Leaning against the hood of my car, I didn’t want the date to end. It was late, but the well-lit parking lot outside her apartment seemed like a great place to talk, and so we did. We talked about life and school and the future, and for a 20-year-old who aspired to pastoral ministry, I brought all the passion you might imagine.
“I just wanna be where God is at work,” I said. “That’s all. I wanna be right in the middle of his action.”
She heard the zeal, but poked immediately, “But what if God doesn’t want you there? What if he wants you somewhere boring?”
I remember freezing for a second, a little confused, before coming back, “Yeah, of course. But you know —”
The rest of my words trailed off. She had reminded me that God’s wants were greater than mine, and that I hadn’t considered the slightest possibility that God might want something different for me than action. Soon I wondered if she wanted something different. The whole relationship had been progressing, but this was a gut check. Did she prefer boring?
We were at odds. It was a necessary clash, not uncommon to young couples, but who was right?
Jesus was no stranger to clashes. Even when his disciples meant well, he routinely corrected their behavior by chasing it down to the heart. What they did, or intended to do, stemmed from what they cared about, and Jesus focused there.
Consider the scene in Mark 10. Jesus had been teaching the crowds, and most notably the Pharisees. Now, Jesus and his disciples were in a home debriefing the latest lesson. Apparently, they had retreated from the swell of eager listeners, and here it was just them, their little band, getting the inside scoop from the Teacher himself. But then the families started lining up outside.
“Jesus wants you to come like a kid, like a little kid who might need carrying.”
Mark tells us in verse 13, “And they were bringing children to him that he might touch them . . .” Mark doesn’t specify who was doing the bringing, but it was most likely the parents. And they were bringing their children because the children must have been too little to bring themselves. I imagine a group of moms, toddlers on their hips, nearly on top of one another as they shuffled closer to where Jesus was sitting.
“And the disciples rebuked them” (Mark 10:13).
More Strategic Ministry
The disciples didn’t want these children to bother Jesus. And before we would criticize them for their coldness, we should note that their intentions at least seemed good. They seemed to sincerely want to protect Jesus, with his limited and valuable time, from distractions and “less strategic” ministry. Their great Teacher had just awed the crowds and went toe to toe with the Pharisees. He was becoming a big deal. The last thing he needed, in the disciples’ minds, was snot-nosed kids vying for his attention.
In that day there was nothing controversial about the disciples’ thinking. The first-century world didn’t see children as cute and innocent, like many modern people do. Children got in the way, and compassion toward children was not a virtue. This means the parents had to know it was a long shot for Jesus to touch their kids, and doubtless they were unsurprised when the disciples turned them away.
“But when Jesus saw it, he was indignant and said to them, ‘Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God’” (Mark 10:14).
Need and Take
Do you see the clash? The disciples thought one way, but Jesus thought another. Their zeal to guard Jesus’s time conflicted with the heart of his kingdom. They were thinking just like the world — that children were a nuisance to society. Children were at the bottom of the social hierarchy. Survival was foremost, and children don’t lift a finger to help. They just need and take. Need, take. Need, take. All day long. Children don’t bring home the bacon; they just eat it (whatever they don’t throw on the floor). And then they expel it — and they need others to take care of that too.
Jesus had more important things to do, thought the disciples, like an appointment with an up-and-coming CEO who made bank (also called the rich young ruler, Mark 10:17–31). These kids had to go.
But Jesus said to let them come. And he was indignant.
What Can Children Bring?
His anger burned against how wrongly the disciples mistook his heart. It’s remarkable that Jesus doesn’t rebuke the prevailing worldview, but he rebukes the disciples for parroting that worldview and assuming he did too. That worldview had less to do with children, and everything to do with status.
When Jesus says of children, “for to such belongs the kingdom of God,” he doesn’t mean the kingdom is possessed by the cute and innocent, but by the helpless and needy, like how children are. Empty-handed. Weak.
The disciples, like us, have a knack for sizing up the crowds. Neighbors become candidates of who can do the most for me, like the Jewish scholars in the first half of Mark 10 (verses 1–12), or the rich young ruler in the second half (verses 17–31). We want “those guys” on our team, not children. Children were the worst. What can children bring? How can they contribute?
“Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it” (Mark 10:15).
Jesus had said to let the little children come to him, and now, by verse 15, no people can come to him unless they are like a child. It had been this way all along, and it still is.
You can’t come to Jesus with your arms full of everything you think makes you good. Your having it together, your best efforts — that is not the interest of Jesus. His welcome is a welcome to those who lack what the world considers premium. His welcome is a welcome of needs, of smallness, of those who don’t know how to feed themselves or tie their shoes or wipe their noses. He wants you to come like a kid, like a little kid who might need carrying.
“And he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands on them” (Mark 10:16).
What Makes the Difference
They were real children that he held that day, but the message is for us all. Helpless is how we are to receive Jesus — or better, to be received by Jesus. His work is among the empty-handed, the weak.
And that was the part I didn’t understand all those years ago, standing in the parking lot, talking about life and school and the future.
“Helpless is how we are to receive Jesus — or better, to be received by Jesus.”
Then last spring my wife, the girl with me in that parking lot, gave birth to our eighth child, in the middle of a pandemic that made days seem like weeks. And when all the world was shut down, and, well, boring, we walked through our front door carrying our newborn daughter. We were greeted by the chaos of adoring siblings who still can’t do much on their own. They all were clamoring to see her face, like children would, and then it occurred to me that this is where the action is.
I had wanted to be where God is at work, and I still do, but it’s knowing where he works that makes all the difference. “Let the children come to me,” I remember, while I’m getting swarmed by touches and tugs and Is it snack time yet? Children like these, Jesus meant, and means for me to be. This is who he welcomes. This is where he works.