Little children were being brought to Jesus in order that he might lay his hands on them and pray. The disciples spoke sternly to those who brought them; but Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.’ And he laid his hands on them and went on his way.
Today’s reading takes us back to a passage we read earlier in the week. Once again Jesus is welcoming children. We have already heard Jesus’ teaching that we need to change and become like children if we wish to enter the kingdom of heaven. Today we see that demonstrated in the way he welcomed them into his presence and blessed them.
On many occasions during my ministry I have heard two conflicting arguments: I have heard people lamenting the absence of young people from our congregations, and I have heard those same people complaining at the noise and distraction of children in their churches. Those same faithful worshippers of God have been just like the disciples in today’s reading. As parents have brought their children into the worshipping community, they have found the disciples speaking sternly to those who brought them. Time and time again, parents are told of how previous generations had sat quietly and respectfully, how those model children never moved or spoke out of turn. It should not be a surprise that those modern parents rarely return for another bout of rebuttal and rejection.
Of course, there are other models of church which consider themselves to be better equipped when it comes to ‘dealing with’ children. Those churches are also rooted in a past that prefers children to be ‘seen and not heard’. The concept of Sunday School and ‘play corners’ do not give families a sense of belonging. The ‘sending out’ or ‘distracting’ of children is yet another demonstration of the disciples speaking sternly to both the children and those who brought them.
Too often church communities live in the past and, just about, in the present. I would suggest that it is our responsibility to live for the future … the future foreseen by God. We are called to be active in the mission field. That mission field involves the inclusion of all who seek to enter into a closer relationship with God, no matter what their age. The argument that children ‘do not understand’ what is going on or what is being said is not good enough. The behaviour of those who would criticise or sideline the little children demonstrates a very profound lack of understanding!
It is our responsibility to engage with young families and to help them as they take those first tentative steps into the lives of our churches. Our little children live in an age of engagement and learning through experience, and not an age where they are expected to sit still, do as they are told and miraculously absorb knowledge. The Church can play such an important part in sowing the seed of faith, in nurturing that seed, and in propagating the next generation of faithful disciples. It just needs to stop being those disciples who speak sternly instead of welcoming in love and joy.