This is the twenty-seventh installment, comprising Act 4. Scene 6, chapter 10: 13-16, in the online commentary on the Gospel of Mark, which I am blogging on throughout the liturgical year. Please see the twenty-sixthinstallment here. Links to the entire series are available in one spot at The Complete Gospel of Mark Online Commentary.
This is my division of the Gospel:
Act 1, 1:14-3:6;
Act 2, 3:7-6:6;
Act 3, 6:7-8:26;
Act 4, 8:27-10:52;
Act 5, 11:1-13:37;
Act 6, 14:1-16:8(20).
13 People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. 14 But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, "Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. 15 Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it." 16 And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them. (NRSV)
In Act 4, Scene 6 Mark continues building toward the crescendo of the revelation of Jesus’ destiny in the third Passion Prediction, which is coming at the end of Act 4, and the journey to its fulfillment in Jerusalem. Mark does so, however, by having Jesus continue to reveal himself and the Kingdom not through private teaching, but public teaching about the nature of discipleship. This is a much different Scene than that of the conflict we have just witnessed in Act 4, Scene 5. This Scene returns us to Act 4, Scene 4 and the teaching regarding the welcoming of children, but takes us even deeper than simply welcoming children: this scene speaks of entering the Kingdom as a child. It is possible, of course, that this passage belongs together with the verses from 9:36-37, 41-42, but that is a redactional question, not a literary one. At any rate the passages from chapter 9 and this passage are separate bodies of Jesus’ teaching, related but not identical.
In this passage, Mark presents a profound teaching about the nature of discipleship, but unlike so many of the passages we have already examined regarding Jesus’ teaching, we find no questioning about its nature or meaning, no conflict or rejection of it by the disciples, no claim that the disciples could not understand it or wondered about its meaning at the end of it. Mark will move us, as we will see, to the next Scene without comment. It is dramatic and shocking, both in terms of content and impact, for it challenges the very notion of what it means to be a disciple to a wise man and the nature of Jesus’ messiahship and Kingdom. Now, it is true, Mark has already presented shocking and dramatic teachings of Jesus, but the muteness of the disciples here and the fact that Mark does not explain the teaching or comment on it in any way actually serves to focus the audience on it. Mark is telling us, whether we comprehend it or not, that this is the way of discipleship. No questions asked.
What is the way of discipleship? People were bringing little children (paidia- probably under the age of 7, but the Greek terms related to stages of life are used loosely) to Jesus “in order that he might touch them” (10:13). Since so many of Jesus’ healings in general are healings of children – think of Jairus’ daughter or the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter – it is possible that Jesus’ “touch” was intended as a healing touch, though this could be physical or spiritual in intent. The disciples, though, “spoke sternly to them,” which indicates that the disciples have a particular view of whom a Messiah should deal with, and it is not children. The suspicion must be that Jesus, who has just dealt with Pharisees, should spend time with great men in the political and spiritual spheres, not children. This does not indicate by the way that children were not valued in Judaism or even in the Greco-Roman world, simply that the ancient world was hierarchical and children were not considered worthy of much attention, especially from men, until they reached the age of womanhood or manhood. Paidia would be cared for by women, mothers or nurses, and not bother men, again, especially not a Great Man. His disciples would shield him from such an annoyance.
But it is not the paidia who create indignation for Jesus, it is his disciples! Jesus says, "Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs”(10:14). And now, we must imagine the framing of the scene visually: the apostles are not acting from malice, but from the best interests of their put-upon, and slightly rattled, Messiah. Has he not constantly been seeking time alone, time to pray, and now he would be bothered after a particularly intense verbal jousting with the Pharisees by little children? They would protect him from annoyances and they have become the annoyance. Their faces fall, mouths open; perhaps anger creeps across one or two of their faces, or embarrassment, for themselves or for Jesus. The camera pans the faces of the Twelve to reveal that they are still struggling to understand the nature of the Messiah and the nature of their roles as disciples.
Jesus looks at them and says, “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it" (10:15). This teaching has two aspects: children do receive the Kingdom of God; and adults, including disciples, and even apostles chosen and set apart, are to receive the Kingdom in the same manner that children do. How do children receive the Kingdom, though, and what does it mean for adult reception of Jesus and his Kingdom? As Cornelia Horn and I wrote in chapter 7 of “let the little children come to me,” adults
“had to receive the kingdom in the manner in which children responded to Jesus, with all the implications of what being a child meant, for example, showing greater faith in who Jesus is and greater knowledge as to the nature of following him in faith. Also, the way in which children themselves were received in the community was the measure and manner of the kingdom of God in the midst of the Christians. What remains and demands acceptance in either case is that children were seen as the measure of discipleship."While modern interpreters as well as the tradition struggled to understand all of the implications of how one receives the kingdom of God "as a little child," it remains important to point to the significance of these sayings, preserved by Scripture, but often ignored by its readers. On two occasions, in two sets of passages, Jesus points to children as model disciples. It is hard to find another group of people to whom Jesus points as models for imitation, with so little content offered on how to model oneself. On the other hand, children are all around us, as they were around Jesus and his disciples. Jesus called on his followers to bring them to him, to welcome them, to preserve them from harm, and to learn from them. He asked them to accept him and to accept the children just as they are. Like Jesus and the kingdom, they are simply a gift to us from whom we are called to learn and whom we are encouraged to imitate.”
This is how the scene ends: “And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them” (10:16). What does it mean to accept the Kingdom as a child? It is to receive, bless and protect children, and it is to see them as the model disciples. It is to alter one's notion of what kind of "Kingdom" Jesus is describing. It is nothing that the disciples have imagined before. Mark can add nothing to Jesus’ blessing. And neither can his disciples.They simply must receive this teaching, as must we.
John W. Martens
Follow me on Twitter @BibleJunkies