[Chapter submission for the 80th Annual Freed-Hardeman University Lectureship (2016), Henderson, Tennessee. This was a part of The Master’s Plan for Leadership series. In My Place: The Servant Savior in Mark (Link to book). Listen to the audio lecture as delivered here.]
There are numerous moments in the Gospel of Mark where Jesus is involved in ministry towards children undergoing a variety of problems (5:23, 41; 7:24-30; 9:14-29). But it is in Mark 10:13-16 where one of the most memorable interactions with children take place. Jesus here declares, “Let the children come to me; do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God.” [All Scripture references are from the English Standard Version unless otherwise noted.] Left alone, ripped from its context, these words stand as a tender and compassionate invitation to children to experience salvation in the kingdom of God. Is this what the passage addresses? Or, is this passage another corrective to the well-intended but misguided actions of the disciples—the future leaders of the kingdom of God? The answer rests upon the latter.
There is no stated rationale for the disciples’ action of hindering and rebuking those who brought children to Jesus (yet many theories abound). When Jesus addressed his disciples for rebuking and hindering those who brought children to the home where he was (Mark 10:10), he set forth a principle which serves as a guide for servant-leadership in the kingdom of God. In Summary, the episode centers upon Jesus’ rebuke and the two kingdom sayings followed by his tender reception of the children; yet, in 10:14 he teaches that his disciples must not hinder those who are coming to him. Jesus, then, discloses that the rationale for reversing their actions is grounded in the fact that the kingdom is at the disposal of those that come to him (“for to such belongs”). The kingdom of God is, then, at the disposal of those that are willing to come into the presence of Jesus. Disciples must, therefore, realize that there can be no hindrance to that process. The narrative of Mark 10:13-16 sadly demonstrates that well-intended leaders and disciples can become roadblocks to those seeking Jesus. Instead of creating artificial barriers between those who seek Jesus and the Lord, disciples need to provide and create unimpeded access to Jesus and the kingdom of God.
There must be vigilance against good intended actions which may actually hinder those seeking the Jesus and the kingdom of God. To do so, there will be a consideration of Mark 10:14 to explore its exegetical content. Then, a consideration will be given to its implications for Christian service in the kingdom of God.
First, the broad context. There is general agreement that Mark 10:13-16 is found in the latter part of a broad context (8:26-10:52) concerned with discipleship in the kingdom of God (Stanton 50). Mark 8:34 anticipates the theological frame for discipleship, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.” The movements in this section convey a series of tensions between the disciples who seem to never learn, and Jesus who is constant need to correct them. In the process, the “disciples —and the reader—are being taught the full implications of what it means to be a follower Jesus” (Stanton 50). Discipleship, and especially Christian leadership, comes then with the commitment to humility and self-denial, rejection and suffering. This observation is strengthened by the three announcements Jesus makes regarding his betrayal, death and resurrection (8:31; 9:30-31; 10:32-34). His death is a commitment to serve others so that they may benefit from his intercession (10:45; Isa. 53:12). The disciples, then, are often corrected for their misguided dispositions which hinder their service in the kingdom.
Second, the immediate context. Two themes within Mark find strong connecting points with Mark 10:13-16: kingdom of God and reversals in the kingdom. Mark is concerned with connecting the ministry of Jesus to the kingdom of God (basileia tou theou). The phrase is used fifteen times in this connection. After the prologue (1:1-13), Mark begins with the transition to Jesus’ ministry where he announces that the kingdom of God “is at hand” (1:15). In general, kingdom in the teaching of Jesus is not a reference to a political system (its natural meaning), but instead, kingdom of God (Heaven) is “what the world would be if God were directly and immediately in charge” (Crossan 55). The ministry of Jesus demonstrates in profound ways the practical, transformative nature of the kingdom of God (Rochester 313-15). This plays an important role in understanding the Lord’s use of this phrase (10:14-15).
The kingdom of God is not only “at hand” (1:15), but it is “coming” soon (9:1), and is something one may “enter” (10:23-24), and be received (10:15). This demonstration of God’s sovereign presence brings about a series of reversals in Mark. Consider, for example, the disenfranchised leper who is returned to life within Israel (1:40-45), the dependent paralytic is made independent (2:1-12), the endowed apostles are powerless exorcists due to a lack of piety (9:14-29), the greatest among Jesus’ disciples are to be servants of all (9:33-37), the maxim of it being “better” to be crippled, blind, or missing a limb upon arrival into the kingdom, than to be completely healthy but lost (9:42-50), and the blind Bartimaeus can see the true identity of Jesus as the son of David (10:46-52). These reversals showcase the power of God’s kingdom.
Finally, the threefold literary flow of the episode where Jesus blesses the children (Mark 10:13-16). The first (10:13-14a) and the last (10:16) movements comprise the narrative framework which Mark was inspired to write. The second movement sets forth the Lord’s corrective teaching in two “kingdom of God” sayings (10:14b-15). The passage is lightning fast. The flashpoints are driven by Jesus’ anger (Spitaler 430-34), an emotion which runs deeper than indignation (ayanáktesen; Spicq 1:6-7). There is tension, correction, and resolution. The disciples hinder and rebuke. Jesus is furious, then rebukes and teaches them. Jesus undoes the actions of his disciples by embracing the children in his arms. If the disciples cannot receive children like Jesus wants them to, then they will be hard pressed to receive the kingdom or enter it (10:15). The rationale appears not to be about the quality of the children which one must take on, but upon one’s capacity to receive the kingdom “as though the kingdom were a child” (Eubanks 403).
Christian leaders must always consider their responsibility to represent Jesus, his interests, and his ethics. This requires at times a challenge to conventional ways of thinking. The early church struggled with realizing the global nature of the gospel until Peter broke through the conventional thinking about Jewish-Gentile relations with divine revelation (Acts 10:1-11:18; 15:6-11). It would be a gross neglect to ignore that Mark 10:14 points to a social component in Jesus’ challenge regarding children. The challenge of Mark 10:14 will give Christian leaders the proper vision to lead God’s people in healthy ways to receive all those who would come to Jesus and the kingdom of God.
It must be pointed out, that children in the ancient Mediterranean world were esteemed quite lowly in many places. Instead of romanticized for their naivety, in most circles of the ancient world children were treated as “nobodies” until their father accepted them into the family (Crossan 62-64). As an example, a extant letter from a worker named Hilarion writes to his pregnant wife on June 17 in 1 B.C., “Above all, if you bear a child and it is male, let it be; if it is female, cast it out [to die]” (P.Oxy 4.744). There was a tendency in Roman and Greek culture to practice the exposure of children if they did not provide advancement for the family (Bell 241). Moreover, the word Mark uses for “children” (paidion) can extend to children from birth onwards (cf. Luke’s use of brephos), but it was also used as a term for “slave” (Moulton and Milligan 474). For example, “see that the slaves [ta paidia] give attention to the sowing of our private land.” A note requests that a “little slave” (to mikron paidion) named Artemidorus be placed under pledge. The word choice in Mark 10:13-16 is no accident. Jesus had previous affirmed, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant [diakonos] of all” (9:35). To illustrate this point of being “a waiting man” (Liddell 189), Jesus embraces a child (paidion, 9:36-37). Likewise, in Mark 10:14, Jesus means to call attention to the most vulnerable, easily rejected and dismissed, an element of society who are often taken for granted—children/servant. Yet, they have a place in the presence of Jesus and the kingdom of God. The reversing power of the kingdom of God is again manifested in how Jesus receives the children.
Christian leaders must learn from the intention of those who brought the children to Jesus, not the disciples. First, there were some who brought children so that Jesus would touch them. Christian leaders must realize that Jesus is accessible to all those that seek an audience with him. Jesus clearly affirms that “the kingdom of God is for the benefit of such ones” (Mark 10:14b; author’s translation). There is no place for a bureaucratic barrier to those seeking Jesus and the kingdom of God. Good intentions which create bad barriers to blessings are not kingdom. Second, after Jesus rebuked and corrected the disciples’ behavior, he took them into the fold of his arms. Christian leaders must accept that servant-leadership in the kingdom is a hands- on flesh and blood ministry. Mark demonstrates that Jesus touched people in his ministry regardless of their condition, gender, or background. If hurting and vulnerable people cannot come to God’s people so that they may bring them to Jesus, the problem most likely does not reside with the seeker.
Third, it is within the arms of Jesus that he blesses the children. Jesus demonstrates that servant-leaders provide unfettered access to the transformative experience in the kingdom of God. The flow of Mark 10:16 demonstrates that Jesus was busy blessing the children. Those seeking Jesus should receive the benefits of finding Jesus no matter who they are, where they have been, or what they have done. Finally, Jesus lays his hands on them. Only Mark records this symbolic demonstration of his teaching. Christian leaders have an opportunity to show those coming to Jesus that, in a world gone wrong, Jesus can make things right again in his kingdom.
There is an irony to the story for had it not been for the misguided actions of the disciples such a lesson could have been lost. Mark 10:14 raises considerable questions at the practical level for how the church creates unfettered access to those who are seeking Jesus. How does the church receive those seeking the kingdom of God? Only the church can answer that question. Regardless, Jesus’ double command still stands: “allow the children to come to me” and “stop hindering them” (author’s translation).
On a personal note, I was sitting on my couch watching television when my youngest child Noah sat on my lap and cradled himself into the fold of my arm. Immediately, to use a Markan phrase, I asked myself, “am I receiving the kingdom of God as I have embraced my son?” Am I at the disposal of my children’s need for care, and if so, then I might just know how to be at the disposal of others seeking Jesus and the kingdom of God.
- Mark 10:14 is a launching point for many to promote infant baptism. Richard Lenksi argues for the baptism of infants. He imports Luke’s use of brephe, emphasizes the “bringing” of the little ones, Jesus’ “double command,” and the rationale “for to such belongs the kingdom of God” (425-28). Contextually, the problem is ultimately about the disciples’ danger of missing the kingdom due to their attitude. Others have argued there is an embedded baptismal tradition found in the use of koluein. However, Jack P. Lewis has ably demonstrated that such argumentations “readily lapse into fallacy” (129-34).
- Mark 1:15; 4:11, 26, 30; 9:1, 47; 10:14-15, 23-25; 11:10; 12:34; 14:25; 15:43.
- Larry Eubanks observes, “Jesus does not call on the disciples to become children or to take on the qualities of children; he simply says that they must be willing to welcome children” in their circle (403; Spitaler 425). The view taken here is that paidion in 10:15 as an accusative of apposition with ten basileian makes the best sense of the grammar and expectations of Jesus.
- The letter is in Columbia University’s Advanced Papyrological Information System (http://wwwapp.cc.columbia.edu/ldpd/apis/item?mode=item&key=toronto.apis.17).
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