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CHRIST AND LITTLE CHILDREN
“And they brought unto Him little children, that He should touch them: and the disciples rebuked them. But when Jesus saw it, He was moved with indignation, and said unto them, Suffer the little children to come unto Me; forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God. Verily I say unto you, Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of God as a little child, he shall in no wise enter therein. And He took them up in His arms, and blessed them, laying His hands upon them.” MARK 10:13–16 (R.V.)
THIS beautiful story gains new loveliness from its context. The disciples had weighed the advantages and disadvantages of marriage, and decided in their calculating selfishness, that the prohibition of divorce made it “not good for a man to marry.” But Jesus had regarded the matter from quite a different position; and their saying could only be received by those to whom special reasons forbade the marriage tie. It was then that the fair blossom and opening flower of domestic life, the tenderness and winning grace of childhood, appealed to them for a softer judgment. Little children (St. Luke says “babes”) were brought to Him to bless, to touch them. It was a remarkable sight. He was just departing from Perea on His last journey to Jerusalem. The nation was about to abjure its King and perish, after having invoked His blood to be not on them only, but on their children. But here were some at least of the next generation led by parents who revered Jesus, to receive His blessing. And who shall dare to limit the influence exerted by that benediction on their future lives? Is it forgotten that this very Perea was the haven of refuge for Jewish believers when the wrath fell upon their nation? Meanwhile the fresh smile of their unconscious, unstained, unforeboding infancy met the grave smile of the all-conscious, death-boding Man of Sorrows, as much purer as it was more profound.
But the disciples were not melted. They were occupied with grave questions. Babes could understand nothing, and therefore could receive no conscious intelligent enlightenment. What then could Jesus do for them? Many wise persons are still of quite the same opinion. No spiritual influences, they tell us, can reach the soul until the brain is capable of drawing logical distinctions. A gentle mother may breathe softness and love into a child's nature, or a harsh nurse may jar and disturb its temper, until the effects are as visible on the plastic face as is the sunshine or storm upon the bosom of a lake; but for the grace of God there is no opening yet. As if soft and loving influences are not themselves a grace of God. As if the world were given certain odds in the race, and the powers of heaven were handicapped. As if the young heart of every child were a place where sin abounds (since he is a fallen creature, with an original tendency towards evil), but were grace doth not at all abound. Such is the unlovely theory. And as long as it prevails in the Church we need not wonder at the compensating error of rationalism, denying evil where so many of us deny grace. It is the more amiable error of the two. Since then the disciples could not believe that edification was for babes, they naturally rebuked those that brought them. Alas, how often still does the beauty and innocence of childhood appeal to men in vain. And this is so, because we see not the Divine grace, “the kingdom of heaven,” in these. Their weakness chafes our impatience, their simplicity irritates our worldliness, and their touching helplessness and trustfulness do not find in us heart enough for any glad response.
In ancient times they had to pass through the fire to Moloch, and since then through other fires: to fashion when mothers leave them to the hired kindness of a nurse, to selfishness when their want appeals to our charities in vain, and to cold dogmatism, which would banish them from the baptismal font, as the disciples repelled them from the embrace of Jesus. But He was moved with indignation, and reiterated, as men do when they feel deeply, “Suffer the little children to come unto Me; forbid them not.” And He added this conclusive reason, “for of such,” of children and childlike men, “is the kingdom of God.”
What is the meaning of this remarkable assertion? To answer aright, let us return in fancy to the morning of our days; let our flesh, and all our primitive being, come back to us as those of a little child.
We were not faultless then. The theological dogma of original sin, however unwelcome to many, is in harmony with all experience. Impatience is there, and many a childish fault; and graver evils develop as surely as life unfolds, just as weeds show themselves in summer, the germs of which were already mingled with the better seed in spring. It is plain to all observers that the weeds of human nature are latent in the early soil, that this is not pure at the beginning of each individual life. Does not our new-fangled science explain this fact by telling us that we have still in our blood the transmitted influences of our ancestors the brutes?
But Christ never meant to say that the kingdom of heaven was only for the immaculate and stainless. If converted men receive it, in spite of many a haunting appetite and recurring lust, then the frailties of our babes shall not forbid us to believe the blessed assurance that the kingdom is also theirs.
How many hindrances to the Divine life fall away from us, as our fancy recalls our childhood. What weary and shameful memories, base hopes, tawdry splendors, envenomed pleasures, entangling associations vanish, what sins need to be confessed no longer, how much evil knowledge fades out that we never now shall quite unlearn, which haunts the memory even though the conscience be absolved from it. The days of our youth are not those evil days, when anything within us saith, My soul hath no pleasure in the ways of God.
When we ask to what especial qualities of childhood did Jesus attach so great value, two kindred attributes are distinctly indicated in Scripture.
One is humility. The previous chapter showed us a little child set in the midst of the emulous disciples, whom Christ instructed that the way to be greatest was to become like this little child, the least.
A child is not humble through affectation, it never professes nor thinks about humility. But it understands, however imperfectly, that it is beset by mysterious and perilous forces, which it neither comprehends nor can grapple with. And so are we. Therefore all its instincts and experiences teach it to submit, to seek guidance, not to put its own judgment in competition with those of its appointed guides. To them, therefore, it clings and is obedient.
Why is it not so with us? Sadly we also know the peril of self-will, the misleading power of appetite and passion, the humiliating failures which track the steps of self-assertion, the distortion of our judgments, the feebleness of our wills, the mysteries of life and death amid which we grope in vain. Milton anticipated Sir Isaac Newton in describing the wisest
“As children gathering pebbles on the shore.”
Par. Reg., iv. 330.
And if this be so true in the natural world that its sages become as little children, how much more in those spiritual realms for which our faculties are still so infantile, and of which our experience is so rudimentary. We should all be nearer to the kingdom, or greater in it, if we felt our dependence, and like the child were content to obey our Guide and cling to Him.
The second childlike quality to which Christ attached value was readiness to receive simply. Dependence naturally results from humility. Man is proud of his independence only because he relies on his own powers; when these are paralyzed, as in the sickroom or before the judge, he is willing again to become a child in the hands of a nurse or of an advocate. In the realm of the spirit these natural powers are paralyzed. Learning cannot resist temptation, nor wealth expiate a sin. And therefore, in the spiritual world, we are meant to be independent and receptive.
Christ taught, in the Sermon on the Mount, that to those who asked Him, God would give His Spirit as earthly parents give good things to their children. Here also we are taught to accept, to receive the kingdom as little children, not flattering ourselves that our own exertions can dispense with the free gift, not unwilling to become pensioners of heaven, not distrustful of the heart which grants, not finding the bounties irksome which are prompted by a Father's love. What can be more charming in its gracefulness than the reception of a favor by an affectionate child. His glad and confident enjoyment are a picture of what ours might be.
Since children receive the kingdom, and are a pattern for us in doing so, it is clear that they do not possess the kingdom as a natural right, but as a gift. But since they do receive it, they must surely be capable of receiving also that sacrament which is the sign and seal of it. It is a startling position indeed which denies admission into the visible Church to those of whom is the kingdom of God. It is a position taken up only because many, who would shrink from any such avowal, half-unconsciously believe that God becomes gracious to us only when His grace is attracted by skillful movements upon our part, by conscious and well-instructed efforts, by penitence, faith and orthodoxy. But whatever soul is capable of any taint of sin must be capable of compensating influences of the Spirit, by Whom Jeremiah was sanctified, and the Baptist was filled, even before their birth into this world (Jer. 1:5; Luke 1:15). Christ Himself, in Whom dwelt bodily all the fullness of the Godhead, was not therefore incapable of the simplicity and dependence of infancy.
Having taught His disciples this great lesson, Jesus let His affections loose. He folded the children in His tender and pure embrace, and blessed them much, laying His hands on them, instead of merely touching them. He blessed them not because they were baptized. But we baptize our children, because all such have received the blessing, and are clasped in the arms of the Founder of the Church.
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