Click here for a print-friendly version
Spring Quarter: The Gift of Faith
Unit 3: The Fullness of Faith
Sunday school lesson for the week of May 22, 2016
By Dr. Hal Brady
Lesson Scripture: Luke 18: 15-17; Mark 10:16
It is essential to see that this story of Jesus receiving the children has often been misinterpreted. Frequently, it has been misinterpreted as a call for Christians to be satisfied with simplistic faith. But hopefully, as we proceed, it will become clear that this is not the case.
Scholars remind us that gospel writers often place together teachings on the same topic. Such is the situation here. In the preceding parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, we are basically taught that we are all dependent upon God’s grace for our relationship with God. Thinking that we deserve to be saved or to be in God’s presence is the sin that parable rejects.
As to the story that follows Jesus receiving the children, it is that of a rich person coming to Jesus and asking him what he needs to do to be saved. With his pride, this rich person thinks that his keeping of the commandments has probably gotten him pretty close to what is needed. Much like the Pharisee in that earlier parable, this rich person thinks he has done enough (or almost enough) that God should receive him, gladly. Therefore if the lesson on each side of our text is on the same subject of recognizing our dependence on God, then it stands to reason that this story before us has something to do with the same subject.
We are told that Luke 18:15 sets up the scene that has a saying of Jesus as its climax. Verse 18:15 reads, “People were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them: and when the disciples saw it, they sternly ordered them not to do it.”
This is what is called a pronouncement story because it always ends with a saying, a pronouncement, from Jesus that is always the main point the story intends to make. The length of this story doesn’t matter; it is all set up for the short saying at the end.
In the case before us today, we have two closely related sayings at the end and they contain the central point of the passage.
Jesus has been teaching some difficult things, when some people begin bringing their children to him to be blessed. Their hope is that a touch from Jesus will confer good things to their children.
Scholars inform us that Luke heightens the nature of the disturbance by changing the story from the way he had read it in Mark 10:13-16. It is suggested that Luke probably read Mark and used Mark’s outline to structure his story of Jesus’ ministry. However, Mark has the people bringing children while Luke has them bringing infants. Consequently, the interruption would be even greater. It is not just children; it is crying babies!
You remember what happens next! The disciples step in to make sure that people get to hear Jesus’ teaching. Because Jesus has the Word of God for the people, the disciples tell the parents “sternly” to get the children away from Jesus. Without doubt, the disciples believe they are taking the correct action.
But Jesus takes this moment to lift up the nature and importance of these infants. He tells the disciples to allow the children to come to him because the people who are like children are those in the kingdom.
In addition, he says that those who would be in The Kingdom must receive it as children.
One of the problems in misunderstanding this text is that we do not think of children the same way as people in the first century did. Therefore, we do not read the passage in context.
It seems that in the ancient world that children were people without rights and without status. They could make no demands or claims about what parents owed them. It was common knowledge that children were those without position of power in the social or household structure. They had little value as humans. It was not until later in age that they were seen to have any social status. Thus, by naming these children infants, Luke emphasizes their vulnerability.
In the ancient world, there was also a very high infant mortality rate. It was somewhere near 50 percent. No wonder the parents of that time wanted to have their babies blessed!
So the teaching here is that the ones Jesus receives, as those to whom the kingdom belongs, are the vulnerable and weak, those with no claims to status or power or position. For Luke then, Jesus focuses his ministry on the outcasts and second-class people, those without power who were disregarded.
As scholars make clear, the second saying of Jesus (18:17) moves beyond simply observing that it is people like infants who receive the kingdom. The demand now is that those who want to get into the kingdom must be like infants. And, of course, the emphasis here is on the dependence of infants on others and the absence of any claim to status (pride). This idea is to be like babies, those who are dependent on others and who know they have no right to make demands (humility).
These two stories about children from Luke and Mark are similar, but do not conclude the same way.
Mark concludes with Jesus taking the children up in his arms to bless them. Jesus embraces or hugs the children. Mark is pointing out Jesus’ acceptance of the children (who were not called infants in his gospel).
The point of the stories in Mark and Luke remains the same. Mark just gives his readers a beautiful picture of the way that Jesus receives the children, and by example, those who come to him as children. Jesus welcomes them and takes them lovingly into his arms.
Luke, on the other hand, moves immediately to a bad example, of how the rich young ruler approaches Jesus. Luke wants no distractions from the central point he’s seeking to make.
When Jesus chooses infants as examples, it is a gigantic surprise. No one would have possibly guessed that children, much less infants, were examples of what Jesus’ followers should be.
This story is often misunderstood because our culture has a romanticized view of children. We see children as innocent, open, and simple, and think that’s what we must be like as followers of Jesus.
But when we accept this text that way we miss what Luke wants us to hear and what this action of Jesus really means.
Luke makes a valiant effort to make sure we don’t slip into that kind of misunderstanding when he identifies the children brought to Jesus as infants. Whatever else we might want to say about children as they get older, infants cannot really be characterized as open to new things or trusting or open-minded. We know that infants are needy and dependent on others for all things. They simply cannot live without the support of others.
In our culture, for the most part, we place a very high value on infants, but it wasn’t so in the ancient world. People back then were often shy about getting attached to a child before some time elapsed since his/her birth. Roman custom even had the fathers wait about a week before naming the child for fear that it would die with the high mortality rate.
Nevertheless, having children in the ancient world was valued. Children could help on the farm, could be heirs as needed, or be sold into slavery multiple times. But while children, they had few legal rights.
So when Jesus gives attention to children, especially infants, he is investing them with status and value. Almost valueless, yet these children are received by Jesus as valuable.
The children represent the powerless who are without status in the world. When Jesus accepts them, he is accepting those who know they can make no claim on God.
Thus, when Jesus calls his disciples to have the faith of children, it is a call to acknowledge that we have no claims on God. Everything that we receive is a matter of grace. We have no claim on God to enter the Kingdom.
To have a childlike faith means we come to God as complete dependents. With childlike faith we know we are citizens of God’s Kingdom through the work of Christ, and not because of anything we can offer God or because we are good people.
However, as scholars remind us, being called to childlike faith does not suggest that we allow our faith to remain unexamined or that we do not have to develop responses to the hard questions of life that test faith. Our task here is to accept the gifts of God in humility, trusting in the power and love of Christ to bring us into God’s kingdom.
A Subversive Act
This story before us could be considered a subversive act. In Luke’s story, Jesus pauses in addressing those who have power (those mentioned in 18:9 and the rich ruler who came after this text) to give attention to the ones who have no status.
Now, the disciples could hardly understand how Jesus could be slowed down by babies when he has important people to meet and influence. But by his action, Jesus shows that these children who are without status or power or position are just as important as those who by the world’s standards appear to be more important. Jesus makes it clear that the Kingdom of God belongs to the powerless, those who are in a position only to accept the gifts of God.
Having a Childlike Faith
As we cover this last section, we become focused again on the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. Though in different ways, the point of that parable and today’s text are similar. The children and the tax collector are examples of the same kind of attitude toward God – they are dependent upon God for their lives and their relationships with God.
Now this is not the posture of our modern-day culture. The values promoted there seem more of independence and autonomy and pride. But Jesus’ receiving of the children shows that we must reject those cultured values if we are to be received into the Kingdom.
Thus, when Jesus receives those who have no status and says they are the ones who are in the Kingdom, he is giving us an example to follow: We in the church are specifically called to show our childlike faith by inviting, welcoming and receiving those who have no status.
Dr. Hal Brady is a retired pastor who continues to present the Good News of Jesus Christ and offer encouragement in a fresh and vital way though Hal Brady Ministries.
- What does it mean to have a childlike faith?
- What can adult believers learn from children that will enable them to mature in their faith and grow closer to God?