Then little children were being brought to him 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.”Matthew 19:13-15 (NRSV)
These verses are well loved and help us form the opinion of Jesus that he is very loving and kind. However, keep reading in Matthew’s account of Jesus and we will come across an entire chapter where Jesus rips apart a certain group of people. Here is a sampling:
But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you lock people out of the kingdom of heaven. For you do not go in yourselves, and when others are going in, you stop them. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!…You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell?Matthew 23:13-15; 27,28,29,33 (NRSV)
The entire chapter goes on like that!
What happened to gentle Jesus, meek and mild, as some people like to describe him?
Is Jesus a bit like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde? Was he prone to snapping, like some of us regular folk do? Actually there is a common thread here, and a consistency to Jesus. Whether Jesus was kind and welcoming of the children, or vigorous in lambasting the spiritual leaders, he had in mind the kingdom of God. “To such as these belongs the kingdom of heaven.” That could be said of the little children. It could not be said of the spiritual leaders. Yet they were the very ones who were supposed to be helping people move toward the kingdom of God, to living life as God’s kingdom people. In fact, they thought that if everyone would obey them, God would have to bring the kingdom. Yet to such as these does not belong the kingdom.
There are at least two ways in which the little children and the spiritual leaders are quite unalike.
First, the religious leaders were hypocritical, putting on a religious show for others while their character could be lacking. Whether they are being perfect little angels, or, let’s just say less than perfect, little children tend to be genuine. Little children are great at just being themselves.
Second, the religious leaders were also quite religious. When we think about it, little children are really not religious. They don’t become religious unless someone teaches them religion. The spiritual leaders were so religious that they got lost in the weeds of religion and could not smell the flowers in the Kingdom of God.
Jesus was not pulling a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde between welcoming the children and dressing down the spiritual leaders. Jesus was being consistent. In each case Jesus said what could and should be said with regard to the kingdom of God. The little children modelled life in the kingdom. The spiritual leaders were supposed to help people experience kingdom life but instead they only helped people experience their religion.
Matthew records for us how Jesus, on his way to Jerusalem, cursed a fig tree for not bearing fruit. This is symbolic of how the religion was not bearing good fruit. The city of Jerusalem, for all its religion, and being the centre of people’s religion, was not helping people experience the kingdom of God. A lot of that had to do with the spiritual leaders.
Not long after that Jesus told the religious leaders the parable of the bad tenants and said: “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom” (Matthew 21:43 NRSV). This is a very important moment where the kingdom of God is defined as a people marked by what their lives are like, a people of whom you can say “to such as these belongs the kingdom of God.” This leads us to the words of Jesus as Matthew’s account draws to a close:
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.Matthew 28:18-20 (NRSV)
In teaching people to obey Jesus the disciples were not to help them trade getting lost in the weeds of one religion, Judaism, for getting lost in the weeds of another, Christianity, but rather to help people get what life looks like in the kingdom. Obeying the commands of Jesus is not about a new set of religious rules, but following the way of love. We are to trade the weeds of religion for the flowers of the kingdom.
Are we like the little children who were welcomed by Jesus or are we more like the spiritual leaders who received a dressing down? Little children are better representatives of what life is like in God’s presence. They are genuine, not very religious, even playful. Little children are not perfect, nor even innocent. But they are real. The spiritual leaders, on the other hand, tried to give the impression of perfection, but Jesus knew better. So do many non-church-attending people in our day.
Are we good representatives of what life is like in the presence of God? Does the expression of our faith help people experience the kingdom of God? Or do they just experience our religion? Do people say of us “to such as these belongs the Kingdom of God”?