Very little, if anything, was included in the Bible simply because it was ‘nice’. The account of Jesus blessing the children cannot be summed up or contained by the word ‘nice’. In reality it could be argued that this act was deeply subversive, striking at the very heart of the Church’s attitudes and actions towards vulnerable children.
13 And they were bringing children to him that he might touch them, and the disciples rebuked them. 14 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. 15 Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” 16 And he took them in his arms and blessed them, laying his hands on them. (Mark 10:13-16, ESV)
As Judith Gundry puts it, ‘Little children were the weakest and most vulnerable link in the social chain and therefore in many and profound ways dependent on God’s rule being implemented in their lives.’ (pp.153-154) This is how one should enter the Kingdom: needy and vulnerable.
But this is not just a story of how to enter the Kingdom; this is also a story of God’s embrace of the marginalised. This is an account of subversion and transformation. Previous accounts in Mark of people bringing others for Jesus to touch them suggest the genre of a healing or miracle story (see, for example, 3:10; 5:41-42). There is something to learn about the Kingdom of God here, and the business of the Kingdom of God is transformation.
Echoing language of Jacob’s ‘adoptive’ blessing of Joseph’s two sons, Ephraim and Manasseh (Gen. 48), Jesus’ embrace of the children ‘can be seen as an adoptive embrace, an assumption of a parental role’ (Gundry, p. 156), which, in the light of the cross, foreshadows a gift of inheritance seen in the salvation achieved at Calvary.
Andries van Aarde even goes as far as to suggest that the children in this story are effectively street children and that by embracing and blessing them, Jesus is reversing their rejection, marginalisation and exclusion. They are no longer outsiders; they now belong:
“To bless your children is to accept them into your home; to not bless your children is to abandon them. Being put out of the home was often the lot of unwanted children, such as the handicapped. The same fate fell on children born of unlawful unions (cf. Wis 4:6). Physically and mentally disabled children, the blind, those with only one eye or one arm, the leprous, the deaf, and the mute were often ostracized in this way.” (p. 139)
van Aarde’s contention is that, by blessing these marginalised children, Jesus was reversing their plight, from exclusion to inclusion, from rejection to embrace.
Ephraim Radner (quoted by Anne Richards) helps us tease out the implications: “To bless something, in the New Testament, is to disclose its goodness as from God, as from God’s creative hand for God’s life-giving purpose.” (p. 117) Later, Richards says,
“The bestowing of blessing is a serious business, since it emulates the primordial acts of God. Blessing is also not about external attributes like a getting a gold star for a particularly good piece of homework; it is about naming the essentials of things…
So every child who is excluded from school, every ‘difficult’ child, every child who goes off the rails, every adolescent stomping off in a huff, every child who brings ‘shame’ on the family, these are pronounced ‘good’ by Jesus in the act of blessing. There is no child anywhere who deserves less than the unconditional love of God, and if we want to share God’s kingdom then we too must find ways to allow such children to come to us and be blessed and to discern where children can find and know themselves blessed.” (p. 118, my emphasis)
So, not simply a ‘nice’ story but a necessary and challenging one. As followers of Jesus will we seek to imitate his blessing of the children by seeking the embrace and shalom of children on the margins?
van Aarde, A., Fatherless in Galilee: Jesus as a Child of God (Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 2001)
Gundry, J., ‘Children in the Gospel of Mark, with Special Attention to Jesus’ Blessing of the Children (Mark 10:13-16) and the Purpose of Mark’, in in M.J. Bunge, T.E. Fretheim ad B.R. Gaventa (eds.), The Child in the Bible (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), pp. 143-176
Richards, A., Children in the Bible: A Fresh Approach (London: SPCK, 2013)