Why children? That’s the question on my mind today. In this morning’s gospel lesson (Matthew 19:13-22), we have the familiar and sweet, “Suffer the little children unto me.” The crowd is bringing children to Jesus, but the disciples don’t like that, so they try to stop it from happening. But Jesus intervenes and says, “Let them come—for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” And then he lays hands on them and moves on with his day. So why children?
This passage is in all three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), but why? Why is this important? Nothing happens. No one is healed. No dramatic revelation about the nature of Christ or the nature of God is given in this conversation. There is hardly a teaching here (kingdom of heaven belongs to children). Why this passage? There are lots of stories about Jesus that didn’t make it into the gospel, so why did this one make it in? I don’t think it’s because Jesus is sweet, and we need to think of him that way. I don’t think it’s because Jesus was good with children—though he may have been. I don’ think it’s because this encounter makes for a good story. So why children?
I think the answer lies in all the other stories around this one. And it’s interested to me that this passage is part of a longer stretch of stories that is almost identical in all three synoptics. Let’s start with the rest of today’s reading: the rich young man comes to Jesus and says, “What do I need to do to get to heaven?” And Jesus says, “Keep the commandments.” The man seems to have done all of that, so Jesus says, “You’re missing one thing. Go and sell all that you have and give it away and follow me, and then you will have treasure in heaven.” Of course, as the story goes, that makes the man sad because he was rich. I believe that’s the reason for the children.
They are a contrast—a wonderful counterbalance to the rich young man. The man is approaching the kingdom the way every adult does. “What do I need to get in?” But the kingdom belongs to those who look at it like children—who just want to be close to Jesus.
Another example: have you ever tried to make a deal with a 5-year-old? I remember from my childhood that I could often convince my younger brother to make wild and foolish trades with me as long as I played the deal right. He was willing to give up every toy he had if I could make that one bucket of mud seem appealing enough. That’s because children don’t value things the way adults do. Children live in the moment—the immediate is all that matters. They don’t worry whether they have enough money to pay bills. They don’t care about account balances or stock markets. All they want is what they need right now. And that’s how the kingdom works.
Usually, I subscribe to the “simple is best” approach to biblical interpretation. Just read the passage and see what it means. But this time, I think we need to read this lesson in its broader context. Matthew, Mark, and Luke set these two stories right next to each other for a reason. The story about children is included to help us know how we are supposed to approach the kingdom.
If you have a minute, take a look at the other passages around this one. All three synoptics have very similar stories at this point in their accounts (Mark 10, Matthew 19, and Luke 18). There’s the teaching on divorce—what does God really want us to do? There’s Jesus’ prediction of his death. There’s the question of whether James and John get to sit at Jesus right and left in heaven. There’s the healing of the blind, and then there’s the triumphal entry into Jerusalem. This is all about the kingdom and how we’re supposed to approach it. The children play a lynchpin role in this series. They are the real teaching here. Why children? Because we’re supposed to learn a lot from them.