Some Pharisees came and, trying to test him, they asked, “Does the Law allow a man to divorce his wife?”
3 Jesus answered, “What did Moses command you?”
4 They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a divorce certificate and to divorce his wife.”
5 Jesus said to them, “He wrote this commandment for you because of your unyielding hearts. 6 At the beginning of creation, God made them male and female. 7 Because of this, a man should leave his father and mother and be joined together with his wife, 8 and the two will be one flesh. So they are no longer two but one flesh. 9 Therefore, humans must not pull apart what God has put together.”
10 Inside the house, the disciples asked him again about this. 11 He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; 12 and if a wife divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”
13 People were bringing children to Jesus so that he would bless them. But the disciples scolded them. 14 When Jesus saw this, he grew angry and said to them, “Allow the children to come to me. Don’t forbid them, because God’s kingdom belongs to people like these children. 15 I assure you that whoever doesn’t welcome God’s kingdom like a child will never enter it.” 16 Then he hugged the children and blessed them.
I want to focus on Jesus’ teaching about children and the kingdom of God in vv.13-16 today. Divorce will have to wait for another day.
I believe what Jesus’ teaches here puts what we do in evangelism in a whole new light, in particular his saying “I assure you that whoever doesn’t welcome God’s kingdom like a child will never enter into it” (v.15).
Children had no real place in the ancient world. They didn’t count for anything in the pecking order of the time. Their social value was “zero.” Bereft of right and role they were in reality neither in the world not of it.
Jesus generalizes that non-status of children to include “whoever” (us) seeks to enter God’s kingdom. He evidently regards us as in a similar state of non-belonging as the children. What he offers with his announcement of the kingdom of God and his call to enter or receive it is a full reversal of this status. He doesn’t focus on or even mention here sin and forgiveness (though that is doubtless assumed). Instead he offers them a return to and renewal of their status, rights, roles, and responsibilities as God’s Abrahamic people – that people through whom God intends to bless the whole world (Genesis 12:1-3)!
Jesus’ earthly ministry was focused on reconstituting this Abrahamic people to be a fit instrument for this service to God. His call to the Jews of his time was for them to join up with him and thus become part of the “true” Israel – those defined by God’s promise to Abraham and the duty and delight that thus devolved onto them. Their sins needed to be forgiven, certainly. Yet forgiveness of individual sin was packaged in this larger call to be not only reclaimed from the faithlessness into which they had fallen but restored as well to the rights and roles rightly theirs as Abraham’s people.
Jesus’ call to enlist in the kingdom of God continues to ring out to us today from this story. He’s still recruiting folks to become a part of the Abrahamic people he is growing to reach out with God’s blessing to the world. The only thing is, though, we have to respond to this call as “children.”
And that’s a hard thing for those of us who do belong, hold status, have made a niche for ourselves in the world. As long as we believe we are “somebody” we will not be able to hear and embrace God’s call to receive his kingdom gift of belonging and restoration to our primal dignity and true vocation as his people. That’s why it was the children Jesus used in this story and, in general, the “nobodies” of his world most readily responded to his call.
And this is why Jesus’ sternest warning were directed at the wealthy, the religious leaders, those who excluded the last and the least from their concern. Such attitudes kept them from entering into God’s kingdom and they needed the strongest of warnings to try and wake them up to their true state.
And we need to hear and heed these warnings as well, most of us in the affluent world. Not only does our commitment to pride and place in this world hinder our response to Jesus’ kingdom call, it perpetuates the unjust, oppressive, and demonic patterns and structures that so damage both God’s creatures and his creation. Such death-dealing ways are polar opposite from our genuine identity and true vocation as God’s kingdom people.
Jesus offers to reclaim us from the grip of our sinfulness and restores us to what God has
created us to be and do.
As we reach out and share the message of Jesus with our world, we need to take care to address them as those God seeks to recall to their primal dignity and true vocation. Forgiveness is the first and necessary aspect of this message (though as Jesus shows here, sometimes it can remain implicit in the larger message). But we must go on and treat folks as the "somebodies" they are in God's view. Our offer of the gospel to them is primarily a restorative call to who and what they are meant to be. This is why Jesus' message is hopeful good news. It's not only that our "problem" is taken care of (thanks be to God), but that they we have both a new family, a new identity, and new work now to undertake on God's behalf.
And that, that is good news indeed!