I’ve been thinking about the meaning behind Jesus’ public statement, “let the little children come to me,” for many years. It wasn’t until I was explaining the similarities between radical unschooling (a peaceful parenting approach) with Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom of God that it all came together.
A peaceful parenting approach is filled with gentleness, freedom, grace, and a natural, rhythmic approach to parenting. In contrast to this, most of us grew up under a fairly rigid, authoritarian structure that told us what to eat and when, what to wear, when to go to bed…etc. We barely questioned it – though we likely felt the injustices at many levels. In Jesus’ day, kids enjoyed very few freedoms. They were classified as non-people.
So Jesus’ comment, “let the little children come to me,” was quite radical. The full statement from Jesus, and some context is this:
Then people brought little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them and pray for them. But the disciples rebuked them.
Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” When he had placed his hands on them, he went on from there.
This was a new and radical teaching for a Jewish rabbi. Touch children? Pay attention to them? Give them the time of day? In Jesus’ time, children were closer to slaves than people. Newborns were left to die – perhaps because of a deformity, or perhaps because they were born female. But Jesus, in a sentence, elevates their worth and status, and invites them into the kingdom of the heavens along with everyone else.
To be clear, the kingdom of the heavens (the rule of God, and all that encompasses) is at hand with Jesus. He ushered it in. So the kingdom has already begun – we now live under the reign of God. He was telling us that kids understand the kingdom way of living better than adults – even more than Jesus’ hand-picked disciples. But what is it they understand?
There’s a ton of teaching on this passage. Historically, the focus is on how children model total reliance. Just as they rely on their parents for all their needs, we need to rely on God for all our needs. Jesus is indeed saying the same thing, but there’s much more – there’s always more – the clue comes from his mention of the kingdom.
Let’s look at this from a child’s perspective for a moment. What if you were the child to whom Jesus said, in front of everyone who classified you as a nobody, “let him through, and do not hinder him”? What if he looked at you and said with authority, “You are worthy? I love you. I will bless you.” What would your response be?
With little doubt, Jesus would have won your heart and devotion. He would be the guy you’d do anything for. You would idolize him. You would be shouting like the children in the temple courts in the verses below.
Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. “It is written,” he said to them, “‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it ‘a den of robbers.’”
The blind and the lame came to him at the temple, and he healed them. But when the chief priests and the teachers of the law saw the wonderful things he did and the children shouting in the temple courts, “Hosanna to the Son of David,” they were indignant.
“Do you hear what these children are saying?” they asked him.
“Yes,” replied Jesus, “have you never read,
“‘From the lips of children and infants you,
Lord, have called forth your praise’?”
These kids in the temple courts were literally shouting, “God has come to help! He’s here! The messiah is here! Salvation has come!” The chief priests didn’t see it. The kids did. So the message from Jesus is that it’s not just that children are totally reliant on Jesus (we all are), it’s that they know a truth adults often miss. But what is this truth? What is this “kingdom” truth? Why would Jesus say, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven?
The children know something about Jesus. Something adults can’t see, or at least they struggle with it. So let’s look at how children see things compared to adults.
Children view the world much differently than most adults. Kids live in a relational world. Adults live in a hierarchical world. Kids want to play. Adults want to work. Kids don’t judge. Adults do. Kids are honest. Adults lie. Kids are sensitive. Adults are hardened. Kids are imaginative. Adults are stuck in a box. These are just a few of the differences, but they provide some good contrast.
We can look at this another way. God is relational. That’s how he loves. The triune God lives in a swirling and relational triangle of love. Kids do the same thing. They cry out to us for attention, affection – hold me, watch me, play with me (they say these words over and over until one day they stop). Watch when kids get together to play. Whether they know one another or not, they immediately start playing together. They start relating with their amazing creativity and imagination. Meanwhile, us parents look at one another apprehensively, in the face of such pure joy, freedom, and abandonment.
Kids are still tapped into the freedom and honesty of their emotions. They can still draw from their natural curiosity and spiritedness and live fully. Kids, like the kids in Jesus’ day, see the pure joy and freedom in the kingdom of God that Jesus is modelling and offering. But we adults have lost this. We think, like Jesus’ student did, that we have all the answers – we know the way the world works. We don’t. Kids do.
Matthew illustrates this teaching nicely. Jesus’ disciples were wondering who was going to be the greatest in this new “hierarchical” kingdom that they envisioned. But Jesus is not interested in hierarchy, but community, child-like freedom, grace, and love. Matthew writes:
At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who, then, is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”
He called a little child to him, and placed the child among them. And he said: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. And whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me.
Jesus is saying, “No, guys, you’ve got it wrong.” True power, joy, and grace are found in true humility – like that of a child. Yes, we need to rely on God, but it’s much more than that. We need to change and become like little children – joyful, curious, passionate, honest, trusting, fun – free – these are expressions of the Kingdom of God.
Jesus is giving us an amazing picture of the kingdom of God through the example of children – let’s see what they have to teach us.
Thanks for reading,
~ Ted Olson