“People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on 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. Truly I tell you, 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, placed his hands on them and blessed them.” Mark 10:13-16 NIV
The irony was pretty thick. I had to chuckle when I finally saw it. For decades, whenever I would hear the passage preached it was about being like a child and what it meant to receive the kingdom of God like a child. And so, the sermon would proceed talking about trust and dependence, love and desire to be with a parent constantly.
But just like the disciples in the story were wrong to keep the children away from Jesus, focusing solely on being like a child was also wrong.
Okay, maybe wrong is a bit strong. It is, of course, worthwhile to consider what it means to receive the kingdom like a child. But it does miss something significant in the teaching: there’s one word that has been overread, misunderstood, or just ignored (perhaps because it doesn’t fit neatly into how we like to think about Jesus) that makes us miss it.
Jesus was indignant when he saw his disciples keeping the children away from him.
This should shade how we hear what he says to his disciples. Indignant feels like an old word, but also powerful. This isn’t exasperation or even simple frustration. The word used to describe Jesus’s reaction carries the meaning of being incensed. Truly angry.
Jesus was angry that his disciples were keeping the children away from him. Knowing that, read his words to the disciples again. How do they sound now? Sharper? Louder? A bit more direct? But why? Why was Jesus mad that they were keeping children from him?
Because they were doing the exact opposite of what disciples of Jesus are supposed to do.
Disciples are supposed to witness to Jesus, to draw people near to him. We are supposed to remove obstacles to people coming to Jesus, not put them up, let alone be the obstacle that keeps people from him.
Jesus was angry because the disciples were interfering with the very thing that he had come to do. He came to connect with people. To touch them, to heal them, to relate to them, bless them and show them the kingdom of God.
The disciples probably thought they were doing a good thing by protecting Jesus. They thought they were letting him focus on more important things.
The more I thought about it, it felt less ironic and more uncomfortable. When we read that Jesus was angry with his disciples for keeping people away from him, and that instead they should have been clearing the way to get to him, we have to stop and ask if, and how, we might be doing the same.
Before we answer with a quick, “Of course not!” take a moment to really think about the what and the how of our interactions with those who do not know Jesus. Have we kept people from Jesus by shouting our opinions about cultural and social issues? Have we erected barriers to Jesus by our insistence that a “Christian” could never believe or something we don’t?
The other side of the coin is equally disconcerting. How are we removing barriers for people to get to Jesus. If our job as disciples is to clear the way for others to come to Jesus, what barriers are we working to tear down?
But we have reason to hope because Jesus is always Jesus. Even after his rebuke of the disciples, he invites the children to himself and blesses them. The invitation to come to Jesus is always open, and he welcomes all who come to him.
Are you placing barriers to people coming to Jesus or are you tearing them down?
How can you clear the path for others to get closer to Jesus?