Much has been said about this passage, and it’s a very interesting one. Throughout the book of Mark, indeed throughout most of the gospels, you see that the disciples – the ones who were the closest to Jesus – don’t really get him. They often seem perplexed as they follow Jesus around on his mission and ministry. When Jesus calms the stormy sea in Matthew, they say “who is this that can even command the wind and waves?” At the tomb of Lazarus, nobody even considers that Jesus could raise Lazarus from the dead and even try to prevent him from doing so. On one occasion, Jesus’ family even came to collect him because they thought he had lost it.
In contrast with the disciples who don’t get who Jesus is, we have those that do: the destitute, the ill, the despised, the untouchable. And here we have another group that gets it: the children. The disciples think that they are doing Jesus a favor by keeping these bratty, smelly kids away from him so he can do what he came to do. Jesus, in a great reversal found throughout the scriptures, says that no you are getting in the way of them – get out of the way! Furthermore, he states that the blessing of God, even the kingdom of God, is theirs for the taking.
While this can easily come across as quaint, it is really pretty radical. The author notes that these were children, meaning that they were not yet considered “of age” to fully understand the scriptures or participate in the temple rituals, and were not considered full members of the Jewish community. It is pretty radical then, for Jesus to say that the Kingdom of God belongs to such as these: not the Pharisees who kept the law, not the Priests who purified the community, and not the Scribes who taught and preserved their faith. Jesus even directs this to his own disciples, saying that anyone – including them – who will not receive Jesus as a child receives him, will not enter the kingdom.
The reason hinges on the word receives. Jesus does not insinuate that children have done anything to inherit the kingdom, for in fact they cannot do anything. We know this as parents – children give little, but take a whole lot. But we don’t see this as wrong because we know that children need and, more importantly, children know that they need. Adults try very hard not to need anything. We try to even not need God, and instead try to earn rather than inherit a place in God’s kingdom. Therefore, I think that when Jesus says that we need to become like children, he does not mean that we become childish or simple. The bible states frequently that we should grow and mature and leave behind childish ways. What I think he means here is that we must recognize that we need God, that God is not far off and approachable only through our own blood sweat and tears. To be a child of God is to know that God’s love is a gift freely given. We must first recognize that we need it, and be willing to receive with gratitude, knowing that it is a debt that cannot be repaid.
As we think of this day and this child, consider approaching God as a child. Understand that God’s love is available to the least of these, and that Jesus is the full representation of God’s love, living evidence of God’s redeeming grace.