Each of the synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew, and Luke) share this short story, with a few differing details. It demonstrates a radical example of Jesus reaching out to and caring for the “least of these.” Small children are being brought to Jesus, and the disciples try to stop it. Children in this context are excluded because they are considered vulnerable—physically, economically, and socially. Jesus rebukes the disciples, blessing the children and redefining them—not by what they lack, but instead by the “kingdom of heaven” belonging particularly to them. With this, Jesus flips the social pyramid upside down. Those who were formerly considered lowly, worthless, and marginal by society’s standards are now lifted high, blessed, and made heirs of God’s kingdom. Most often, we hear this section (or the other ones from Mark and Luke) cited in discussions regarding youth being welcomed into the church. While I agree with a reading of this Scripture passage as part of the church’s need to never turn away a child, I believe there is a fundamental problem with how we read it in our contemporary context.
This past Friday (August 1st) my family and I had a chance to finally make it out to the Saunders County Fair in Wahoo. We always love seeing the local animals and exhibits shown at various fairs. This one, however, was particularly meaningful for us because a good number of our youth from both churches (Edensburg and Alma) were participants in the various categories: showing animals they have been raising for many months and demonstrating skills taught to them within their agricultural families and 4-H clubs. It was doubly powerful to witness our youth in action: for me, to put into perspective the time and hard work these adolescents have invested; and for them, to see me, their pastor, attend and show interest in them and their performance. Being my day off, I could have easily stayed at home, slept in, or found something else to do. Instead, my family and I enjoyed a fun day at the fair and, in the process, nurtured relationships with our young people.
When we read Matthew 19:13-15, it is generally done so from the perspective of us—inside the church—receiving the little children entering in from outside. In some regards, it assumes a certain direction for evangelism. While the disciples made the mistake of trying to hinder the children from coming to Jesus, our mistake today is most often made in resting solely on the “let the children come to me” clause. Doing so causes us to become lethargic and remain stationary—as if our feet are cemented to the church building. Even when families hold to their children’s baptismal promises and bring them to church, we cannot leave our interactions with them at that. If we do not go to youth in their places of importance outside of Sunday mornings, we, in turn, communicate a lack of interest in those other parts of their lives. In the evangelical nature of reaching out to and loving all God’s people—including the “least of these”—what if, we read Jesus’ radical words: “let [them] come to me,” and lived them out in our ministry as: “let us go to the children.” Such a pastoral rereading of this passage would change the general direction with which we build and nurture relationships with those to whom the kingdom of heaven belongs—getting us off of our rears, onto our feet, out of our comfort zones. It would show compassionate care towards our youth and all that makes them who they are. Let us not wait for youth to come to the church (or for that matter, for them to leave the church). Let us go to the children.