PROCLAIMING THE GOSPEL Matthew 19.2

13 Then children were brought to him that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples rebuked the people, 14 but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” 15 And he laid his hands on them and went away.

ALL THE PIECES OF STAND-ALONE INFORMATION

  1. While they were still in the Trans-Jordan region and crowds were still coming to hear Jesus and be healed, people began to bring their children to Jesus so that he would place his hands on them and pray for them.
  2. When the disciples became aware of this, they told the parents(mothers) to stop doing it, as if it was wrong, or improper or something similar.
  3. Jesus then corrected the disciples.
  4. He told them to allow the children to come to him.
  5. They were not to hinder them in any way from coming.
  6. He said that there was no age limit in the kingdom of heaven. It belonged to children as much as to anyone else. In fact, when children came to be blessed by Jesus it was one of the distinctive signs of the presence of the kingdom.
  7. Jesus laid his hands on every child.
  8. When he was finished praying for every child, he moved on from that place.

THE STORY

In addition to the presence of critical religious leaders, there were children, most likely supervised by their mothers. The presence and activity of Jesus encouraged them to set aside cultural convention. Wanting the best for their children, the mothers began to bring them to Jesus so that he could bless them. The disciples saw themselves as the gatekeepers of the operation and began to enforce the cultural norm. Jesus immediately stopped them. He told them to let the children come. He actually told them to make sure they were not hindered in any way at all. Then he took the opportunity to explain yet another cultural difference between the kingdom of God and the traditional religious culture of their world. Children were as important as anyone else in God’s kingdom. When children were coming to him to be blessed and prayed for, the will of God was being done on earth is it is in heaven. The kingdom was happening before their very eyes. Instead of preventing it they should have been celebrating it. After he had laid his hands on all of them and prayed for them, Jesus moved on from that place.

THE MESSAGE OF THE STORY

13 Then children were brought to him that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples rebuked the people,

Children and families are the same all over the world and in every age. Take away a few cultural distinctions, and you have the same phenomenon. In Jesus’ day, and still, amongst some peoples around the world, small children were almost exclusively under the supervision of their mothers and were to be “seen but not heard.” At certain times and in certain places they were not to be seen as well. If a famous rabbi were teaching and, in the case of Jesus, healing people who were sick, the men would have been closest to Jesus, and the woman and children would have been at the edges of the crowd or even further away. That distance represented a  strong social boundary.  Crossing it would require a lot of courage or a great sense of liberty.

I continue to love the way Jesus’ presence and the way he went about his ministry was as powerful a message as his actual words and miracles. Jesus is not just a messenger. He is the presence of God. The environment created by his presence is the environment of heaven. The attitudes he displays and the priorities are also those of heaven. This incident involves four different groups of people:  Jesus –  representing God/heaven; the crowd – representing people who wanted to listen or receive healing;  the disciples – who had followed Jesus and seen and heard everything from the first days in Galilee;  finally,  there were the mothers with their children – those with the least social status. What makes the mothers stand out from the rest in this instance was the fact that they were the only ones who saw that the kingdom of God was different to the kingdom of their contemporary culture. The crowd and the disciples thought that the cultural boundary that kept the women and children at or beyond the edges should not be challenged. Jesus did not announce that when he was finished praying for the sick people he would pray for the children. But something very special was happening that Jesus saw and responded to: the mothers began to bring their children to be prayed for.

I think there was something about the presence of Jesus that was more than amazing speech and miraculous power. No one thought of giving the women an invitation to bring their children to Jesus. Even though it was against social custom, they were able to recognise the domain of the king. As such, they felt an inner permission to step over long-held cultural boundaries and bring their children to the centre of the crowd where Jesus was and ask him to bless and pray for them. I am confident to identify this phenomenon as a kingdom of God manifestation because of what Jesus said later when he was telling the disciples to stop trying to prevent them from coming. I know western analytical headspace doesn’t easily relate to this idea, but it does make sense of the silent initiative of the women and the way Jesus explained it.

If this is true, there is another aspect of what is going on for us to observe. It seems common for things to happen around Jesus that are not actively precipitated by him. Perhaps it seems unusual just because I come from a different cultural perspective. So many things happened for which there was no foundational teaching or initiative from Jesus himself. Roman officers came and honoured him, prostitutes and tax collectors welcomed his company. Lepers and marginalised people somehow presumed a welcome in him. The disciples broke Sabbath laws without any instruction. The list goes on. When did Jesus give a teaching that invited such actions? Not specifically and not often – if at all. On this occasion, in the east-Jordan region, why didn’t Jesus see the mothers with their children and invite them to come so he could bless them? I am willing to suggest that it had to do with the way Jesus partnered with the Holy Spirit. Our way of doing business is to put everything up front and hope that everyone will get it just because we have said it. I think Jesus’ way was to say certain things, but realise that there was a separate, but complementary work of the Holy Spirit that he was a partner with, but for which he was willing to create space. I cannot tell you how deeply I love the way many people who should have “got it” missed it and how the people who weren’t expected to “get it” got it. On this occasion, it was the mothers with their children.

The disciples’ attitudes and actions are well documented for us in the Gospels. They provide us with a very helpful mirror image of what often happens to people like us who are sincerely committed to follow Jesus but still have our “L” plates on. If you allow the action in this incident to slow down just a little, you will notice that the mothers were bringing their children to Jesus based on the fact that they were “reading” the situation from a genuine awareness that Jesus was different from the established religious culture. He was also different from the broad culture that had dominated the nations of the Middle East for centuries. That difference was measured by a distinct sense of loving welcome to all who came. They had seen it with the people who came for healing. No one had been turned away. All were touched and blessed. The disciples saw Jesus welcoming them, but still felt they should step in and take control of the situation. Women and children out. They were so sure of their actions here that they were not just politely providing a gentle push back. The text says they were rebuking them. This is the word that describes Jesus commanding the wind to stop and/or demons to leave. They were sure they were right, and the women and their kids had totally overstepped the mark.

Think where they were getting that idea from. They were followers of Jesus. They had watched him accept and receive all kinds of people. We have a range of sources from where we draw attitudes and motives for the things we do.  In the case of these disciples, why would they be so assured that Jesus would agree, even thank them for their intervention?

They would have been far better served to look at what Jesus was doing and then figure out what, why and how they needed to adjust.  It must have happened a lot as they watched and heard Jesus day after day.  On this occasion, they would have learned that children matter as much as anyone else in the kingdom of God. They were in the same environment as the women but weren’t getting the same message. The fact was that they were taking their cue from the religious culture that had wrapped its ways around their minds and hearts for the whole of their lives up until they met Jesus. On this occasion, that same culture jumped onto the front and centre of their radar, and they acted in league with it.

 

We are so very prone to doing this. Culture and cultural values are the sneakiest things around. We can be totally committed to following Jesus. We could have left everything to follow him, but that wouldn’t simply delete all of the cultural defaults we had practised every day in the former kingdom. I can see it in myself and others. We seem to have this capacity to hop right back into the ways of that old kingdom without realising it. We should be taking our lead from Jesus, watching him and embracing what we are seeing and hearing. There should be a battle going on with the defaults. It is like we are addicted to the old ways and ready for a fix at any moment.

14 but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven.” 15 And he laid his hands on them and went away.

There must be a special brand of disappointment within Jesus when people who are sincerely following him unwittingly hinder the coming kingdom of God rather than serving and celebrating it. These first disciples did it, and so do we. We create issues and take actions that stop God from doing what he lovingly desires – and we do it with an assurance and determination that we are pleasing him. The same thing was just about to happen in Jericho. When blind men called out to Jesus as he was passing by, the gatekeepers of the King told them to shut up and be quiet. They were presuming that Jesus should rightfully ignore such brazen presumption from two “nothing” persons. [1] When Jesus stopped and asked after them, the gatekeepers had to adjust their attitudes quickly. What does Jesus think when he sees the church that is supposed to carry his honour to the wider community bickering and fighting over things that will never amount to a hill of beans in the kingdom of God.

It is important to notice what Jesus does with this sad little demonstration. He could just chastise them and nothing more. They would have learned that Jesus disapproved. Often that’s all we give people when they disappoint us and us when we disappoint them. In this case, Jesus turned the situation into a learning moment: in the kingdom of God children matter – big time; it is a very serious thing to get in the way of children. Jesus talked about a mill stone being tied around our neck and then being thrown into the sea. Hindering is full of horrible consequences both for the children and for those who put a stumbling block in their way. Parents need to keep learning how to minister Jesus to their family and how to lead them to him by modelling the Jesus-looking-life around them. The main thing Jesus wanted the disciples to see was that even though what was happening with the mothers and their children was offensive to the mainstream culture of the day, it was normal in the kingdom of God. What they saw as improper or presumptuous was actually the kingdom of God happening before their eyes. Whether the mothers fully realised what they were doing or not, they were giving tangible expression to the kingdom of God. In the kingdom of God, the least in this world’s eyes is as great as the greatest in this world’s eyes. Remember what Jesus will later say very soon in the story, “Whatever you did to the least of these, you did to me.” [2]  When the least get to be celebrated, and when they receive honour and abundance, heaven is happening on earth.

IF THIS WAS HAPPENING IN MY LIFE WHAT WOULD IT LOOK LIKE?

I would be able to look at a situation from the point of view of the kingdom of God. We have recently been asking ourselves this question: “If the kingdom of God fully came to this sphere, what would be different?” In our spheres, it may not be the women and kids who are being excluded and thought of as of lesser value.

If I were going to be like Jesus in an environment, I would be attuned to see who was at the bottom of the pecking order and then have the courage and love to find a way of declaring their worth. A well known Australian public figure I knew used to do this very thing. Whenever he came into a room, he would often be considered the most important person in the room. He would deliberately make every effort to start shaking hands with the person or persons who might otherwise be considered unimportant.

I would be continually challenging and changing the overt priorities from the top of the social pile to the bottom. When I did this, I wouldn’t just be trying to score political points, but to bring the full blessing of heaven to those who are the outsiders. I wouldn’t be ashamed or reticent about doing this openly but respectfully.

I have been to so many Christian gatherings where the pecking order is made ve obvious. There are the most important people and the lesser important people. It doesn’t have to be about ethnicity. It can just be the way people in a room create an exclusion zone with their one or two friends. Other church members and strangers are politely but profoundly excluded

In some cultures, pastors are treated as a class above everyone else. How ungodly can you get? That people think like that is bad enough. That the pastors themselves trade off this is even more tragic. What everyone gets to see is just another boring version of this world’s kingdom culture.

HOW WAS THE GOSPEL PROCLAIMED?

The gospel was proclaimed to the crowd when Jesus welcomed the mothers bringing their children and prayed for them. It was proclaimed to the disciples when Jesus called on them to allow the mothers to come. It was further proclaimed when Jesus identified the kingdom of God for them. The crowd and the disciples had the choice of accepting what Jesus had said, repenting (i.e. changing their view and rejecting the previously held traditional cultural value) and embracing the lifestyle of the kingdom by honouring and esteeming children (and women) as equally worthy of attention and blessing from heaven. This is a very practical expression of the gospel. There are hundreds of ways in which we can proclaim the gospel just by living out the values of the kingdom of God openly in the company of others. We should not do it to put on a show, but to pour blessing into the lives of people God loves who are neglected by our selective and unfair set of traditional values.

[1]                 See Matthew 20:29-33

[2]                 See Matthew 25

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About Brian

Passionate follower of Jesus. Member of a family that keeps on growing because I keep on meeting up with more great people from every nation and background who I belong to because of Jesus. Husband of an amazing woman, father of four forgiving kids and eight almost perfect grandkids. And loving it.

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