Faith

When Little Children Get in the Way

Say Hello to My Little Friend

If anyone causes one of these little ones — those who believe in Me — to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. — Matthew 18:6

Every older generation thinks the younger ones have it easier. That’s just natural because it’s true. Humanity is good at innovation, and life does get easier in many ways. It doesn’t matter how old you are; just think of how things have changed. It’s possible that my grandchildren will never learn to drive because transportation will be automated. It’s amazing how things change.

When I was a kid there was no internet. If you wanted to know something, you had to go to the library and look it up. There was no social media, email, texting, or messaging. If you wanted to talk to a girl, you had to pass a note through three of her friends. I guess that’s about as gutless as texting now that I think about it. Some things never change.

There was no way to record TV shows either. If you wanted to watch The Wizard of Oz, you had to watch it when it was on, with commercials. It seemed to always be on during Sunday night when my parents made me go to church, so I was an adult before I realized Dorothy was trying to get back to Kansas. (Which still makes no sense to me.)

Back then there were only three or four channels on TV, and you had to use a little book called TV Guide to find out what was on when (that is, if your parents weren’t as cheap as mine and bought you one). And the cartoons were only on Saturday mornings, so you couldn’t sleep in. There were no virtual-reality video games with high-resolution graphics. We had Pong. Look it up.

The world is a different place today and changing every minute. Now try to imagine people from Jesus’ day walking around in the twenty-first century. They would be fascinated by many things. I’m sure technology would be the most surprising. But the sociology would also blow them away. As many social problems as we still have in regard to how we treat each other, people from the first century would marvel at how well we all — races and tribes — get along, seeing the near elimination of slavery and the major strides with regard to equality of women. And they would be absolutely fascinated by the way we treat our children, the care and protection we give.

I don’t mean to suggest that people of old didn’t love their children, but they cared for them very differently. It makes me laugh to think about one of those people trying to open a childproof handle or put a child in a car seat. As with technology, we’ve come a long way, even in my lifetime, regarding how we take care of our children. Back in my day we didn’t have nets around the trampoline. We just fell off. Back in my day we didn’t have seat belts. We just slid back and forth on the vinyl, hanging on for dear life. And sometimes I slept in the back window. Okay, I’ll stop.

I don’t know what they’d think about the way we care for children, but I know I’m grateful, because I love children, and so did Jesus. One of the angry incidents of Jesus in the Bible came about when the disciples didn’t value children enough. Mark 10:14 even tells us that Jesus “was indignant” in response to the situation. Indignant means “to have a strong feeling of displeasure and antagonism as the result of some real or supposed wrong — ‘to be very angry, to be full of anger.’”1

Why was Jesus indignant? This situation started days earlier, in another funny story.

The Story Started Days Earlier . . .

According to Mark 9:34, it all began with a “discussion” the disciples were having about who was going to be the greatest in the Kingdom. I don’t care how long you follow Jesus, selfishness is going to continue to creep into your soul.

What’s great about this story is that for some reason, James and John’s mother got involved. Their mom asked Jesus if her sons could sit next to Him on the throne (Matthew 20:20–21). Can you picture it? Hey, James and John, what is your mom doing here? I guess I need to have an endorsement for this book from my mom, now that I think about it.

Matthew 20:24 records that after this happened, the other ten became “indignant” toward the two of them. We must remember that most of the disciples were young at the time, but this is still a bizarre story. This was more than simply calling shotgun. They were positioning for power. What I’d like to know is whether the other ten were indignant because of what James, John, and their mom were trying to pull, or because they hadn’t thought of it first. Regardless, we know there was tension. Jesus knew there was tension.

They came to Capernaum. When He was in the house, He asked them, “What were you arguing about on the road?” But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest. — Mark 9:33-34

If I may paraphrase, Jesus asked, “So what were you two arguing about back there?”

“Oh, nothing.”

Jesus was just messing with them. He obviously knew what their argument was about, so He decided to set the record straight. “You guys keep forgetting that I’m Jesus, and I can hear you. I heard your little quarrel. Here is your answer about who gets to ride up front in the Kingdom of God.”

Remember that Jesus’ goal was for these disciples not just to ride in the kingdom, but to drive it. Jesus was going to leave the keys to the Kingdom bus to them (Matthew 16:19), so they had to get this right! It always amazes me that Jesus has entrusted a small part of His Kingdom to the likes of leaders like me. I guess I don’t know for sure that He actually has, but I’ve been leading one of His churches for almost thirty years now and haven’t been struck by lightning yet, so allow me my delusion.

In this twenty-first century, I’m just one of the tiny, insignificant specks of leadership in His gigantic and eternal Kingdom, so there is a limit to what I can screw up. But these disciples were different. They were the Twelve! These guys were the make-or-break leadership team that was going to start the church. If they failed, Jesus would have died in vain. Yet here they were, shoving to get in front of each other in line! No wonder Jesus seemed a bit testy.

Jesus called a child over and had him stand in their midst. They were in Peter’s town, and some scholars speculate that the child might have been someone from Peter’s family. The majority of my parishioners grew up with priests who couldn’t marry, and it usually surprises them to learn that Peter — Pope Numero Uno in their world — was married. We know this because Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law in Matthew 8:14. No one has a mother-in-law just for the heck of it.

But I digress. There was a kid there, and Jesus used this child as an illustration.

He said, “I tell you the truth, unless you turn from your sins and become like little children, you will never get into the Kingdom of Heaven. — Matthew 18:3 NLT

He could have added, “much less lead the Kingdom of Heaven!”

Jesus continued,

Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven. — Matthew 18:4 ESV

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Jesus said also,

And whoever welcomes one such child in My name welcomes Me. — Matthew 18:5

If this sounds familiar, it should. In chapter 11, Jesus taught us that when we do for the “least of these,” we’ve done it for him. Greatness is about loving the least, not excluding them.

Mark takes it even a step further:

Anyone who welcomes a little child like this on my behalf welcomes Me, and anyone who welcomes Me welcomes not only Me but also My Father who sent Me. — Mark 9:37 NLT

Welcoming children means welcoming Jesus. Welcoming Jesus means welcoming God. In the same way, my son Collins was Jesus to me. Jesus is the “least,” and our ministry to “the least” — no matter their age, gender, race, incarceration status, or economic status — changes us. It affects our gut (splanchnon), our eyes, and ultimately our hearts.

It is hard for us to imagine how much less children were respected in Jesus’ day. The early church became known as a community that cared for children in a rare, special way, because they did a beautiful job of understanding what Jesus taught here.

Aristides told the Roman emperor Hadrian about first-century Christians in this way:

They love one another. They never fail to help widows; they save orphans from those who would hurt them. If they have something they give freely to the man who has nothing; if they see a stranger, they take him home, and are happy, as though he were a real brother. They don’t consider themselves brothers in the usual sense, but brothers instead through the Spirit, in God.2

Obviously, they had learned from Jesus’ anger. Hopefully, we will as well.

John Ortberg gives us more background on the impact of Jesus’ attitude toward children in his excellent book, Who Is This Man? He points out how great the contrast was between “Herod, the Great” and “Jesus, the child”:

A new time had come with Jesus, a time when thinking about kings and children would begin to shift. You might say there was an idea lying there in the manger along with a baby. An idea that had mostly been confined to a little country called Israel, but which was waiting for the right time to crawl out into the wider world — an idea which that wider world would be unable to wholly resist.

All peoples in the ancient world had gods. Their gods had different names, but what they shared was a hierarchical way of ordering life. At the top of creation were the gods; under them was the king. Under the king were members of the court and the priests, who reported to the king. Below them were artisans, merchants, and craftspeople, and below them was a large group of peasants and slaves — the dregs of humanity…

This is the Dignity Gap. The farther down the ladder, the wider the gap. But that gap was challenged by an idea that lay there in the manger, an idea that had been guarded by Israel for centuries: There is one God. He is good. And every human being has been made in His image.3

  1. J. P. Louw and E. A. Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains, 2nd ed. (New York: United Bible Societies, 1988), 1:760.
  2. Aristides, “Apology 15,” in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. Allan Menzies, 5th ed. (New York: Scribner, 1926), 9:263–79.
  3. John Ortberg, Who Is This Man? The Unpredictable Impact of the Inescapable Jesus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2012), 25.

Excerpted with permission from What Made Jesus Mad by Tim Harlow, copyright Tim Harlow.

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Your Turn

Jesus’ powerful message about children should be just as shocking to us today… Wouldn’t it be amazing if our current church learned from Jesus’ anger as well? What if our reputation was that we took care of widows and orphans and made sure no one hurt them? What if we took strangers in like real family? How would the world change?

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