which demands that we stand for those who are weak and dependent, there will always be a tendency to pull us away from the way of Jesus.  It might be the influence of worldly notions, quite possibly the culture of the church, or just the way in which humanity has rewired ourselves away from the design of the Creator.  Whatever the case, there is a tug-of-war for the heart and soul of Christianity.

It has often been repeated that a society is measured by how it treats its weakest members, and Jesus' ethic of the kingdom certainly appears to have this view of the world in mind.  Especially in matters of the family, there is a cultural pull, and children - who are among the weakest and most dependent in our society - are at the forefront.  There are those who exploit them, use them, manipulate them, or use them to serve some greater ideal.  And the church might be tempted to join in, thinking that we can use the same methodology to achieve more biblical ends.  This will never be the case, and those who live by this sword will come out no better in the end.

This is not simply a story about Jesus' special regard for children, or an admonition for us to love children just like he did, but a lesson for how we ought to always be on guard for the encroachment of this world upon the ethics of the kingdom.  May we be receptive to hear in all things.

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